Book launch: Public Opinion, Legitimacy and Tony Blair’s War in Iraq

Crowd-image

I was very pleased to see a full house turn out for a special panel discussion event at LSE on 27 April marking the publication of my book Public Opinion, Legitimacy and Tony Blair’s War in Iraq (Routledge). In particular I am grateful to guest panellists Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman of King’s College London and Professor Juliet Kaarbo of Edinburgh University, and to my colleagues Professor Toby Dodge for chairing the event and Sophie Wise for organizing everything. A podcast is available here but I’ve also reproduced the text of my talk below. This isn’t quite what I said – turns out I’m not that good at reading – but it’s what I meant to say.

Public Opinion, Legitimacy and Tony Blair’s War in Iraq

Democracies are not supposed to fight unpopular wars, but Britain did just that in Iraq. Professional politicians are not supposed to court career disaster by ignoring what the public wants. Tony Blair did exactly that when he ordered British forces to help overthrow Saddam Hussein despite hostile opinion polls, critical media commentary and both the largest parliamentary rebellion and the largest street protests against any government, ever.

In this book, I ask how it was possible that Britain wound up fighting a war in Iraq that so many British people considered illegitimate. It’s a complicated question. I begin by asking why public opposition failed to prevent the invasion, and show how, from a foreign policy analysis perspective, it wasn’t that surprising. I then consider how the arguments ministers made in the pre-invasion period constituted the legitimacy deficit that followed. Finally, I look at the consequences and implications of what very much deserves to be known as Tony Blair’s war.

 

Public opinion

In the first part of the book, I present what I call a ‘holistic’ account of British public opinion towards the prospect of war in Iraq during the period between January 2002 and March 2003. My holistic approach combines traditional survey methods – opinion polls – with an original content analysis of 2,115 newspaper comment pieces, 333 parliamentary speeches, participant accounts and the treasure trove of detail and documentation released by the Chilcot Report.

I argue that a holistic approach better reflects the goals of a foreign policy analysis study. As a foreign policy analyst, I’m not really interested in what public opinion objectively was. I’m interested in how political elites contested and constructed a certain idea of public opinion, and how that affected decision-making.

I also argue that a holistic approach helps compensate for some of the shortcomings of survey methods. Echoing critical analyses by Herbert Blumer and Pierre Bourdieu, I argue that opinion polls unreasonably assume that every citizen has a prior view on every foreign policy question, that they weight every individual equally when in reality some are more influential than others and that they reflect the concerns of elites with the resources to commission polls. In short, I argue that the latent views of the passive mass matter only when they are likely to be activated across the board – like when a referendum is proposed. Otherwise, I argue it is the active, elite public that really counts.

I still use opinion polls – they both reflect and shape elite discourse, and do affect decision-makers too. Slide 1 shows aggregate poll results in the pre-invasion period. It makes clear that for most of the build up to war, most poll respondents opposed the use of force in Iraq.

Figure 2
Figure 1: Aggregate UK opinion poll data on the prospect of British military action in Iraq, January 2002-March 2003. Source: ICM/YouGov.

 

These results didn’t stop the war for two main reasons. Firstly because, in Douglas Foyle’s classic terms, Tony Blair was an “executor” – he thought public support was desirable, but not necessary. Ultimately, he thought it was his job to lead rather than follow public attitudes. Secondly, and relatedly, because Blair predicted that people would ‘rally round the flag’ if it actually came to war. It is well documented that support for war spikes once the fighting starts. People don’t want to look disloyal, and many resign themselves to the inevitable. Blair was right. In the final week before the invasion support went from 38% to 54%.

As Slide 2 shows, most British newspapers also predominantly opposed the invasion of Iraq.

Figure 3
Figure 2: Distribution of views expressed in newspaper commentary, by publication.

