'There are no TV cameras in Saddam's torture chambers'
'In a democracy, the benefits of hour by hour and day by day reporting from the frontline far outweigh the disadvantages'
Tuesday April 1, 2003
The relationship between government and the media is never under greater scrutiny than at times of military conflict. The competing pressures can be immense.
On the one hand, the government's primary responsibility is to fulfil our military objectives, and to protect the men and women of our Armed Forces. Ministers must weigh the release of information about the military campaign against the possibility that it might benefit our opponents and endanger our troops. Meanwhile, the media is rightly driven by other imperatives, the need to penetrate the fog of war, to make definitive judgements on the basis of fragments, and to deliver "breaking news" to an eager public.
Reconciling these priorities has never been easy. But I am also clear that, in a democracy, the benefits of hour by hour and day by day reporting from the frontline far outweigh the disadvantages. That has been patent since the courageous and pioneering work of William Russell, The Times' correspondent, who reported some of the senseless horrors of the Crimean War.
Yet even in the twentieth century, a combination of delay and censorship have helped Governments to suppress the truth. The innocent volunteers and conscripts of 1914 knew nothing of the war of attrition lying in wait in Flanders. Had the public been able to see live reports from the trenches, I wonder for how long the governments of Asquith and Lloyd George could have maintained the war effort. Imagine the carnage of the Somme on Sky and BBC News 24.
But it is also worth speculating how much harder it might have been to maintain the country's morale after Dunkirk had live reports confronted the public with the brutal reality of German tactical and military superiority. Could the "spirit of Dunkirk", so important to national survival, have withstood the scrutiny of 24-hour live news?
Today in Iraq the media's proximity to frontline combat is unprecedented in the history of warfare. Never before have so many journalists been so close to the action and with the technology to report live. This has profound implications which have been recognised, for example, by Richard Sambrook, the BBC's Director of News. Writing in The Guardian yesterday, he acknowledged the need for the media "to think harder about the issues thrown up by broadcasting live from the frontline."
I think Mr Sanbrook is right. The live coverage we are seeing raises some important questions: about the dangers of making snap judgements on the basis of television pictures; and about the ability of democracies to wage war against tyrannies who both deny the truth to their people and savagely suppress public dissent.
Some of the dilemmas were well illustrated last week in the aftermath of the first bombing of a market in Baghdad. It's increasingly probable that this was the result of Iraqi - not coalition - action. Yet when the story broke and we promised an inquiry, some chose to characterise our response as an admission of guilt. It usually takes time for the truth to catch up with the image. In an intensely competitive media environment however, time is a luxury which journalists sometimes can't afford.
Let me here pay tribute to the bravery of the correspondents on the frontline, including those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice in pursuit of the truth. So far, exposure to close-up coverage of the conflict appears to have increased public support. The nature and scope of the newspaper coverage is also interesting. Those who question the relevance of newspapers in the age of satellite television have their answer in the first-class front-line dispatches, and the in-depth analysis by commentators, with which they are informing their readers.
The regional press is, I'd suggest, performing with distinction. It has combined solid, factual coverage of the conflict with a focus on local human stories of British servicemen, women and their families. Often an undervalued part of the media world, the regional press is a pillar of British democracy. The service which it provides to its communities is invaluable and I pay tribute to its excellent work. The regional - and the national press - have a crucial role to play in peacetime. But at times of conflict - as we all know from recent experience - their importance is magnified.
Let me give some illustrations: much has been made of the impetus which images from Vietnam gave to the opponents of the war in the 1970s. Conversely, during the Falklands' conflict the horrific pictures of the sinking of HMS Sheffield strengthened national resolve at a critical moment.
In Kosovo, Milosevic underestimated the power of television. His drive to assert Serb hegemony in an apparently forgotten corner of Europe was initially a cause for public hand-wringing. Then the sickening pictures of a massacre in the village of Racak, beamed into Europe's living rooms one Saturday afternoon, stimulated demands for action. As the humanitarian catastrophe was relayed live on our screens, the British Prime Minister's moral case for a military response became unanswerable.
This brings me to the paradox of coverage about Iraq. For over two decades, Saddam Hussein has caused a humanitarian crisis in Iraq and one which at least equals Milosevic's worst excesses. But unlike Milosevic, Saddam Hussein has conducted his reign of terror off camera. So unlike Kosovo, Iraq has not pricked the world's conscience through our television screens. Saddam has waged a war, but a hidden one, against the Iraqi people.
Amnesty International reported in October 2000 that dozens of Iraqi women had been executed on charges of prostitution. According to witnesses, the killings were carried out by members of a militia created by Saddam's elder son, Udayy. They beheaded the women, with swords, in front of their homes.
