Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Let us recall "Captain" Jamil Hussein

Unnoted by the British media, the saga of "Captain" Jamil Hussein has been rumbling on. Well, no, since you ask AP has not produced him or any of the other “police officers”, who remain unclaimed by the Iraqi Ministry of Interior. Nor has AP explained how is it that there has been no evidence for that horrific November 24 story of four mosques blown up (still standing with one slightly damaged by fire) and six Sunnis set on fire and shot.

Instead, as Confederate Yankee points out, journalists, who have used the mysterious “Captain” Jamil Hussein as their source, have been promoted. And quite right, too. They are the finest examples of modern journalism at its best.

Meanwhile, journalists on the other side of the pond try very hard to attack those who have been so insanely bold as to doubt the credentials of the “venerable” AP. A good deal of this particular attack consists of deliberate misrepresentation of what Michelle Malkin actually said (and no explanation as to who or what the good “captain” might be).
Should the AP be held responsible for its reporting, and should the global news agency be diligent about whom it hires inside Iraq? Of course. And there should be hell to pay if it's proven any news events were manufactured. But warbloggers aren't interested in an honest, factual debate about a single instance of journalistic accountability. And they're not really interested in the specifics of the Burned Alive story. They're interested in wide-ranging conspiracy theories and silencing skeptical voices.
Well, it is good to know that Eric Boehlert thinks that AP should be held responsible for its reporting and there should be hell to pay etc etc. But, let’s face it, he is not advocating that AP start an inquiry (not that it has shown the slightest intention of doing so). That would be a witch hunt, I expect. What Mr Boehlert is trying to do is quite simple: drown the whole subject in nasty innuendos and attacks on the bloggers, who happen to have raised, not for the first time, an important issue of truth in reporting.

Confederate Yankee once again takes him on, going through all the details of the story, its impact and lack of evidence. Whatever Mr Boehlert may think, when a high-impact story of this kind appears and is then proved to be less than totally reliable, that is a matter of some concern to all of us.

The explanation in Confederate Yankee’s blog is one that echoes our own attempts to understand just precisely why journalism is so utterly shoddy these days. Foreign journalists in Iraq rarely leave the safety of the Green Zone in Baghdad. The reports they gather in come from local stringers, which has certain advantages in that they are more likely to know and understand the locality they are writing about.

The disadvantages are also rather large: the situation in Iraq is complex and difficult (and always has been). The various stringers, be they Shi’a or Sunni, Arab or Kurd, former Ba’athist or loyal to local leaders are also participants in that situation. At best, their reports will be biased. So, what should AP do? Well, the first thing would be to abandon its self-satisfied image of itself and accept that there might be difficulties, the American government and military not being the only ones who have been struggling to get a grip on the situation in Iraq. The same is true about the media.

How about a strict editorial policy? How about some fact-checking? How about a rigorous control on who might or might not be a reliable source? Instead what we have is “faith-based reporting”, as Confederate Yankee puts it.

That is one aspect of the problem. The other one is, of course, the “Vietnam syndrome”. American involvement in Vietnam was militarily successful and politically catastrophic, to a great extent because of the role of the media, whose reporting gave an inaccurate and biased view of what was happening. (As it happens, most journalists stayed in the safety of Saigon then as well and there were no bloggers to challenge the accepted truth.)

That and Watergate were the high points of media accomplishment. Using methods that were not always strictly honourable they managed to bring down two presidents: Johnson and Nixon. Intoxicating. How the successors of those hacks would like to recapture those moments and how infuriating it is for them that try as they might, they cannot do so for two very simple reasons: Iraq is not Vietnam and Bush is not Nixon. Sad but true.

So they go on trying and succeeding only in undermining their own standing. AP is coming out of this whole mess worse than Reuters did over Adnan Hajj, though there are problems with their reporting as well. Denying huffily that you could ever be wrong has never helped anyone. It did not help politicians in the past and it does not help the media now.

There is, however, another question to ask. Precisely why has there been no coverage of the AP saga in the British media?

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