The picture was not actually as negative as this slide suggests, however. For one thing, it combines editorial lines and the views expressed by commentators. The Observer, for example, printed more anti-war than pro-war commentary, but its editors ultimately broke with their counterparts at its stablemate the Guardian, and supported the invasion. More crucially, the papers that most strongly supported the invasion sold more copies than those that opposed the invasion. During this period the strongly pro-war Sun, for example, sold fifteen times as many copies as the anti-war Independent, nine times as many as the Guardian and 1.7 times as many as the Mirror. On average pro-war publications sold 1.88 million copies and anti-war publications 1.24 million copies. Compounding this advantage still further was that the government’s most vocal supporters were the right-wing publications that traditionally opposed Labour governments, and its main critics were the left-wing publications that traditionally supported Labour.

Figure 4
Figure 3: Distribution of net average views expressed in parliamentary speeches, by party.

As slide 3 shows, finally, the government also enjoyed the support of Conservative Party MPs in the House of Commons, while the small Liberal Democrat party offered the most consistent opposition and the government’s own back-benchers also took a more anti-war than a pro-war stance. This meant the government did not need to worry about being punished by voters for ignoring their opposition – it would make no sense to switch from Labour to the Conservatives over Iraq given the Conservatives supported the war. Combined with the massive size of Labour’s 2001 election victory, it also ensured the government could survive back-bench rebellions fairly comfortably. Tony Blair then capitalized on this advantage still further by threatening to resign if MPs voted against him. Forced to choose between their most successful leader ever and Saddam Hussein, many Labour MPs backed Blair.

So from an FPA perspective it makes perfect sense that British domestic opposition failed to stop the war in Iraq. A holistic approach also allows us to consider how the direction and the intensity of public attitudes interacted. How much public attitudes matter depends on how much public actors care about the issues at stake. Slide 4 shows what share of the source material investigated during this study came from each month during the pre-invasion period.

Figure 6
Figure 4: Average salience of Iraq War across parliament, press and polls.

As we can see, there were three increasingly significant spikes in public interest, around March and April 2002, September 2002 and then early 2003. The first was driven by President Bush’s condemnation of Iraq as part of an ‘axis of evil’ during his first State of the Union speech in January, and Blair’s subsequent visit to his Texas ranch in April. The second was driven by widespread debate in Washington during August 2002 over the prospect of war in Iraq, by the Blair government’s failure to respond sufficiently quickly to media demands for more information and by the speculation that followed. The third was driven by the UN inspection process, the deployment of troops and ultimately the start of the war.

Figure 7
Figure 5: Salience-adjusted average monthly press, parliamentary and poll positions on the prospect of war in Iraq (1= entirely pro-war, -1= entirely anti-war).

Slide 5 combines data on the direction and intensity of attitudes in polls, parliament and the press. It shows spikes in opposition in March 2002, August 2002 and February 2003 followed by a rally effect across all three source types in March 2003. Crucially, what the holistic approach shows is that the first two spikes declined largely because the government released more information that calmed speculation. In April 2002 Blair made clear publicly that he supported confronting Saddam Hussein but that there was no immediate prospect of military action. In September 2002 Bush promised to work through the UN while Blair released the now-notorious ‘dossier’ on Iraqi WMD. In February 2003 Blair successfully blamed France for scuppering the UN process while the inevitability of war bred resignation among opponents.

This observation – that the government’s communications efforts changed few minds but lowered the salience of Iraq as an issue – then plays into the discussion of legitimacy in part 2.

Legitimacy

Tony Blair tried to argue his way to war in Iraq. He made set-piece speeches, held press conferences and published information dossiers. He took questions from MPs and live television audiences. He led five major House of Commons debates in addition to his weekly question time grilling. He even appeared on MTV. He claimed he wanted a full, open and well-informed public debate on the prospect of war in Iraq, and on the surface he appeared to act that way. Surface appearances can, however, mislead.

