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Were we having a laugh?

Peter Barron | 16:11 UK time, Friday, 29 September 2006

After a tough day at the office I sat down last night to watch Ricky Gervais's Extras for a bit of light relief. This week's episode was a piercing study of media distortion and irresponsible journalism.

Newsnight logoGreat. The Ministry of Defence had been accusing us all day of being guilty of both.

On Wednesday, we revealed the contents of a leaked research paper written by an officer at the MOD Defence Academy which questioned the success of the "war on terror" and suggested that Pakistan's secret service has been indirectly aiding Al Qaeda.

We didn't claim these were the official views of the MOD or the government - indeed many are quite the opposite - but we think they were both newsworthy and significant.

At first, before transmission, the MOD told us the paper was "a student essay". Then, following the broadcast, journalists were briefed that these were "just the jottings" of a junior officer. Eventually it was confirmed that the document had been written by a naval commander.

That was our understanding all along, indeed this particular commander had recently been working in the US on behalf of the Chief of Staff on Iraq, Afghanistan and the Global War on Terrorism. And the document wasn't some dusty academic study, it was due to form the basis of a forthcoming meeting of experts on the war on terror. So who is doing the distorting here?

We agree of course that these issues are sensitive and deadly serious and we must handle them with great care. But it's also the case that at present there is no greater public interest issue than the highly controversial prosecution of what's known as the war on terror.

Surely responsible journalism is to try to penetrate the fog of that war?


Dear Editor,

I'm all for responsible journalism penetrating the 'fog of war', but to report, as you do in a lead story, that 'most people' in the UK are against the Afaghan battle is sailing close to irresponsibility.

While I am firmly in the same camp of the 53% reported by your survey to feel this way about this awful sistuation, 53% is a bare majority, and certainly nothing approaching 'most'. If I were to make such claims in submitting an academic paper, it would - rightly - be rejected.


Chris Comber (Dr)


Keep at it. We rely on journalism like that of Neewsnight not only to penetrate the fog of war but also to encourage the others (the press that is) not just to accept spin and not mention it. Only if disingenuous responses - from govt or others - are questioned, is this sort of manipulation discouraged. If you ignore it, it's worked.

  • 3.
  • At 06:02 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • RMG wrote:

In fairness to the MOD, the research paper was probably a "student essay" in that the Commander in question was probably writing for one of the MOD's defence education/research agencies. Plus, the fact that it was going to "form the basis of a forthcoming meeting of experts" is perfectly compatible with the work being a "student essay".

To be honest, don't see what all the fuss is about... I'm sure there are plenty of "student essays" from the MOD and the US DOD that say the exact opposite too. It's the very ature of debate, research and policy evolution.

  • 4.
  • At 06:06 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • paul wrote:

Typical media double-think. The BBC has an "anti-war" agenda and trumpets any scrap of a story that supports its editorial stance (unbiased BBC? You're having a laff!). How many staff college essays do you think give the opposite views to that particular RN Commander? Lets face it, you just aren't interested in those are you. In that respect you are just the same as the slimy Sun reporter in last night's Extras; picking and choosing which comments (essays) best fit the story you are trying to create.

  • 5.
  • At 06:16 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • Garth Wasson wrote:

Dear Sir,
I really wouldn't worry too much about all this creiticism from General Musharraf who thinks like an army general officer and speaks like one. He was critical of our reporters of our CBC who said we were compaining about our loss odf Canadians in Afghanistan (probably becauase they thought that his ISI was helping the Taliban).
As it turns out, the report that you gave was confirmed by the U.S. Senate.
My experience is that news reporters are the same as lawyers. You are entitled to your opinion and sometimes the noise that is made means in many cases what you have reported is absolutely true. Anyway, keep up the good work. GCW

Chris, that's not something we've said on Newsnight

  • 7.
  • At 06:38 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • Steve Nicholls wrote:

Yes indeed. And to be honest, even if the story is only 80% correct, this will probably be something like a 60% improvement on what we get from politicians.

Carry on reporting, warts and all. At the end of the day the public can read between the lines.

