I was at university on the 11 September 2001, in an open plan office with other postgraduate students. It’s not a day I or anyone else will forget. So many people said at the time that ‘the world will never be the same again’. It was an obvious point but how right they were.
The most immediate tangible change to the feel and tone of politics was regarding international affairs. Afghanistan was the most obvious and decisive action but underlying it was a distinctive hardening towards other fascistic and authoritarian regimes, most notably Iraq.
Once it became obvious that the build-up of pressure on Iraq would only end in either a full backdown by Saddam or military action, university protest groups began to spring up and the slogan ‘Don’t Attack Iraq’ was born.
The faculty hastily arranged an event on campus with lectures so students could engage with the issues and learn some more background in the process. International relations lecturers and politics professors were lined up to give briefings, and I was invited to speak about my experiences in the Balkans where I had been an aid worker during the conflicts there.
I was one of the first speakers and I tried to put the ‘humanitarian’ into humanitarian intervention, and spoke about the ambiguities of operating in situations where military and political forces reign so supremely and brutally. All went well until I rather casually added that, “of course we had tremendous public support for the aid effort from back home for our work in Albania and Kosovo, even though I was always aware that the UN had never voted on this and it was a legally dubious military intervention”.
All hell broke loose and I was heckled not only by the 300-strong audience but also one of the academics on the panel waiting to speak! After that everything I said, however innocuous, was judged as a political statement on Iraq and the heckling turned into barracking until I called it a day and wandered back to the panel to observe the pinched and angry faces from a safer distance. The next speaker was an international relations lecturer who knew his audience well, he delivered a rabble-rousing pacifist manifesto to much applause. I turned to the politics lecturer to my left and said, ‘I thought we were here to learn?’
I’m in a state of dizzy deja vu as I write. Tony Blair’s session at the Iraq Inquiry has just broken for lunch, yet everyone who is not one of the five committee members has already made up their mind. In particular, and most disgracefully, vast swaths of the media seem to have thrown journalistic curiosity out of the window and are acting with less curiosity and academic rigour than those sour-faced undergraduates eight years earlier.
Despite the inexorable march of the information age in which we now live, we still rely heavily on the media to educate us on current affairs and issues of public policy. But something has gone very wrong and you would be hard pressed to find any educative value from any of the reporting of the Iraq Inquiry since the day it was launched.
Ironically I was walking past the QEII Centre, where Blair sits today, listing to the Guardian Politics podcast the week the inquiry was announced. Tom Clark, a leader writer for the Guardian and presenter of the podcast, said words to the effect, ‘This is going to be a whitewash anyway because the commissioners are neocons like Sir Lawrence Freedman who helped Blair write the Chicago speech’. What? WHAT? It was hard to internalise the stupidity of the statement, which managed in one moment to expose the ignorance he had of both the term ‘neocon’, the work of Sir Lawrence, and the ease at which journalists speak (and write?) without thinking. To think that at that moment he was one of the great gatekeepers between knowledge and the population filled me with horror.
Yet that early experience was a template for the way forward, with the media constantly editing, spinning and selectively choosing stories that fit their own opinions and narrative, not at all what we, the public, need, which is for journalists to report and educate and allow us the freedom to interpret ourselves.
If you doubt for a second that journalists are being led by opinion rather than fact or evidence, look no further than those on Twitter.
Paul Lewis from the Guardian was ahead of the curve earlier this week by asking, “Who out there is planning to protest against Blair on Friday? I’m writing a story about you”. Ten out of ten for innovation: Paul bypasses spinning a story and incites one entirely by promising people a mention in the paper in return for turning up.
Blair had barely been giving evidence for an hour today when the Mirror’s Kevin Maguire declared, “Blair: ‘It’s not a lie or a deceit or a conspiracy but a decision.’ Yes, the wrong decision”. Glen Oglaza from Sky News thinks “they need a journalist on the panel. Too academic in my view”. If they had Kevin Maguire it would all be over very quickly, no need for questions at all – he knows! Pity the Mirror readers tomorrow, some poor buggers may actually want to make up their own minds.
Today’s Tweeting frenzy gives us a unique insight into the way some of our most notable journalists and journalistic institutions approach a story. Take Channel 4. Krishnan Guru-Murthy, who exclaims “oh purleeese!!! Blair explains how he slipped up in the Fern Britten interview!” Nice to know that the most powerful editors of our age – the people who decide live on air who speaks, the questions they answer and how long they get – aren’t overly opinionated. It would be reassuring, at the least, to think that Guru-Murthy has the capacity for reflection. Perhaps he was feeling pressured into action by his fellow Channel 4 News presenter, Cathy Newman, who articulated her views with remarkable clarity: “blair using weasel words on fern…annoying sir roderic the rottweiler didn’t pursue”. Who says Twitter’s 140 characters is limiting?
But the prize for journalistic rigour, erudite exposition, and really putting in the brain power on behalf of her readers goes to Cath Elliott, who writes for the Guardian: “Blair really is a smug smarmy bastard”. I’m sure we’ll all be turning to her writing from now on for considered insight.
What’s to be done? Well, the advice given to me by the politics lecturer back in that rowdy lecture hall in 2002 seems more sage today than ever before. “You want to learn? You need to spend less time listening to this lot and more time in the bloody library!”
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