In the second part of the book, I discuss how both the content and the form of Blair’s arguments in the pre-invasion period constituted the legitimacy deficit surrounding the war. I define legitimacy as a discursive construct, as a product of public debate. Echoing debates amongst scholars of legitimacy between advocates of political definitions – in which legitimacy derives from public consensus – and normative definitions – in which legitimacy derives from abstract principles, I present two ideal types of communicative legitimacy. At the political end is a model derived from the social theory of Michel Foucault – though I claim no particular expertise in Foucault’s work. From this Foucauldian perspective, legitimacy reflects political consensus and political consensus reflects power. Legitimacy is, in other words, simply a product of power, lacking any distinct normative value. At the normative end, meanwhile, is a model derived from Jurgen Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action. From this Habermasian perspective, legitimacy derives not just from political consensus, but from a consensus achieved in the right way. For Habermasians, legitimacy emerges from a public debate based on truthfulness, openness to everyone looking to participate, and flexibility on the part of all involved.

I argue that the main driver of the legitimacy deficit surrounding the Iraq War was the clash between the Blair government’s explicitly and repeatedly professed commitment to seeking deliberative legitimacy in Habermasian terms, and the much more manipulative, Foucauldian reality of how it actually behaved. Though I find that ministers generally did not lie outright, they were often economical with the truth, especially when discussing the evidence underpinning their beliefs. Though Blair in particular engaged in a range of communication exercises, he still sought actively to control the timing of debates and who participated in them. Even members of the Cabinet found themselves shut out of key discussions, and Blair took certain fateful decisions alone. Finally, though some individuals like Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and (in particular) Attorney General Lord Goldsmith showed some willingness to revisit their views in the face of new evidence, most ministers and officials stuck resolutely to their established positions regardless of developments.

I further highlight a range of more specific shortcomings in the government’s communication campaign that further undermined its arguments. In particular, I talk about the claims that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction in violation of UN Security Council disarmament obligations that threatened British national security, that there were good grounds in international law for invading Iraq in March 2003, that overthrowing Saddam was the morally proper thing to do and that the Blair government possessed sufficient political authority to make that decision in the first place. I find each claim problematic – both in terms of Habermasian criteria, and more prosaically in terms of how persuasive they were.

Threat and WMD

By making clear pre-invasion statements about the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programme, the government both undermined its claim to legitimacy in Habermasian terms and set itself standards it later struggled to meet.
To begin with, the government got key judgements wrong. MI6 failed to spot that one of its sources based his description of Iraqi chemical weapons on the movie The Rock, starring Sean Connery and Nicholas Cage. It was slow to admit as much. More generally, the Joint Intelligence Committee fell victim – admittedly, in line with several allied intelligence communities – to groupthink. Having repeatedly underestimated Iraq’s WMD capacity in the past, the JIC interpreted new intelligence as the tip of the iceberg. It also failed to update its assessments as new information came in – for example, treating the fact that UN inspectors found no banned material as evidence that Iraq was successfully concealing an active WMD programme and not considering the possibility that there was no programme to hide.

More damagingly, ministers drew conclusions that went beyond what the JIC advised. Blair wrote in his foreword to the dossier that Iraq’s WMD posed a “current and serious threat to the UK national interest”. Chilcot concluded that Blair did indeed believe that, but that the JIC did not. Indeed, MI5 advised Blair that Iraq lacked the capacity to threaten Britain directly and that it had showed no sign of intent. Blair similarly wrote that “I believe the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt” that Iraq was developing WMD. Again, Chilcot concluded that Blair did indeed believe “beyond doubt”, but the JIC thought differently. Jack Straw summed up the issue. He told Chilcot that “all the little bits of information, however patchy and sporadic, all pointed in one direction”. The problem, however, was that – as the JIC advised both Blair and Straw – the information available was indeed “patchy and sporadic”. Indeed, Chilcot found that MI6 had no sources with first-hand knowledge of either Iraq’s capabilities or its intentions during this period. Blair described the evidence as “extensive, detailed and authoritative”. He seems genuinely to have believed it was. It was not, and he was in a position to know it was not.

