Opinion and Editorial

How a possible scoop on Iraq just vanished

Phillip Knightley (ONE MAN’S VIEW)
Filed on August 7, 2004 | Last updated on April 1, 2015 at 11.54 pm

ON the face of it, the story in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald was every journalist’s dream-come-true. Paul McGeough, chief Herald correspondent in Baghdad and a former editor of the newspaper, had apparently exposed the new Prime Minister of Iraq, Iyad Allawi, as a murderous war criminal - a world scoop.

According to McGeough, just days before Washington handed control of Iraq to Allawi, he pulled out a pistol and shot dead six suspected Iraqi insurgents at a Baghdad police station. McGeough wrote that two eyewitnesses told him that the prisoners, handcuffed and blindfolded, were lined up against a wall at the Al Amariyah security centre before being executed. Dr Allawi told onlookers that the victims had killed as many as fifty Iraqis and they “deserved worse than death.” He then shot them one by one in the head as “a clear message to the police” on how to deal with terrorists.

The story appeared in The Herald on the morning of Saturday, 17 July. But the newspaper had trailed it on Australian radio stations the previous night. This enabled the Australian representatives of various publications around the world to tip off their foreign desks. In journalism circles, most editors fully expected that over that weekend, every newspaper in the world would be running McGeough’s front-page scoop. Instead, the story disappeared. British newspapers ran nothing. A search on ‘factiva’, which carries pretty much every story written in the mainstream western press, revealed nothing. Nearly three weeks later, apparently no other publication has picked up The Herald story, even to deny its accuracy. What happened?

The answer is complex and involves a curious combinations of flaws in the way journalism works. If McGeough had witnessed the shooting himself, then his story would indeed have echoed around the world. But he had not. There had been rumours in Baghdad about the shootings and McGeough set out to check them. He traced two Iraqis who said that they had seen the shootings. Neither man had approached McGeough. “They were interviewed on different days in a private home in Baghdad, without being told that the other had spoken. The witnesses were not paid for the interviews. But a condition of the co-operation of each man was that no personal information would be published.”

And there lies the first flaw. Other newspapers have no way of confirming McGeough’s belief that his informants were telling the truth. And since the Hitler ‘diaries’ fiasco - when the London Sunday Times took on trust the checks on the authenticity of the ‘diaries’ made by the German magazine Stern, only to learn too late that Stern had been fooled - every newspaper now wants to do its own checks. Until recently, some editors might have taken a gamble. McGeough’s reputation is impeccable. Even if he could not reveal the names of the two witnesses, he had discovered the names of some of the alleged victims.

But earlier this year, the London Daily Mirror published photographs that purported to show British army soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners. Even though it is generally accepted that such abuse took place, these particular photographs turned out to be fakes. The editor of the Mirror was summarily sacked. News executives at one British newspaper group told me last week that they had wanted to use McGeough’s story, but were discouraged from doing so by their own Baghdad correspondent, and that they understood other Baghdad correspondents had discouraged their newspapers as well.

Here is the second flaw. These resident correspondents are not entirely impartial judges. They would be inclined to feel that they had been scooped by McGeough and that being asked by their bosses to check his story implied criticism of their own performance. So, it is understandable that they played down the story rather than pushed it.

The final flaw concerns a psychological blind-spot in journalists that emerged in the Vietnam war. It was noticed that after a while, war correspondents became inured to horrible events - even to the extent that they no longer registered them as newsworthy. The My Al massacre story, for example, was revealed not by journalists on the spot in Vietnam, but by an alert reporter back in the United States. One British war correspondent, Philip Jones Griffiths, said later that he had seen atrocities in Vietnam committed by American soldiers but had not written about them because, “It was horrible, but certainly not exceptional, and it just wasn’t news.”

It is possible then that this attitude was present on foreign desks around the world when McGeough’s story landed on them. Could it be that there have been so many terrible events in Iraq that this new one - even if true - was not considered newsworthy.

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