"Today's article was based on statements made by several senior US officials who are intimately familiar with the problems facing coalition forces in Iraq. I requested the interviews, not the other way round. These officials asked not to be identified. I am confident that they were telling the truth as they see it, on the basis of information received from a variety of sources." (Simon Tisdall Email to Ian Thomas, May 22, 2007)
"The Guardian's vision is to offer independent, agenda-setting content that positions us as the modern, progressive, exciting challenger to the status-quo." - Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger
The Con Coughlin School Of Hard News
Commenting on Con Coughlin's "reliance on unnamed intelligence sources in several far-fetched articles about Iran," the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII) identified key features in reports filed by the Daily Telegraph's executive foreign editor:
"Sources were unnamed or untraceable, often senior Western intelligence officials or senior Foreign Office officials.
"Articles were published at sensitive and delicate times where there had been relatively positive diplomatic moves towards Iran.
"Articles contained exclusive revelations about Iran combined with eye-catchingly controversial headlines." - Campaign Iran, 'Press Watchdog slammed by "Dont Attack Iran" Campaigners,' May 1, 2007
CASMII revealed that it was Coughlin who, with the help of unnamed intelligence sources, discovered that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes. And it was Coughlin who revealed the link between the 9/11 hijacker, Mohammed Atta, and Iraqi intelligence. Both claims have, of course, been exposed as utter nonsense.
However disturbing these revelations, many readers will have been reassured by the thought that these articles were, after all, published in the Telegraph.
The same readers may have shared our dismay, then, on reading the Guardian's astonishing May 22 front-page story this week: 'Iran's secret plan for summer offensive to force US out of Iraq' by Simon Tisdall.
Tisdall's high-profile piece claimed that Iran has secret plans to do nothing less than wage war on, and defeat, American forces in Iraq by August.
Iran, it seems, is "forging ties with al-Qaida elements and Sunni Arab militias in Iraq in preparation for a summer showdown with coalition forces intended to tip a wavering US Congress into voting for full military withdrawal".
The claim was based almost entirely on unsupported assertions made by anonymous US officials. Indeed 22 of the 23 paragraphs in the story relayed official US claims: over 95 per cent of the story. The compilation below indicates the levels of balance and objectivity
"US officials say"; "a senior US official in Baghdad warned"; "The official said"; "the official said"; "the official said"; "US officials now say"; "the senior official in Baghdad said" "he [the senior official in Baghdad] added"; "the official said"; "the official said"; "he [the official] indicated; "he [the official] cited"; "a senior administration official in Washington said"; "The administration official also claimed"; "he [the administration official] said"; "US officials say"; "the senior official in Baghdad said"; "he [the senior official in Baghdad] said"; "the senior administration official said"; "he [the senior administration official] said"; "the official claimed"; "he [the official] said"; "Gen Petraeus's report to the White House and Congress"; "a former Bush administration official said"; "A senior adviser to Gen Petraeus reported"; "the adviser admitted".
No less than 26 references to official pronouncements formed the basis for a Guardian story presented with no scrutiny, no balance, no counter-evidence - nothing. Remove the verbiage described above and a Guardian front page news report becomes a straight Pentagon press release.
Tisdall quoted "a senior official in Baghdad" as saying:
"Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq and it's a very dangerous course for them to be following. They are already committing daily acts of war against US and British forces."
And: "We expect that al-Qaida and Iran will both attempt to increase the propaganda and increase the violence prior to Petraeus's report in September" - when the US commander, General David Petraeus, will report to Congress on the "surge" of 30,000 troop reinforcements.
The anonymous official added:
"Iran is perpetuating the cycle of sectarian violence through support for extra-judicial killing and murder cells. They bring Iraqi militia members and insurgent groups into Iran for training and then help infiltrate them back into the country. We have plenty of evidence from a variety of sources. There's no argument about that. That's just a fact.'"
Tisdall included the most pitiful of disclaimers in the final paragraph of a long (1,200-word) piece:
"Iranian officials flatly deny US and British allegations of involvement in internal violence in Iraq or in attacks on coalition forces."
The Guardian Braces Itself
Edward Herman commented to us:
"I saw that story and was amazed that what we call here the 'Judy Miller syndrome' has caught on in the UK 'liberal media.' Pretty amazing, after the overwhelming evidence of the past five years that the U.S.-Bush government is in the very business of disinformation, and their steady and obvious desire to demonize the Iranians, that this unconfirmed propaganda is treated as news (and not news pathology)." (Email to Media Lens, May 22, 2007)
Juan Cole, Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan, dismissed Tisdall's "silly article", describing the anonymous sources as "looney in positing a coming offensive jointly sponsored by Iran, the Mahdi Army and al-Qaeda".