Finally, the WMD dossier itself conflated the sort of neutral information exercise Blair claimed it represented – the sort of exercise required of a government seeking legitimacy in Habermasian terms – and more Foucauldian policy advocacy. Though Lord Hutton’s inquiry concluded there was nothing intrinsically wrong about the fact that the JIC consulted Alastair Campbell on the wording of the dossier, since the JIC didn’t accept phrasing that didn’t fit the intelligence, there is still a difference between publishing intelligence assessments – which are usually balanced, nuanced and uncertain – and publishing the dossier, which was clearly designed to make the case for war. One particular element that later proved controversial was the claim that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes of an order to do so. Journalists interpreted this as a claim that Iraq could attack Britain in that sort of timeframe. But the JIC’s assessment referred specifically to battlefield weapons, which don’t have that kind of range.

The government, in other words, was neither entirely truthful in presenting its case to the public, nor flexible in the face of contradictory information. It wasn’t that ministers lied about what they believed – it was that they believed things that were wrong, and failed to publicise how weak the evidence was on which their beliefs relied. To some extent, this worked. Though critics challenged the dossier, and it changed few minds – polls suggested just 4% of respondents shifted stance after the dossier came out, mostly anti-war to undecided – it did dampen damaging speculating over the summer of 2002. At the same time, however, the dossier established unrealistic criteria. Had the government said “we don’t really know what’s going on in Iraq, but it doesn’t look good” it would not necessarily have looked dishonest later on. But it would probably have faced much stronger opposition.

International law

 An independent commission famously described NATO’s intervention in Kosovo as “illegal, but legitimate”. Britain’s UN Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock later described the Iraq war as “legal, but of questionable legitimacy”. Chilcot refused to comment on the substantive question of whether or not the invasion of Iraq was in fact legal, but described the process by which ministers took legal advice as “far from satisfactory”. As Philippe Sands QC, a leading international lawyer, put it – “far from satisfactory” is “a career-ending phrase” in civil service language.

Part of the problem lay in the “deliberate ambiguities…necessary to get a consensus” on UN Security Council Resolution 1441 – as British ambassador to the US Christopher Meyer put it. Part of it lay also in Blair’s refusal to involve Attorney General Lord Goldsmith in negotiations surrounding the resolution, fearing either that involving him would lead to leaks, or that he would set legal standards impossible to reconcile with the political realities. As a result, Chilcot concluded that the British government voted for SCR 1441 despite the fact it “didn’t really know what it was voting for”. It took Straw and Blair until a week before the invasion to agree an interpretation. Blair clearly believed Iraq would quickly be caught refusing to co-operate with UN weapons inspectors. When that did not happen, he had to disparage an inspection process he worked hard to establish, and then search for ‘smoking guns’ he knew were unlikely to be found.

More damaging, still, was the fact that Blair believed both that Britain should uphold international law and that it was morally proper for powerful states to use force to overthrow regimes, like that in Iraq, that abused their own people. Blair believed in regime change, and he believed his own moral judgement was superior to that of those who criticised him – even the Pope himself. He never acknowledged, let alone resolved, the clash between what international law actually allowed and what he personally believed it should allow. That meant he had to downplay his strong commitment to regime change because it clashed with his equally strong commitment to acting within the law. This led to contradictions – he railed against the injustice of leaving Saddam Hussein in power and promised to do just that if Saddam complied with UN inspections. He described his “enthusiasm” for regime change and called it a “myth” that he sought it in Iraq. Blair was not truthful, in that he downplayed how strongly he believed in regime change, and failed to discuss the clash between his legal and moral positions. He was not open, in that he tried to exclude the Attorney General from policy discussions. He was not flexible, given he repeatedly rejected legal advice that did not match what he felt he could negotiate in Washington and New York, and ignored moral counsel that contradicted what he personally thought. No wonder his Chief of Staff Jonathan Powell accused him of having a “messiah complex”.