  • 8.
  • At 07:05 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

I remember the members of the Black Watch who were killed through newspaper disclosure of their probable positions.
I do not remember the continuous publication of bleeding heart stories by families of our casualties during the war I was in: especially stories denigrating the government.

  • 9.
  • At 07:11 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • Kate Eisenmenger wrote:

Thank you for striving for responsible journalism. It is frighteningly hard to find. Ignorance does not make us safer.

  • 10.
  • At 07:27 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • Benedict TLC wrote:

War of terror..only the size of an armed crowd skirmish at a second division football match..

as the mail reports:

4000 dead foreign Muslims..a stadium corner...

5,500 British troops..the opposing corner...

2,900 Germans, 2,300 Dutch, 2000 Canadians, 10,000 US...

its not even a football stadiums worth!! there are more visitors in Bournemouth over a sunny weekend!!

It should be politically downgraded to the series of armed disturbances is seems to be..

...and almost all the media is 2:2 level

Benedict TLC

  • 11.
  • At 07:29 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • Brian J Dickenson wrote:

I am also in favour of responsible reporting, something that I think you do very well.
There are too many dark corners in the so called corridors of power. Shining light on the lies we are fed is very necessary. Look at the Nixon administration for an example, journalism at its best.
With regard to Dr Combers remark about the 53%. Is he in the real world I wonder. The average Joe Public cannot be bothered to vote at election time, so a poll on Afghanistan has little chance of getting voted on.
I would think that the percentage shown are the same responsible people who actually do vote at elections.
So I would count that as nearly unanimous against the war.

  • 12.
  • At 07:37 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • Mike S wrote:

As a long term listener to Radio 4, particularly, as we sailed the English Channel during summers and relied on the BBC to keep us up to date on world events, we became increasingly concerned on the anti-West/ anti-American bias demonstrated by the BBC from the beginning of the Iraq war through Hutton and on to recent events in the Lebanon. In this uncertain world, I believe you have to decide on what side you are on. It is impossibe to remain neutral and in my opinion, the BBC has helped the "other side" to win the propaganda war costing many lives.

  • 13.
  • At 07:56 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • K. Simms wrote:

In September I heard John Kerry said the US was protecting the Pakistan leader.I did not understand that until I heard it on Newsnight and I was surprise to heard how much money we are giving Pakistan. Kerry said a coup could happen anytime. He also mention the current leadership in Iraq and Pakistan were not doing enough to separate themselves from extremists. And your program explained that too. Leaders are telling us lies or half truths to give themselves better rating or keep their party as the majority in congress. Please keep reporting drafts, reports, opinions, everything.

  • 14.
  • At 08:23 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • Paul Bates wrote:

Please continue to expose this corrupt Goverment. We need programmes like Newsnight to put its information in our direction and develop argument through discussion. We can only form our own opinions when this information is free of Governent spin.

  • 15.
  • At 08:34 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • Jenny wrote:

"But it's also the case that at present there is no greater public interest issue than the highly controversial prosecution of what's known as the war on terror."

Since your topic is distortion perhaps phrasing and punctuation making it more clear upon which side, if any, you sit on whether there is, or can ever be a "war" on "terror", and if so just what sort of "war", declared when, by whom and against whom, and under what rules, and what sort of "terror", done by whom, and defined by whom, would be in order?

One of the most important tasks for international bodies in the 20th century was to try to limit war, because it had become such that it could destroy the whole world. The conferences on all the Geneva Conventions, the League of Nations, the United Nations, and so much more effort. They set down what was not permitted during war, and the methods for dealing with offences. They set down what signatory states must do before declaring war if they were not to risk concerted action from all other signatory states.

It seems that this so-called "war on terror", "declared" as if just a catchy phrase by the head of state of the world's single super-power, is thought by him, and his friends, to be a true war. He fought an election on the basis of being a "war president". He took legal powers reserved for in a time of war. And yet neither he nor his allies went through any of the international process required before declaring a war (something described by US President Roosevelt when Japan acted in that way in 1942 as "infamous"). They haven't even said against exactly which signatory states (other than those they have bombed or invaded) they believe they declared war, nor whether all the "allies" in the "war" regard themselves as being "at war" with the same states (is the UK at war with Lebanon, North Korea, Somalia, Chechnya?). They invented for themselves a new doctrine of a right for them to militarily intervene in any country before there is a danger to themselves, and without proof of future danger, only their own claimed suspicions. They have threatened, and are threatening other countries with being "bombed back to the stone-age" on the same basis. They have demonstrated that will and ability in Lebanon and Iraq. Afghanistan had already been taken back to the stone-age by US-sponsored, Taliban terrorists.