The holes in the story were obvious, Cole added: "At a time when Sunni Arab guerrillas are said to be opposing 'al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia' for its indiscriminate violence against Iraqis, including Shiites, we are now expected to believe that Shiite Iran is allying with it."
"US military spokesmen have been trying to push implausible articles about Shiite Iran supporting Sunni insurgents for a couple of years now, and with virtually the sole exception of the New York Times, no one in the journalistic community has taken these wild charges seriously. But The Guardian?"
The Guardian was soon bracing itself for the fallout from Tisdall's story. Murray Armstrong, an associate editor, noted in his blog that the article had "led the discussion" at that morning's editorial conference. Whether Guardian staff were uncomfortable, dismayed or horrified at turning US propaganda into a front-page story he did not say. But he did report: "Simon noted that several readers had already accused him of peddling US propaganda."
It is fair to describe readers' responses to Armstrong's defence on his blog as devastating and close to 100 per cent critical.
Tisdall responded to one challenger via email:
"Today's article was based on statements made by several senior US officials who are intimately familiar with the problems facing coalition forces in Iraq. I requested the interviews, not the other way round. These officials asked not to be identified. I am confident that they were telling the truth as they see it, on the basis of information received from a variety of sources." (Email to Ian Thomas, May 22, 2007)
It seems readers are to be reassured by Tisdall's defence that he actively sought out US propaganda, rather than acted as a passive conduit.
To the Guardian's credit, two critical pieces soon appeared on their online section, Comment is Free. D.D. Guttenplan, London correspondent for The Nation magazine, wrote:
"History really does repeat itself. Either that or the Bush administration has decided to show its commitment to the environment by recycling lies. Those are the only firm conclusions to be drawn from the Guardian's front page story this morning."
Middle East analyst Dilip Hiro warned that the official briefings given to the Guardian were driven by a US political agenda. The timing was crucial: Ryan Crocker, the US ambassador in Iraq, is about to meet Iran's envoy Hassan Kazerni Qomi in Baghdad to discuss Iraqi security (See the second point made by CASMII at the top of this alert).
Hiro also pointed out obvious inconsistencies in the story: the claim of a link-up between the virulently anti-Shia al-Qaida in Mesopotamia and the largely Shia Iranians "is beyond belief".
Why, then, would such an implausible claim be made? Hiro explains: "[T]here is no more potent phrase than 'al-Qaida' to draw the attention, even alarm, of Americans and other westerners. And when it is bracketed with Iran, the combination can set alarm bells ringing in most western capitals."
Noam Chomsky described the Guardian cover story as: "Disgusting, but not far from the norm," adding that, in any case, "the whole debate is utterly mad." He expanded:
"Would we have had a debate in 1943 about whether the Allies were really guilty of aiding terrorist partisans in occupied Europe? The absurdity of the whole discussion was highlighted by a marvellous statement by Condi Rice a few days ago. She was asked what the solution is in Iraq, and said something like this: "It's obvious. Withdraw all foreign forces and foreign weapons." I was waiting to see if one commentator would notice that there happen to be some foreign troops and weapons in Iraq apart from the Iranian ones she was of course referring to. Couldn't find a hint.
"The basic assumption, so deeply rooted as to be invisible, is that the US owns the world (and Britain must toddle obediently behind), so US forces and weapons cannot be foreign anywhere, by definition. If they were to "liberate" England, they'd be indigenous. I doubt if any religion or totalitarian state could command such fanatic obedience. Maybe North Korea, or some crazed religious cult." (Email to Media Lens, May 24, 2007)
The internet-based response to Tisdall's piece has been extremely fierce and widespread. It suggests that the long years when the elite media could boost official propaganda without serious challenge, and without cost, are coming to an end. Comments left on the Guardian website, for example, have been overwhelmingly sceptical. One reader posed two questions:
"1 - How did a White House press release find its way on to the Guardian front page?
"2 - Why hasn't it been replaced with an apology and the article that should have been there? You know, the one written by a journalist with some functioning brain cells and at least a vestige of a critical faculty."
Another reader asked: "why are the US/UK/western strategies never reported by 'journalists' like Tisdall? Perhaps we could even have similar reports about US strategy based on unnamed Iranian sources, spinning and confabulating in order to further their own hidden plans, on the front page of the Guardian.
"I simply can't remember ever reading a print article that discussed the USA's long-term geo-political strategies (except from people it is easy to dismiss as 'extremists'), or come to that, any serious examination of Iranian strategies that aren't framed by the US's view of the matter." (Ibid)
Many readers feel the Guardian has simply been used as a booster for crude US propaganda. The reputation of the paper has surely suffered.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Simon Tisdall Email: email@example.com
Write to Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Write to Siobhain Butterworth, readers' editor of the Guardian Email: email@example.com
Write to the letters page Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Please send a copy of your emails to us Email: email@example.com
Please visit the Media Lens website: www.medialens.org