 Freedom Fries

 The claim that France prevented agreement on a ‘second’ UN Security Council Resolution failed all three Habermasian criteria but, interestingly, did not lead to punishment after the invasion. It was a rare example of how normative and political legitimacy can play out differently.

Then International Development Secretary Clare Short later described this claim as “one of the big deceits” of the entire pre-war period. As Ambassador Greenstock told Chilcot, Britain never secured the minimum nine votes needed to pass the ‘second’ resolution – so France’s threat to veto it was not decisive. As Blair told Bush in a private letter on 11 March 2003, however, French President Chirac’s clear determination to take a stand did “provide some cover” for Britain’s failure at the UN. Ministers and officials actively blamed France and encouraged press and parliamentary critics who echoed that blame. They continued despite frantic French efforts to clarify Chirac’s 9 March statement that “whatever the circumstances, France will vote no”. When French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told Jack Straw that Chirac was still open to compromise, Straw ignored him and insisted that he “read the comments differently” – as if his interpretation of French foreign policy carried more weight than that of the French foreign minister. British ambassador to Paris Sir John Holmes wrote to London that “our position can hardly surprise the French, nor the fact that we are using Chirac’s words against him…he did say them, even if he may not have meant to express quite what we have chosen to interpret”.

No-one in Britain suggested taking France’s position – that military action might yet be necessary, but that it was not justified yet – seriously. That betrayed a lack of flexibility. Ministers maintained that France had closed off all room for compromise, despite French officials insisting the contrary. That reflected a lack of truthfulness. Finally, the government tolerated suggestions – mostly from public commentators – that France did not really deserve to have a say – that its objections were unwarranted in some way. Blair’s insistence that he could legitimately ignore an “unreasonable” veto at the Security Council underpinned this stance. This showed a lack of openness. Despite these shortcomings, the argument worked. YouGov found 70% of British voters rejected Chirac’s stance. Labour MP and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Donald Anderson attacked France. A series of Sun editorials compared Chirac to “a cheap tart” and a “worm”, contrasting his “arrogance and greed” with Blair’s “highest moral principles”.

Conclusions

 On 28 July 2002 Blair wrote to Bush “I will be with you, whatever”. Cabinet neither discussed nor even knew about this letter. In public, Blair maintained “no decisions have been taken”. At the end of October he formally offered British ground troops to the US for planning purposes. In mid-January 2003 he privately gave up on the UN inspection process and approved invasion plans. Again, Cabinet was not told. It is true that the government faced widespread and at times unreasonable press hostility. It is true that some Cabinet ministers leaked everything they heard about Iraq to the press at the earliest opportunity. It is true that some parts of the government’s argument could not have survived a full, frank, open and flexible public debate.

But the Blair government, and Tony Blair in particular, repeatedly claimed they sought a proper public deliberation. In making that claim, then failing so dramatically to meet it, they created the conditions for the legitimacy deficit that followed. At the same time they made inconsistent, irreconcilable and incorrect arguments that became impossible criteria for success.

That the Stop the War movement failed to stop the war made a good deal of sense. That it nevertheless wound up widely regarded as illegitimate made sense, too. Ultimately the approach the government took proved neither properly deliberative nor persuasive.

What we learn from all this is simple. How governments talk about foreign policy matters. It influences public debate, though more by raising and lowering the salience of an issue than by persuading people to adopt a different view. It determines both the political and the normative legitimacy of a decision. It establishes criteria for success. The clash between deliberation and persuasion in the Blair government’s case for war in Iraq explains a good part of the legitimacy deficit surrounding it. Shortcomings in the specific arguments made explain the bulk of the rest. It would perhaps have been better not to have talked so much after all.

The significance of parliament’s vote to intervene militarily in Iraq

Some more from me on the significance of Parliament’s vote in favour of involvement in Western military action against ISIL in Iraq.

http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/the-significance-of-parliaments-vote-on-iraq/

See also: citation in the New York Times.