All of that is totally against the international treaties painstakingly created - and signed by all these countries - in the 20th century.

The President of the USA claimed, on the same basis, and has acted upon other powers to which even in time of war he would have had no right (i.e. he acted illegally) by the judgment of the US Supreme Court. That involved the deaths of many, and the disbursement of billions of dollars, and the making of the populations of the "allied" countries less safe. He has similarly acted in various other unprecedented ways, for example by ignoring provisions of laws passed by Congress. To put it concisely, only the Republican majority in both houses of Congress, acting corruptly, stand between the US President - the author of this "war" - and very serious legal process.

How much evidence is actually needed that this is not a war, but a renegade conspiracy by rogue states in the hands of rogue politicians? Action only possible through thwarting the legitimate legal processes and abusive misuse of Security Council vetoes, which are also being allowed to serve to boost the illegitimate aims of the current US regime of discrediting international humanitarian institutions, in the mistaken belief that might make them acceptable as the world's "protector"?

  • 16.
  • At 08:38 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • JEM wrote:

I saw the report and believe it is totally newsworthy and fascinating also. The MOD always react in the same way to anything like this and display the behaviour that they are actually accusing the journos of. There are few organisations I hold in more disdain and you only have to look at their track record on other issues to see why. The fact that this paper was written by a Naval Commander makes it all the more significant, since unlike the MOD our actual fighting forces are real professionals whose opinions and findings count. Embarrassingly (for MOD and Gov), they are also consistently at odds with both the MOD and politicians on a whole range of issues, from the reality on the ground in Iraq to the shortage of teeth arm combat troops in Afghanistan and all things in between. The MOD know this and always amke a mess of trying to distort the facts or subdue the opinions of service men and officers. On the specific report in question, it is highly significant that this theory or suspicion is prevalent in military and intelligence circles as Pakistan is a key player in the war against the Taliban and Al Quaeda. I have to say that an awful lot of what was presented in the newsnight report has the ring of truth to it, seems totally plausible and fits the facts.

  • 17.
  • At 09:01 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • Martyn wrote:

Perhaps if MOD officials were honest about the reasons you should not have broadcast the report, rather than misleading you over who wrote it in an attempt to get you to drop it then they would have a point. But if they tell lies about it, what do you expect? It then becomes far more newsworthy.

  • 18.
  • At 09:38 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • Ed wrote:

Chris: That depends really, definitions of "most" vary. From looking at:

The definitions vary from: 'greatest'. 'best' (and similar) to 'Much more than half'.

Clearly, 53% isn't "much more than half" but it could be the "greatest" surely? I think its pretty common for the word "most" to be used in this context - search for the phrase "Most Americans" or "Most British" on google and see...

I personally think using the word Most on a majority (which 53% is) is valid.

While I agree with Chris that "most" implies more than 53%, where "just over half" would have served better, I do think it does fit the actual definition of most - it's greater in size than the remaining 47% - it is the majority, and so on.

As it happens, while it's not perfect, particularly when it's dealing with political stories, the BBC is one of the better media streams. I would be more likely to trust you than any government spokesman.

However, that just illustrates my own prejudice towards the BBC and away from the traditional political parties. I should presumably insist on seeing all the evidence myself before believing anybody!

  • 20.
  • At 10:00 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • Checkmate wrote:

If the BBC cannot give us some undistorted views, who can? All the avenues of truth are closing and it doesn't matter whether 10 or 20 or 80 or 90% approve or don't approve of the war, the truth should come first

  • 21.
  • At 10:01 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • Kaushal wrote:

Congratulations !!!!! I was relieved that someone has the courage to present the truth.

Keep up the great work !!!