A series of decrees in Iraq have established branding, amputation and mutilation among the penalties for "criminal" offences. In one recent incident a courageous individual who had criticised the regime had his tongue cut out and was left to bleed to death.
There are no TV cameras in Saddam's torture chambers or in the darkest corners of Baghdad. But the suffering and oppression are real. Until his long reign of terror is ended, Saddam Hussein will remain a scar on the conscience of the world, and a standing affront to the ideals which underpin the foreign policies of the UK, the United States and our European allies.
The removal of Saddam Hussein's regime has become necessary to eradicate the threat from his programmes to develop weapons of mass destruction. But, beyond that, all of those who believe in the values of democracy, human rights and the rule of law should welcome the fact that the Iraqi regime's days will end. There may be more setbacks for coalition troops. As the regime enters its final stages, we will encounter fierce resistance from those elements of the regime's apparatus of terror whose fate is tied to their tyrannical ruler.
But we will rid the world of a brutal dictator and, in doing so, ensure that the long-suffering Iraqi people will emerge from the shadow of dictatorship into the light of freedom.
Today our primary focus has to be the military campaign. Our immediate concerns are for our troops and for the humanitarian needs of the Iraqi population. But we have given - and we are giving - a huge amount of thought to the post-conflict situation.
The Iraqi people will then finally have the chance to build a country which follows in the proud traditions of one of the world's greatest civilisations. I don't underestimate the scale of the task. Saddam has led his country to ruin. In 1979, he presided over a country which seemed set on embracing its destiny as one of the leaders of the Arab world. Never before has such economic promise been squandered so swiftly. The oil revenues, which could have funded world-class schools and hospitals, have been wasted on deadly weapons and luxuries for the ruling elite. By centralising control over the distribution of basic foodstuffs and imposing measures that have devastated the economy, the regime has made 60% of the population dependent on it for their basic needs.
Turning things round in a fully comprehensive way will not be the work of months. It is likely to take years. The psychological scars inflicted by Saddam will take even longer to heal. Just as Cambodia will continue to be affected by the horrors of Year Zero for decades to come, so atrocities such as the Anfal campaign and Halabja against the Kurds, and the brutal suppression of the Shia, will haunt future generations of Iraqis.
Today I want to assure all the Iraqi people that our belief in their future prosperity is as strong as our belief in their liberation. In the short term, our approach to humanitarian relief and reconstruction will be founded on four key commitments, each of which will help to reunite a country which has effectively been stolen by Saddam Hussein from its people.
First: there will be emergency relief over the coming days and weeks which will be channelled through both our Armed Forces and through the Department for International Development. The Ministry of Defence has been allocated ¡ê30 million to help the Armed Forces carry out their immediate obligations. DfID has earmarked ¡ê210 million for humanitarian work in the current crisis. Of this, ¡ê115 million has already been committed to help agencies such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent movements to deliver essential supplies and services to those Iraqis in areas freed from Saddam's control.
Second: we will ensure that the United Nations oversees the medium and long-term international aid programme to Iraq. Under the Oil for Food Programme, the UN has performed this role well for the past 7 years. I am delighted that following the unanimous adoption of UNSCR 1472 last Friday, the UN will continue to take the humanitarian lead in a post-Saddam Iraq. A central role for the UN will also be crucial in attracting the expertise and funds from the major international financial institutions and aid donors which Iraq will need as it embarks on the path to recovery.
Third: we will work with the United Nations and others on the long term redevelopment and rehabilitation of Iraq. We will be seeking new UN Security Council resolutions to affirm Iraq's territorial integrity, and to endorse an appropriate post-conflict administration. I very much hope that following the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime, the UN will have a leading role in organising a conference to bring together representatives from all sections of Iraq's society. The objective of such a conference would be to place the responsibility for decisions about Iraq's political and economic future firmly in the hands of the Iraqi people.
And fourth: we will ensure that Iraq's oil wealth will be used for the benefit of the Iraqi people, to develop the infrastructure and services the country so desperately needs.
As we confront the immense task of reconstruction, there will be no shortage of Jonahs, of those who rail at the apparent futility of efforts to bring stability and prosperity to a country characterised by ethnic and tribal division, and mistrust of foreign interference.
We heard similar criticisms in respect of Afghanistan. I simply ask these critics to consider this: in Afghanistan following the downfall of the Taliban, we have seen one of the greatest movements of people in human history. Over 1.5 million Afghan refugees have returned to their homeland in the past 18 months. Today it is the Afghan people - not the Taliban - who are taking the decisions which will affect the future of their nation. The removal of a brutal regime has allowed those that had fled the country in fear and despair to return in hope. We have the same aspiration for Iraq, an aspiration which many of the four million Iraqis who have fled the terror of Saddam Hussein's regime will share. Nobody should underestimate our resolve to make this aspiration a reality.