PS: I was on TV again, too:

It’s all getting a bit meta

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I had an unusual experience yesterday, especially for an academic interested in how newspapers use sources to support stories about foreign policy. I was called by a journalist and asked to comment on a story about foreign policy. If you take a look at page 4 of today’s Independent, there I am. I’m a news source.

The journalist, political correspondent James Cusick, emailed me yesterday afternoon looking to talk about US views on the release of original documents underpinning the Chilcot Report, and particularly the “200 Cabinet-level discussions, 25 notes from Mr Blair to President Bush and more than 130 records of conversations between either Mr Blair or Mr Brown and President Bush” that Sir John Chilcot mentioned in his letter to the Prime Minister of 4 November. He had a source (or sources) within the Cabinet Office that said US State Department officials were privately asking that the latter two categories of document be kept classified. Chilcot has always said that he would work within the bounds set out by the Cabinet Office, and the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood remains the ultimate arbiter of what can and cannot be released. A decent wedge of material is already in the public domain, but Sir Jeremy has previously insisted that these particular documents be kept private, in part to avoid damaging the convention that governments keep private communications between leaders private.

Sir John isn’t actually challenging this point, despite what some media coverage has suggested. It’s also important to remember that he has actually seen this material. The unresolved question is how he uses it in his report. The US is very tetchy about secret documents, and tends to take the view that once something is classified it should stay that way. That is why it responded angrily to Wikileaks despite the fact that, in the end, there was little particularly sensitive material released.

The Cabinet Office knows the US position. It’s a position the UK broadly shares, and one most states would recognise and follow. But the government has committed to transparency, hoping Chilcot will finally draw a line under Iraq. So Sir Jeremy and his colleagues face a judgement call. How much material can they release before the Americans get upset, and how upset can the Americans get before there are negative consequences for the special relationship? It’s incredibly difficult to predict, and it’s obviously taking them a long time to strike a balance they feel they can defend.

Having returned to my office after teaching I called James Cusick and talked to him for about 20 minutes. It was an interesting experience. We have different roles in relation to this sort of issue. His role is to be as questioning and critical as possible. You won’t find anything out as a journalist if you don’t push the envelope. Academics can afford to be more circumspect. So we naturally have different interpretations of what is going on here. I think the story here is the time delay – which Chilcot is obviously finding frustrating – rather than the level of US involvement or otherwise.

I also don’t think there is anything particularly to be gained by having the documents themselves in the public arena. Chilcot has more than enough evidence to conclude that Blair decided in early 2002 to support the US in confronting Iraq, knowing that would probably mean military action. He has more than enough evidence to conclude that Blair was at least economical with the truth when it came to explaining his position to the public, to parliament, and to the Cabinet. He has more than enough evidence to conclude that the decision-making process was riddled with hubris and groupthink (see the Butler Report on how groupthink affected the interpretation of intelligence). So I’m quite relaxed. I expect the remaining issues will eventually be agreed, the report will emerge, and it will criticise the Blair government, though it will stop short of calling for Blair to be shipped off to The Hague.

Cusick can’t be that circumspect. He needs a headline – for the front page as it turned out – and he needs an angle, to keep readers once they’ve been drawn in. So he has to frame the delay in terms of US interference. What he wanted from me was an independent opinion on whether there was anything surprising about the US taking an anti-disclosure position. He was hoping I would agree with him that the answer is no – and he said he’d looked at my thesis before getting in touch, which is interesting in itself since I arguably take a fairly mild line on Blair-era ‘spin’. As it turned out, I did agree, so was willing to be quoted as I am in the article. He didn’t include my more qualified views about the significance of the documentation not being released, because it didn’t fit his line. That’s how the process works.

