The BBC’s Jeremy Paxman On Iraq — “We Were Hoodwinked”

In an interview last week, Jeremy Paxman — leading interviewer on BBC 2’s flagship Newsnight programme — claimed that he had been “hoodwinked” by US government propaganda prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Paxman commented:

As far as I personally was concerned, there came a point with the presentation of the so-called evidence, with the moment when Colin Powell sat down at the UN General Assembly and unveiled what he said was cast-iron evidence of things like mobile, biological weapon facilities and the like…

When I saw all of that, I thought, well, ‘We know that Colin Powell is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes all this to be the case, then, you know, he’s seen the evidence; I haven’t.’

Now that evidence turned out to be absolutely meaningless, but we only discover that after the event. So, you know, I’m perfectly open to the accusation that we were hoodwinked. Yes, clearly we were.1

Consider the admission that Newsnight‘s leading interviewer could respond to government claims clearly intended to supply a pretext for war on what was, even more obviously, the very brink of war: “If he believes this to be the case; he’s seen the evidence, I haven’t.”

Does not government submission of evidence mark the point where serious journalism +begins+ rather than ends? What is the reason for journalism at all, if the responsibility is simply to accept what a US Secretary of Defence says because we “know” he “is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man”?

As Paxman should be aware, the “sceptical” Powell helped whitewash the March 1968 massacre of some 500 Vietnamese civilians at My Lai by troops of the US Americal division. Powell was tasked with investigating a detailed whistleblowing letter from US soldier, Tom Glen, confirming that Americal was guilty of routine brutality against civilians. Among other horrors, Glen reported that Americal troops, “for mere pleasure, fire indiscriminately into Vietnamese homes and without provocation or justification shoot at the people themselves.” In his report responding to Glen’s letter, Powell wrote:

“In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between Americal soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.”2

It is not true that Powell’s evidence on Iraq was revealed to be “absolutely meaningless” only “after the event”. In fact, it was immediately evident, as we reported in our media alert of February 10, 2003, five days after Powell‘s presentation. See.

We wrote to Paxman on November 4:

Hi Jeremy

Hope you’re well. In your contribution to Coventry University’s ‘Is World Journalism in Crisis?’ event, you commented:

“When I saw all of that, I said ‘we know that Colin Powell is an intelligent thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes this to be the case; he’s seen the evidence, I haven’t.’

“Now that evidence turned out to be absolutely meaningless but we only discover that after the event. So I am perfectly open to the accusation that we were hoodwinked. Clearly we were.”
(http://www.journalism.co.uk/2/articles/536290.php)

And yet you also said the function of the BBC was “finding things out and telling it as straight as you can tell it”.

What was to stop you from checking the credibility of Powell’s claims against independent expert opinion? In his February 5, 2003 presentation to the United Nations, Powell held up a vial of dry powder anthrax. But Professor Anthony H. Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies had already discounted the possibility that Iraqi anthrax produced prior to 1991 could have remained effectively weaponised:

“Anthrax spores are extremely hardy and can achieve 65% to 80% lethality against untreated patients for years. Fortunately, Iraq does not seem to have produced dry, storable agents and only seems to have deployed wet Anthrax agents, which have a relatively limited life.”
(CSIS, ‘Iraq’s Past and Future Biological Weapons Capabilities,’ 1998, p.13)

The vial held up by Powell contained the type of dry, storable anthrax that Iraq did +not+ seem to have produced, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 1998.

Former chief UN weapons inspector, Scott Ritter, Glen Rangwala of Cambridge University, and others, also offered important testimony refuting Powell’s claims – all readily available to you and the BBC at the time. So why did you respond to Powell by thinking merely “he’s seen the evidence, I haven’t”?

Best wishes

David Edwards

We have received no reply.

Despite admitting that he had simply taken Powell at his word on one of the most important issues in modern political history, Paxman repeatedly advocated a far more rigorous approach to journalism. When asked at the Coventry media event what he would change about his profession, he replied: “I’d plea for an unwillingness to believe what you’re told. It seems to me you want to have an instinctive distrust of powerful vested interests.”

When asked to describe the function of the BBC, Paxman commented: “My own view is that it’s to do, to the best of its ability, the ordinary business of journalism, which is finding things out and telling it as straight as you can tell it.”

When asked to supply advice to budding journalists, he said: “Do a bit of finding out. Really, it’s not for you if you’re not interested in discovering how things work and trying to hold people to account.”