  • 22.
  • At 11:17 PM on 29 Sep 2006,
  • Luke wrote:

The present blog raises several important issues. The continued distortion of facts by governments (and not only Blair's) ought by now to be recognized "by most" as a truism. And although this raises profoundly important questions about whether the public is actually a means rather than an end of their so called representatives, whatever shortcomings the government may have ought not distract us from having to scrutinize journalistic standards as well as the veracity of pronouncements by officials. I very much hope that by highlighting the lies of Blair, journalists aren't hoping to immunize themselves from whatever inspection is due of their work.

Some weird posts up there - 4, 6, 8, 11 (it says "post a comment" not a book).

Whatever. Newsnight, Peter, you have all the confirmation you need that your report was in the public interest from the MoD's squirming (reminds me of No 10's pathetic attempts to deny Cherie's "that's a lie comment").

The department doth protest too much.

In more general terms, from reading the news this week it's clear that intelligence services both here and in the US are getting tired of the political posturing of their masters and are beginning to reveal the truth of the mess we've caused.

  • 24.
  • At 12:14 AM on 30 Sep 2006,
  • Les Hall wrote:

I should imagine it is no easy job being an MOD Officer to be accurate in all one does and never be quoted out of context .
Thank goodness journalists do not have such restrictions placed upon them , otherwise the slease hungry public would get so bored

Hi Peter Barron,
If you,Newsnight and the BBC agreed that this document should be aired, and in doing so it would not esculate a situation, already esculated by the President of a super-power, then I believe it is right to do so. I also believe you are all responsible people, and should be judged as such.
However, there is in any document broadcast, a certain amount of diplomacy, which must be considered. By diplomacy, in this case, work going on behind the scenes, to evualte certain situations. Again, if you believe, you have allowed for that diplomacy,(that is,in my own opinion, the effect on our relationship with Pakistan) then I do not see why the document should not be published. Afterall, the MOD was not exactly truthful with yourselves.
Regards, Jennifer W.

  • 26.
  • At 09:49 AM on 30 Sep 2006,
  • Terence Jones wrote:

Yes, the media are (sometimes) quite good at exposing official dishonesty and distortions - But this is essentially "raw news", the simple story.

What the supposedly more in depth programmes seem to largely be neglecting is the why element.

Why do people in positions of authority & responsibility repeatedly do this?

Try to blame the people at the sharp end for "telling it as it is" rather than sticking to some comforting official fiction? Try to feed the public stories which just don't stand up to scrutiny?

Are they simply arrogant, and think that most people will just take their word - or even that public opinion doesn't really matter?

Are they essentially delusional, and only "hear" what they want to hear (and disregard the rest :)

Is the problems structural - that they are so surrounded by like believers that they don't know what's happening outside their office doors?

This, I think is what these more in depth programmes could be doing, rather than simply providing more detail & commentary on what has already been reported in the main news.

  • 27.
  • At 10:00 AM on 30 Sep 2006,
  • Bryan wrote:

The so-called war on terror is the default position for the BBC. But funnily enough, sandwiched on the World Service on Thursday between two so-called wars on terror was the first plain war on terror I've ever heard on the BBC.

Why? No doubt because it was Indonesia's war on terror under discussion.

And the BBC would never mock a Muslim nation by implying that it was misguided as it continually mocks and disparages George Bush and Tony Blair.

So now we know that the only really valid response to terror is from the Indonesian authorities.

I'm so glad the World Service cleared that one up for us.

Now we have Peter Barron taking the terminology to a new level of doublespeak by talking of what's known as the war on terror.

Actually BBC, it's high time somebody tapped you on the shoulder and explained to you that Islamic terrorism - even though it has become virtually forbidden for you to use those words in conjunction - is a very real daily occurrence worldwide as Muslims strive for the worldwide domination of Islam over everything and everyone else, and the war on terror is therefore not a matter of semantics.

Hi Peter Barron,
I did make a comment on the leaked paper. I put it for preview and I think I posted it after it received its impimateur, but did I post it, and have you received it?
Either I did not or it has not come to light of day. Perhaps you disagree with me, it would be nice to know. I agreed with Newsnight. I hope you at least receive this message, and can find my piece, which has a knack of disappearing on a regular basis. Regards Jennifer W.

