On 19 March 2003, a week before the start of the invasion of Iraq, Tony Blair wrote a furious letter to BBC director-general Greg Dyke and BBC chairman Gavyn Davies. He accused the BBC’s coverage of being biased against the war.
“I believe, and I am not alone in believing, that you have not got the balance right between support and dissent,” he wrote.
Less than a year later, in the wake of the David Kelly affair, both Dyke and Davies were sacked.
Were the BBC and other mainstream news sources biased against the war?
A comprehensive and meticulous new study by social scientists from Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds universities set out to answer this question—and answered it overwhelmingly in the negative.
The team analysed newspaper and TV stories from the days leading up to the invasion until one week after the fall of Saddam Hussein. It found that stories dealing with the justifications for war “overwhelmingly reflected the official line”, with over 80 percent of stories mirroring the government position and less than 12 percent challenging it.
Even papers that had been against the war, such as the Mirror and the Independent, were broadly supportive during the military campaign.
The researchers were led by Dr Piers Robinson, lecturer in international politics at Manchester university. He said the team’s research stands in the tradition of Daniel Hallin’s pioneering study of how the US media covered the Vietnam War.
Hallin demolished the right wing myth that the US lost because the “liberal media” undermined the war effort. Instead he showed how media coverage sanitised the war and largely uncritically reflected the US line.
Robinson’s team wanted to see whether similar bias was apparent in the case of the British media’s coverage of the war on Iraq.
The huge degree of political controversy surrounding the decision to go to war was another factor drawing the team to study the invasion.
“We wanted to find out how much of that criticism fed through into critical or adversarial media coverage.”
“These are standard questions, but they’re important ones that should inform academic debate, journalists, policy makers and the public at large.”
The team drew upon Hallin and various US studies of news bias during election campaigns to produce a “combined methodology” that would give a comprehensive overview of media coverage, said Robinson.
Press and TV reports during the invasion were entered into a database, marked with “indicators” as to what themes they covered, what sources were used, and whether the overall report was critical or supportive of the various players.
The criteria for these indicators was set out explicitly and clearly in order to minimise subjective bias from the researchers.
In particular, the aim was to produce results that could be checked and replicated by other social scientists, ensuring that the study was objective, systematic and authoritative.
One aspect of the coverage considered by the group involved the role of new technology in reporting the invasion. It is often claimed that technological advances make it harder to control the media and increase its autonomy—but Robinson said he was “very cautious” about these arguments.
“The impact of new technology has primarily been changes in style rather than substance,” he said. “The key thing was the use of embedded journalists using video phones and portable equipment to report directly from army units.”
The effect of this was that news of the invasion was dominated by the point of view of invading coalition troops.
“Embedding was seen as a positive and successful strategy by the coalition. It focused reporting onto a subject area they felt confident about—toppling the Iraqi regime. So whatever empowering effect technology might have, it was not necessarily in play during the invasion phase.”
Robinson’s team also looked into how “changes in geopolitical order after Cold War” affected the reporting of the invasion.
Here they noted the crucial role played by “humanitarian” arguments for war in framing the British media coverage of Iraq.
“At a broad ideological level, it would appear that the humanitarian warfare narrative, promoted by the Blair government since the 1999 Kosovo campaign, functioned to limit the extent of media autonomy towards the conflict as the ideology of anti-Communism did throughout the Cold War years,” the report says.
Robinson noted that while the US media reported the Iraq invasion in terms of the “war on terror”, that particular justification did not feature so strongly in British coverage.
“In Britain the humanitarian rationale was the main justification for the conflict—that was the narrative that took hold,” he said.
“This is the new ideological imperative shaping the limits of media,” he added. “And the Blair government has been very effective at promoting it among liberal internationalist elements in the media.”
The war was justified because of human rights abuses, even though “in objective terms” this humanitarian case was weak and difficult to make.
The invasion of Iraq came a few weeks after the two million strong anti-war demonstration organised by the Stop the War Coalition on 15 February 2003. Robinson’s team examined what effect, if any, this massive public dissent had on the media.
“The coverage of the anti-war movement was much more positive prior to the conflict,” said Robinson. “But during the invasion phase itself it was pushed out onto margins—only 6 percent of quotes in the press came from anti-war activists, and it was less for TV coverage.”
Nevertheless, the dissent did surface in the form of “critical coverage of casualties and humanitarian issues” during the war.
Robinson calls this “procedural criticism”—reports that did not question the underlying motives for the invasion, but criticised how the invasion was being carried out.
“There was a lot of focus on minimising civilian casualties, for instance,” said Robinson.
“So that kind of dissent from the anti-war movement translated, not into debate about the war’s rationale, but into fiercer and greater scepticism over the humanitarian side. The dissent continued, but it was bounded into those areas.”
In particular, Robinson suspects that the coverage of Iraqi civilian casualties was much higher during the 2003 invasion than during the 1991 Gulf War.
“The critical coverage put pressure on the invading coalition to fight the war in a particular way. In particular, there was a good deal of scepticism about the idea that Iraq was using civilians as ‘human shields’—not many journalists bought into that defensive line from the coalition.”
These caveats aside, however, the overall tone and content of mainstream media coverage of the invasion was overwhelmingly in favour of the coalition.
Why does this happen, when journalism is “supposed” to be objective and unbiased?
One aspect of this is the workings of power in the media industry, a theme explored in depth by scholars such as Noam Chomsky.
“The government certainly has a privileged position, and the media relies very heavily on government sources,” said Robinson.
“The economics of the industry are important as well,” he added, noting that Sky News—owned by the rabidly pro-war Rupert Murdoch—was the “most upbeat TV coverage” when it came to reporting coalition operations.
But the corporate-controlled nature of the mainstream media is only part of the story. There is also a deeper ideological dimension to how media coverage is shaped.
“In times of war, the issue of nationalism is more important than any other factor,” Robinson explained.
“It’s not blatant patriotism, but rather the idea that when our country goes to war we should support our troops. This introduces constraints on the media coverage that shape its broader contours.”
Robinson is deeply critical of much of the mainstream media, but doesn’t believe that a new alternative media is emerging to replace it.
“I think the talk about the internet and alternative news sources is overblown,” he said.
“They are no substitute for our mainstream media performing a healthy watchdog role—most people get their news from the mainstream media, not by surfing the net.
“I believe it is possible for the media to play that role—Channel 4 News, for instance, was the most successful at maintaining its autonomy from the government, especially with regards to the war’s justification.”
Ensuring that the media plays this “watchdog” role requires an extensive debate among both journalists and the public.
“We need to look at how journalists go about gathering news, and how to increase the range of sources,” said Robinson.
But this leads back to questions about nationalism. “What do we expect in these situations of conflict? There’s a school of thought that says the British media shouldn’t criticise British troops during a war, and there’s another school that argues against that.
“Our research shows that whatever the case, we aren’t getting the whole truth—and people need to at least recognise that.”
The research team is now working on a book length version of its studies, and is also looking for funding to extend its pioneering methodology to examine the media’s role during the run-up to the war and in the post-invasion occupation phase, Robinson added.
“Our intention was to produce an intense and sophisticated template for analysing the media coverage of the invasion. There’s now the longer term project of taking that template and applying it elsewhere—but that requires getting money and resources!”
Dr Piers Robinson spoke to Anindya Bhattacharyya. The study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). You can download a copy of Media Wars: News Media Performance and Media Management During the 2003 Iraq War from the ESRC website