And, yet again, when asked what he would choose as an epitaph, Paxman answered: “Well, I don’t really care what’s on my epitaph. I mean, you know: ‘He tried to find things out,’ or something like that.”

Richard Keeble, professor of journalism at Lincoln University, was a member of the audience listening to Paxman. When he challenged this striking cognitive dissonance — taking Powell at his word while repeatedly advising people to be sceptical of vested interests — Paxman replied:

Next time I see a presentation from the American State Department, or the CIA, about, I don’t know, Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, I shall look on it differently to the way that I looked upon their presentation of the so-called presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. At the time I did not have… independent evidence. One merely had the assertion of a murderous dictator on one hand, and one had what +appeared+ to be impartially — not impartially but covertly — gathered intelligence on the other. And I and many others judged that wrongly; we believed it. And clearly it didn‘t stack up in the event.

In fact it is absurd to suggest that Saddam Hussein was the only source for views challenging the credibility of claims made by Powell, Bush and Blair on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. We and our readers at Media Lens sent Paxman reams of credible, referenced information in 2002 and early 2003 of the kind we sent to him again in our recent email. He ignored it then, as he has again now. He commented in his interview:

“Of the stuff that I get sent… it’s [mostly] in textual form. Most of it is giving a very, very partial version of events which consorts with the senders’ political prejudices.”

In 2003, Paxman chose to accept the “very, very partial version of events” supplied by Colin Powell and others — a version that resulted in one of the most devastating wars in modern history, with over one million dead, four million made refugees and a country torn apart.

Paxman’s assurance that “I shall look… differently” on evidence in future was unconvincing. Why did he talk in terms of the future when six years have already passed since Powell’s deception? Why did he not express his increased scepticism by denouncing some of the fraudulent claims made by the US-UK governments since 2003? Certainly, we have seen no evidence of a more challenging approach from Paxman or the rest of the Newsnight team. Paxman’s own comment provided a good example: he referred to “Iran’s nuclear weapons programme.” In fact the existence of that programme is merely +alleged+ by the same governments that hoodwinked Paxman over Iraq.

We asked Richard Keeble what he thought of Paxman’s replies. He responded:

I was not really surprised at Paxman’s responses to my questions. Clearly the BBC as an institution trusts the powers-that-be far too much. The lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was just one period amongst a host of others when their journalists should have been questioning the rhetoric of the politicians and the military. They didn’t and so the lies about WMD went largely unchallenged. Paxman has the reputation of being a rottweiler amongst interviewers — and yet even he admits to being ‘hoodwinked’ by Colin Powell and Co.3

There was no mention of Paxman’s comments in any UK newspaper. A single mention was recorded on the blogosphere at Journalism.co.uk.

As we have often noted, compassion for the suffering of others is a key concern that separates the best dissident writers from their mainstream counterparts. It is not that dissidents care more about the lives of Iraqis and Palestinians than they do about the lives of Americans and Britons — their concern is to do whatever they can to relieve the suffering of people under attack from governments for which they, as democratic citizens, are responsible. Also, the government we are most able to influence is our own, so this should be the focus of attention. It is simply a fact that mass popular activism, as during the Vietnam War, +can+ restrain our government’s actions; whereas there is just not much we can do about the actions of, say, the Chinese or Russian governments.

When Martin Amis recently asked an audience of literary Londoners for a show of hands on the question: “How many of you feel morally superior to the Taliban?” he was missing the point.

The point is that it is a morally inferior position to focus on the crimes of foreign governments when we are responsible for, and far more able to influence, our own government. And it is a kind of moral idiocy to stridently protest the crimes of other governments when we know these protests will be exploited by our government in justifying its own crimes. Yes, there was a moral case for protesting Saddam Hussein’s abuse of human rights in 2002 and 2003 — but not if doing so made the US-UK devastation of Iraq more likely, so piling vastly more suffering on the Iraqi people.

Compassion, then, is the key concern — where best to direct our efforts in the hope of doing something to relieve suffering in the world. Journalism should be honest and rational, but it should not be indifferent or neutral — it should be biased in the direction of relieving misery. Noam Chomsky has gone so far as to suggest that a life without compassion is meaningless:

“So if you decide not to make use of the opportunities that you have; not to try to live your life in a way which is constructive and helpful, you end up looking back and say: ‘Why did I bother living?’”