  • 29.
  • At 11:03 AM on 30 Sep 2006,
  • Robert wrote:

God help us if we ever lose Newsnight and Channel 4 News.

  • 30.
  • At 11:11 AM on 30 Sep 2006,
  • Rick B wrote:

I don't understand why this report was controversial as it echoes many of the conclusions in the Natiional Intelligence Estimate recently released in America.

  • 31.
  • At 11:35 AM on 30 Sep 2006,
  • Roy Baker wrote:

Dear Editor, The problem with all this anti-government war propaganda and when I say this I remember the major spat the BBC had with the Government which resulted in Chris Burt? losing his job,is that it would have more credability if it set out a detailed alternative strategy for the withdrawal, plus forcast of the probable resulting chaos. It is just "dog in the manger" to harp on about the mistake of being there. I also agree with other contributors that this constant campaign by the BBC gives succour to our enemies and costs the lives of British troops. I do wonder whether the BBC sees them as our enemies? Comparison with Vietnam assumes defeat and again encourages the enemy. Do the BBC ever imagine what is going through the minds of terrorists or would be terrorists, as they are watching these hostile "in depth" reports from Afghanistan and Iraq. Panorama seems to be a programme where much "washing of hands" is done as the programme makers present their "unbiased" reports.

  • 32.
  • At 12:26 PM on 30 Sep 2006,
  • sid wrote:

I think it was great that the BBC broadcast this story.

It expose's that we have not learnt anything ,we should not interfare in othere country's affares and they will not interafare with as.

  • 33.
  • At 01:57 PM on 30 Sep 2006,
  • Ed wrote:

Benedict TLC: Where do you get that "4000 dead muslims" figure from - the lowest figure on is more than 10 times that.

To Peter Barron, Editor, Newsnight.
I am sorry you were unable to find my original comment. I know I mentioned something regarding diplomacy, before airing leaked documents, and accordingly the BBC have produced a piece on the shaky relationship that how exists between Pakistan and the U.K. I also read a piece that India blames Pakistan's security services regarding the train crash and subsequent deaths at Mumbie (Bombay)
However, I would like it known to the Newsnight Team, that: "ALTHOUGH YOU NEED NOT POST THIS COMMENT" I agreed that you were right in producing parts of the document. Regards Jennifer W.

  • 35.
  • At 05:51 PM on 30 Sep 2006,
  • Kevin Bonici wrote:

Well done Newnight! It is certainly in the public interest to know what's really going on in the surreal "war on terror", especially since taxpayers' money is used for this. It is indeed the media's obligation not to play the government's tune, no matter what the MOD believes. The country belongs to the people not to the MOD.

  • 36.
  • At 08:49 PM on 30 Sep 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

"what's known as the war on terror." What's happening here, is the BBC starting to break down? Will it actually dare to use the term "terrorist" one of these days? Will it use it just in reference to those politically motivated mass murderers whose views are antagonistic to its own such as IRA bombers or will it include those it previously refered to as "militants" such as those who blow up buses, restaurants, and shopping malls in Israel or "insurgents" when they do it in Iraq? What will BBC call them when it's in Piccadilly? Getting just a little nervous about taking the tubes are we Mr. Barron? Suddenly when it strikes close to home THEY ARE terrorists and to oppose them and their backers is now "what's known as the war on terror." Perhaps if they blow up Bush House itself, it actually WILL BE a war on terror...if there's anyone around left alive to print it.

  • 37.
  • At 09:17 PM on 30 Sep 2006,
  • kumar wrote:

It's been frustrating seeing all this Political Correctness going on. It's time we called a spade a spade!! I hope the media takes the lead in this war against terror. When is the world going to call the Pakistani president what he really is...the instigator of hate? There is so much hatred brewing in that country n the powers that be are foolish to turn a blind eye. Is this another case of the Emperor's new clothes.....

