The Hutton Report

Posted: Jan 31, 2004 12:00 AM

Prime Minister Tony Blair and President George W Bush exaggerated intelligence information on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program in order to justify going to war.

So said the largest news organization in the world, the BBC, which broadcast allegations that Bush and Blair willingly misled the international community. The charges belied the BBC's relentlessly anti-government reporting during the war and set the tone for how other major news organizations  covered the events.

Just one thing: The BBC reports were completely baseless. According to a voluminous report  recently issued by a retired senior judge, Lord Brian Hutton, the BBC failed to adequately investigate the charges that Blair "sexed up" intelligence data before broadcasting them. The judicial inquiry called the reports "unfounded," and harshly rebuked the BBC for broadcasting them. The findings set off a maelstrom of controversy that so far has resulted in the resignation of the BBC's editor in chief and chairman.

While questions remain about the accuracy of the intelligence reports, and about how intelligence is gathered in general, the Hutton report does assuage the more important concerns about whether Bush and Blair manipulated intelligence information to deliberately deceive the international community. Plainly they did not.

Had the report indicated otherwise, the repercussions would have been severe. Blair would have had to resign his post. Had Blair gone, the knives would have come out for President Bush, who would have had a difficult time explaining why he falsified intelligence and sent hundreds of US soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians to their death.

Instead, the report restores credibility to the Blair administration, which had been shaken by the BBC broadcasts. It also reinforces the integrity of the Bush administration, which relied heavily on British intelligence in its assessment of the threat posed by Iraq.

So you would think that a report that vindicates two of the world's most powerful leaders from charges that they deliberately deceived the world would be a big news item. After all, the story has implications for the war on terrorism,  the Wilsonian idealism of carrying democracy into the Middle East, and how we intend to confront the basic problems of dictatorship, tyranny, misery and poverty in that area. It also sheds a harsh light on the world's largest news organization. The Hutton report raised serious questions about whether the BBC embraced an overt political agenda in its war coverage. Those nagging questions led to the forced resignation of two senior executives, an open apology to the Blair administration, and open protests by hundreds of staff members. An investigation into how the BBC gathers information will likely follow. It is possible that several western news outlets could be subject to similar scrutiny regarding their war coverage. For all of these reasons the Hudson report needs to be viewed not just in terms of a British political story, but in terns of a global news story that also has direct impact on the Bush administration.

Yet somehow these rousing points were lost on the majority of the American network news organizations who dedicated almost no coverage to the Hutton report when the findings were first released. The lone exception: Fox news, which instantly beamed the story out to the public. Once that happened, the rest were forced to follow.

So why was the broadcast media gun shy on reporting a story that has serious repercussions for the leadership of the western world, as well as the veracity of the world's largest media corporation?  Likely it has something to do with the fact that the BBC set the agenda with regard to war coverage. Their consciously anti-US rhetoric had a ripple effect on the rest of the press and public opinion. The Canadian broadcast corporation followed their lead, as did many of the big US broadcasters. It's not in the interest of any of these organizations to highlight their own sloppy reporting.

While the BBC has been forced to admit and scrutinize their own journalistic shortcomings, it is unlikely that the other major US broadcasters will follow suit, raising  disturbing questions about the integrity of several major media outlets in their coverage of the war, and President Bush in general.