This position is important because it provides the psychological motivation for challenging vested interests that are keen to reward servility with status, privilege, even power. In the absence of compassion, there is every reason to conform, to toe the line — to perhaps give the appearance of adopting dissenting positions without really rocking the boat. Then journalism is a job like any other — a way of paying the bills. To be sure, Chomsky’s position is an exotic one from the perspective of much mainstream journalism. When asked what he likes about his job as a journalist, Paxman answered:

“It offers you the opportunity to meet all sorts of fascinating people… If you have a curious mind and you like words it’s a wonderful, wonderful occupation.” But the pay is not good, he warned: “The salaries are very poor… There is no job security.” Nevertheless: “It remains a fascinating way to spend your time.”

  1. Paxman, ‘Is World Journalism in Crisis?,’ Coventry University online interview, October 28, 2009. []
  2. Robert Parry and Norman Solomon, ’Behind Colin Powell’s Legend – My Lai,’ The Consortium, 1996. []
  3. Keeble, email to Media Lens, November 3, 2009. []
Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.

18 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozh said on November 7th, 2009 at 10:13am #

    Paxman may have never heard or thought of the-necessary-truth-principle that no human has the right to attack another human regardless of what the wld-be atacker thought.
    Similarly, a land has no right to attack another even if its manufacturing anything and especially trying to obtain what the evil empires already have.

    Only if a land wld attack another land with wmd or any other weapons wld UN have the right to attack that land.
    But still beter wld be to prevent a wmd attack. It cld be easily prevented by a simple UN vow that those who ordered attack wld be hunted, killed, or captured.
    In case of an greatly disfunctional and evil empire like iraq, saddam wld have seen the writing on the wall: 6.7bn mad people wld be after him if he wld use wmd.
    In addition, and evil empire like iraq can be held together only thru oppression, torture, killings, etc.
    Which, of course, the empire did lot of. And obtained further 18mn very mad enemies.
    However, US wants self to use one day wmd and its leaders’ absolvency from that crime. Thus, saddam was not to be hunted, killed, or captured for alegeledly making wmd. That cannot do! It is clearly against US interests!
    To conclude, paxman 03=paxman 09. Or US1750=US=19=US 52.
    tnx

  2. Rehmat said on November 7th, 2009 at 11:05am #

    Hoodwinked? Does Paxman expect us to believe that he was an idiot and did not know that he was working for an Israeli propaganda out fit?

    BBC’s Jews
    http://rehmat1.wordpress.com/2009/01/26/bbcs-jews/

  3. mary said on November 7th, 2009 at 11:05am #

    He was only hoodwinked but the Iraqis were slaughtered by the hundreds of thousands and their country and culture destroyed.

    This arch pompous bore gets £1million p.a*. from the BBC licence fee payers alone, is a member of the British American Project (laughingly thought of as a CIA offshoot) and has a brother embedded in the British Foreign Office (Ambassador to Mexico) and a sister who works in the BBC as a radio producer. All good cogs in the machine.

    *2006

  4. Davy said on November 7th, 2009 at 1:24pm #

    How come 99.9% the news media, politicians, opinion-makers, analysts and experts were hoodwinked, while we common folks saw through all the propaganda immediately?

  5. kalidas said on November 7th, 2009 at 3:29pm #

    Because all the pseudo intellectual journalistic media politico types have whole heartedly embraced that newfangled “voluntary pro-semitism,” perhaps?

  6. bozh said on November 7th, 2009 at 3:56pm #

    Davy,
    pols, clergy, media knew what we had known but US constitution demands that US expands by any means- even use of nukes. So, it is the constitution, stupid!
    Everything US does is constitutional.
    Recall please indians, new mexico, nicaragua, cuba, panama, korea, vietnam, ww1, afpak, philippines, and another 150 invasions/skirmishes- all under one and the only constitution.
    It stays. Gov’ts come and go! Expect that constitution will demand at least another 50 wars. All in service of the ‘country’ and its ‘security’.
    Not, of course, for all americans; just some! tnx

  7. beverly said on November 7th, 2009 at 5:55pm #

    Paxman is just another example of the media as stenographer/propagandist for the government/corporate complex. Spare me the hoodwinked defense; it’s been offered up as an excuse by his journalism brethren from both sides of the political aisle.

    “It offers you the opportunity to meet all sorts of fascinating people… If you have a curious mind and you like words it’s a wonderful, wonderful occupation.” But the pay is not good, he warned: “The salaries are very poor… There is no job security.” Nevertheless: “It remains a fascinating way to spend your time.”