  • 38.
  • At 11:55 PM on 30 Sep 2006,
  • Dave democrat wrote:

Dear Ed
As usual the men in grey suits that are behind most government departments try their hardest to distort the views of those in the know who disagree with the party line. I do not agree with some of the intrusive journalistic cheap tricks I see, which I think tend to put the whole journalistic profession in a bad light, however I am grateful not only to the people who whistleblow in the interest of the common good, but also to the likes of yourself who have the courage to publish and be damned.This is why the British news is the envy of the world.

  • 39.
  • At 11:58 AM on 01 Oct 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

An experienced and competent journalist would know that many people would not realise “most” was used in the sense of the “bare majority” mentioned by Chris Comber (29/09/06). This illustrates the essence of the suspicion about too many of BBC staff. It happens too often.

  • 40.
  • At 01:10 AM on 02 Oct 2006,
  • Bill Grant wrote:

I wish the BBC would have the guts to stop putting those snotty quotes around "war on terror" indicating your smarmy contempt for the whole concept and just call it something else. Editorializing by punctuation is still editorializing, even if it is a cowardly form of it.

  • 41.
  • At 09:52 AM on 02 Oct 2006,
  • Martin G. wrote:

I agree with an earlier poster that the BBC is probably the best we have, but that is a long way from saying that the BBC is beyond bias (why wasn't the surrounding of the Labour Party Conference last week by up to 40,000 protesters even mentioned in a news report, for example? Why wasn't the outrageous spinning of the IAEA report on Iran's nuclear capabitilies by hawk John Bolton seen as relevant?). When I complain about these ommissions I am told that it's 'so difficult to decide what is newsworthy', but there always seems to be room for the cat stuck up the tree story, so this doesn't wash. Sometimes you really do come up with the goods as in this case, sometimes you behave shamefully as in the backing down after the David Kelly/Andrew Gilligan affair. My greatest fear is that you will be 'got at' behind the scenes, you will be persuaded to let a story go for the good of the country/our soldiers/the Labour Party and we will never get to hear about it. Please assure me that this will never happen.

Bit rich of them to complain, really.

"45 minutes"

Didn't their intelligence come from a student essay too?

  • 43.
  • At 11:28 AM on 02 Oct 2006,
  • ELIZABETH wrote:

Thank God for Newsnight. I thought it was a very reponsible and restrained report. Thank you!! Keep up the good work.

  • 44.
  • At 12:39 PM on 02 Oct 2006,
  • Anthony Jones wrote:

I completely concur that "responsible journalism is to penetrate the fog of war". However, the purpose of the BBC's journalism seems to be to only do so to suit its own anti-war prejudices. The use of the phrase "so called war on terror" is the most obvious way in which these prejudices reveal themselves. "So called"? That's what it is called! Do I refer to the 'so called British Broadcasting Corporation'?

  • 45.
  • At 02:52 PM on 02 Oct 2006,
  • John wrote:

I think 53% is most. In any Yes or No survey there is always a staggering number of people who opt for Don't Know. For instance, are you wearing underwear today - 95% Yes, 1% No, 4% Don't Know!

  • 46.
  • At 06:22 AM on 03 Oct 2006,
  • Andrew wrote:

I think that peter was right. He was just doing his job as a journalist. And it is the resposibility of our dear journalist to present the truth without any distortion or constrains from any side.

This is say,
Andrew (Dr, prof, Nobel Literature winner)

  • 47.
  • At 06:25 AM on 03 Oct 2006,
  • Andrew wrote:

And too, I disagree with Dr Chris.

This I say,
Andrew (Dr, prof, Nobel literature winner)

  • 48.
  • At 01:05 PM on 03 Oct 2006,
  • Sam wrote:

I find it ironic that the vast majority of people who accuse the BBC of biased are Americans, seeing as the Americans don't pay a penny towards it and should think themsleves extremely fortunate to be allowed to view these stories in the first place.

The fact is if you go to any country in the world, places that have media control or are at war etc who do the people go to to get the news? The BBC and why? Becuae the BBC are the most accurate unbiased news organisation in the world bar none, its a fact.

And the reason so many right wing Americans dislike it is becuase the Bush administration when reported accurately and fairly look ridiculous on a daily basis, but thats not the BBC's fault, if America wants the BBC to show them in a favourable light then for gods sake do somthing that actually makes you look good and not a bunch of insular imperialist war mongers.

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