The Big Dig Journalism Conference, Copenhagen

I recently did the open­ing key­note at the Big Dig invest­ig­at­ive journ­al­ism con­fer­ence in Copen­ha­gen.  Thanks to the organ­isers for a won­der­ful week­end!

Dirty Tricks in Iraq and UK Media

An inter­est­ing example of press manip­u­la­tion appeared today in the UK media.  Bri­tain is in the throes of a gen­er­al elec­tion and many pun­dits are say­ing that the res­ult is too close to call — the feel­ing being that the UK’s third party, the Lib­er­al Demo­crats, may hold the bal­ance of power in a hung par­lia­ment.  The Daily Mail, one of the most rabidly right-wing of the nation­al news­pa­pers, chose today to print a story about the arrest and sub­sequent res­cue of two UK sol­diers in Iraq in 2005. 

Sas_in_IraqThe gen­er­al thrust of the piece was that the Labour gov­ern­ment was will­ing to sac­ri­fice our sol­diers by refus­ing to author­ise their res­cue, in order to avoid polit­ic­al embar­rass­ment.  This story appears to be a fairly obvi­ous attempt by The Daily Wail to encour­age mil­it­ary per­son­nel and their fam­il­ies to vote against the incum­bent gov­ern­ment, which was will­ing to sac­ri­fice our boys’ lives for polit­ic­al expedi­ency.

However,I would sug­gest that there is anoth­er level to this story.  Many remem­ber when the news first broke: how two SAS sol­diers, work­ing under cov­er and dis­guised as Arabs, failed to stop their car at a check­point and engaged in a shoot-out that killed one Iraqi and injured three more.  The SAS oper­at­ives were arres­ted and taken to a police sta­tion where the author­it­ies dis­covered that their car con­tained weapons and explos­ives. The SAS launched a res­cue, plough­ing into the police sta­tion with tanks, and then track­ing their tar­gets to a loc­al mili­tia house nearby, fight­ing their way in and sav­ing their com­rades.  All hero­ic stuff.  How­ever, the obvi­ous fol­low-up ques­tions are:

1) What the hell were these two sol­diers doing in dis­guise, and with a car-load of weaponry?

2) Pre­cisely why was the gov­ern­ment so embar­rassed about the poten­tial polit­ic­al fall-out?

I think these two ques­tions are inter-depend­ent.  Dirty tricks and col­lu­sion are a stand­ard meth­od­o­logy for the SAS and the intel­li­gence com­munity — a well-doc­u­mented tac­tic they used in the war in North­ern Ire­land over three dec­ades.  So just what was the inten­ded des­tin­a­tion of the weaponry?  Would they have been used for an attack sub­sequently blamed on “insur­gents” or “Al Qaeda”?

As for the poten­tial polit­ic­al embar­rass­ment, the Daily Mail’s excuse — that the Brit­ish gov­ern­ment didn’t want to under­mine the per­ceived sov­er­eignty of the Iraqis at that time — is just too feeble to stand up.  The issue of polit­ic­al embar­rass­ment makes far more sense if seen in terms of UK gov­ern­ment aware­ness of the use by the Brit­ish mil­it­ary of dirty tricks, col­lu­sion or false flag ter­ror­ism in Iraq. 

Of course, this is a per­fectly stand­ard tac­tic used by many coun­tries’ mil­it­ary and intel­li­gence infra­struc­tures.  It would be naïve to think it does not hap­pen, but it is a ret­ro­grade, risky and counter-pro­duct­ive tac­tic. 

In the 21st cen­tury it is more naïve to think that such activ­ity is either effect­ive or accept­able in a world where the spread of demo­cracy and the applic­a­tion of inter­na­tion­al law and human rights are the way for­ward.