    Paxman considers journalism salaries to be poor? He hasn’t seen my paycheck – nor that of a great many other working stiffs out here. I’d swap out my monthly pittance for his in a heartbeat. A good example of the out of touch/don’t have a clue about reality disease that afflicts the media. The glamour, the proximity to power and celebrity, and the nice paydays (via paycheck or primo networking opportunities with power elites) – Paxman and his mainstream counterparts aren’t about derail their gravy train by engaging in actual journalism any time soon.

    The next time he’s out pontificating and posturing before an audience, let’s hope a shoe gets thrown his way.

  8. Annie Ladysmith said on November 8th, 2009 at 1:25am #

    Colin Powell was speaking the truth. He knew exactly what ‘weapons of mass destruction’ Iraq had because the US GOVERNMENT HAD SOLD SADDAM EVERY WEAPON OF MASS DESTRUCTION HE HAD IN HIS ARSENEL.

    That’s why the army was ordered to blow up every site in situ, because the boxes of plagues and chemical gases had the countries of origin plastered all over them. Iraq is the most toxic place on the planet. Why aren’t all the government enviromentalists wailing and gnashing their teeth about that?????

    Good journalists don’t get ‘hoodwinked’. We all know that the media of mass deception was bought a long time ago by the power-elite, ‘the enlightened ones’. ‘Hoodwinked’ my ass!

  9. john andrews said on November 9th, 2009 at 5:14am #

    Making ‘”mistakes” is one of the standard excuses whenever our rulers, supporters or propagandists get caught spouting outright lies. It leads nicely into the standard response that “lessons have been learnt” – so those mistakes won’t be made again.

    Yeah right.

    Mr Paxman has always appeared something of an intellectual lightweight to me, and I’ve never really understood why interviewees are allegedly terrified of him. It seems his reputation is founded more on his ability to be loud, rude and obnoxious (and therefore moderately entertaining) than any ability to be penetrating and lethal. The softly spoken, mild mannered Brian Walden was infinitely more dangerous.

    Paxman is simply doing what they’ll all be doing soon – blaming someone else for the “mistakes” they made – but the inescapable fact is that those “mistakes” are the result of gross incompetence or criminal deceit, neither of which justifies the continued employment of these individuals. As most of us know, if there was any real justice in the world most of our main decision-makers would all be tucked up behind bars.

  10. thomas vesely said on November 9th, 2009 at 7:10pm #

    the arrogance of the usa is only matched by its mendacity and incompetence.

  11. thomas vesely said on November 9th, 2009 at 11:32pm #

    approx. 4000 years ago the ancient greeks realised that ANY man that put up his hand to carry out civic duties had his own agenda.thus the very act of putting up his hand was an automatic disqualification.they imposed the duty on people who they considered competent.

  12. john andrews said on November 10th, 2009 at 5:53am #

    Thomas,

    There’s a saying which goes: anyone who wants to be a policeman should be automatically rejected.

    You could of course replace the word ‘policeman’ with quite a large range of alternatives: politicians, lawyers, teachers, soldiers…or anyone else who likes to wear a uniform…or anyone who wants to be a CEO some day…

  13. thomas vesely said on November 10th, 2009 at 6:34am #

    perhaps,due to their influence on us all,the only relevant example is that of the politician.?

  14. kalidas said on November 10th, 2009 at 9:43am #

    Why leave anyone out?

    “A society of cheaters and the cheated.”

  15. thomas vesely said on November 10th, 2009 at 2:17pm #

    kalidas,as a recent victim of the victorian bushfires,and recipient of much help from fellow citizens,i feel that it is not a society of cheaters.the only cheaters seem to be those with a calling to manage the affairs of others.the i’m giving something back brigade.

  16. kalidas said on November 10th, 2009 at 4:25pm #

    Wonderful to be aided by others who also aid themselves by doing neighborly work.

    However, this doesn’t mean you are not cheated every single day by the omnipresent others who lie, steal and cheat you out of … well … the list is pretty darn long.

    I reckon though, that it’s better to be the cheated than the cheater. And I reckon most feel that way.

  17. thomas vesely said on November 11th, 2009 at 4:53am #

    there was a time when the media was independent,now it follows the “party line” ,the commercial interest and all the bandwagons.

  18. thomas vesely said on December 8th, 2009 at 8:12pm #

    but i wish us all well,for millennia………………..