Speaking to the media is part of my job. Academics are supposed to generate new knowledge, and then share it – through publications and through teaching, of course, but also through engaging with public debate. That’s why I have an LSE experts profile, though unhelpfully it usually leads to queries about domestic politics in Libya, Syria, or Iraq, about which I know relatively little (for a foreign policy analyst). Journalists don’t have much time to research their stories. They need authoritative sources. Academics are authoritative because they are perceived as both independent and expert. They’re also boring, for the same reason, which is why I’m cited at the end of the article. Did I really add anything in objective terms? I’m not sure. The article was essentially written by the time I spoke to its author. I didn’t change his views on anything. But hopefully I lent some credibility to what I think is a valid point – the US thinks in terms of categories of document, rather than contents. If the State Department has asked for this  material to be kept confidential, it’s because it’s the sort of material that is usually kept confidential, not because it says anything dramatic.

Update 17:06

Following on from my appearance in the Independent, I got a call from Al-Jazeera asking if I’d come in and  speak to them in the studio about the same issue, as part of their News Hour programme. I think I answered about four questions in a 60-second slot, and it all seemed to go well. So today has been a day of firsts for me!

Whitewashing Chilcot

It has been ten years since the death of Dr David Kelly, yet parts of the press continue to re-hash the story of his sad demise. The top story on The Guardian website yesterday considered in a (relatively) balanced fashion the continued calls from groups and individuals to reopen the question of how exactly he came to be found dead in an Oxfordshire wood. Lord Hutton concluded his inquiry into that question in January 2004. Conspiracy theories still abound, and find publishers. Yet Hutton concluded on the basis of a wide range of evidence that the weapons inspector killed himself, distraught at the damage done to his career and reputation by the revelation that he spoke to BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan, without permission, about the government’s dossier on Iraq’s WMD.

The latest re-opening of the David Kelly case is sad in itself. It is also troubling. It is a symptom of a broader insistence in the British press on rejecting any and every ‘official’ account of the war in Iraq.  I was disappointed at the end of May to see Jon Snow of Channel 4 tweet a link to an article by Peter Oborne in the Telegraph that sniffed a “whiff of suspicion” over the Chilcot Inquiry because of its failure to report. Quoting former Foreign Secretary Lord Owen, who is not involved in the Inquiry, Oborne argued that the delay amounted to a “conspiracy of silence”. Nonsense. Nothing in his article met the definition of research. None of his sources was directly involved in the Inquiry. It was pure speculation, made to look like real news by citing an Important Person. Delay is not automatically an indication of dishonesty. Unfortunately Oborne was simply repeating now familiar tropes dating back to the invasion in 2003. Innuendo substitutes for information and speculation for analysis. Both the Hutton and Butler reports were tarred with the label “whitewash” in the press, on both occasions before the journalists responsible could possibly have read their contents.

We don’t yet know what the Chilcot Report will say. We do know that elements of the press will call it a whitewash regardless of what it says. The “whitewash” story has mileage. It plays into popular narratives of mistrust in New Labour ‘spin’, particularly over Iraq. It will be recycled again. What is disappointing is that some in the press have begun so early to prime their audiences for more of the same. Chilcot has done a huge amount of research. He has heard from every major player in the Iraq drama. Vast amounts of documentation has been made available for public review. I have read most of it. The report will criticise the Blair government, of course it will. It won’t label Blair a liar or a war criminal, because the labels simply wouldn’t stick, given the evidence available. So it will be derided.

Lord Hennessey points out [subscription needed] that Butler’s report included some of the harshest criticism ever levelled at a sitting government. Blair failed to use Cabinet committees, to consult ministers and officials, to ensure advice reached those who needed it, and to support formal discussions with proper papers. Had he followed long-established practices, he might have made better decisions. All this is true and Chilcot will echo it. But it doesn’t have the same hook as accusing him of “whitewash”. So that, sadly, is what parts of the press will do. In the process they will fulfil the prediction Blair made in his memoir some years ago.

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