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The dirty bomber may be a bad guy, but we still need the hard evidence: don't believe a word about there being no war plans on President Bush's desk, the war on Saddam will happen

15 June 2002

All week I've been wrestling with my capacity for outrage. It never usually lets me down, but much as I push and shove there is hardly a flicker in the old beast. The press are erupting in a frenzy of indignation not seen since, well... not since the last frenzy of indignation. The spark for this group outrage is, ostensibly, a short telephone conversation about a short walk at a grand old lady's funeral. A government long-obsessed with appearances damns a media equally obsessed with appearances.

Now we are heading for a situation where every misdemeanour is to be treated as a Watergate, while the holding to account of politicians on serious issues of public policy becomes a tedious trudge to be avoided if at all possible. Which by a roundabout route brings me to the main point of this week's "outrage lite" offering. In the week when we obsessed about whether Labour had tried to spin Black Rod, the world's press were being furiously spun by the White House. And like the headline-hungry creatures we are, we jotted it all down gratefully and splashed the story on front pages and bulletins across the world. I even heard one headline proclaim that a man had been found in possession of a dirty bomb.

The story tells us much about the much more dangerous culture of spin developing alongside the "war on terror".

It may well be that Abdullah al-Muhajir was indeed about to launch a dirty bomb attack on the United States. He is undoubtedly an unpleasant piece of work who means to do harm to his country and its citizens. But bearing in mind that he was in custody for seven weeks before there was a public announcement of his arrest, we should have asked for and been given a lot more detail before swallowing the White House line. If Mr Muhajir has admitted that he was planning a dirty bomb attack, or if there is forensic evidence to link him to such plans, then we should be told. I have no doubt that Osama bin Laden would like to explode a radioactive device in Washington. I would go further and say that he has been actively planning such an outrage. But is Mr Muhajir the man? And what about the timing of the radioactive scare?

The benign interpretation is that the White House had solid information that an attack was imminent. Perhaps it was a case of more vague evidence. Even then after the failures in the lead-up to the attack on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, Mr Bush and his advisers could be forgiven for wanting to keep the American people in a perpetual state of alert. But there is an unhappy suspicion that news of the arrest was broken to help Mr Bush and his intelligence agencies escape damaging censure. Even the British security services were a little bemused by the dramatic announcement across the pond. It was all thought to be rather convenient for a Bush White House under siege over the mishandling by the FBI and CIA of pre-11 September intelligence about the danger of terrorist attacks. Convenient too with the White House and Pentagon still preparing for war against Saddam on the basis that he might pass weapons of mass destruction to groups like al-Qa'ida. Don't believe a word about there being no war plans on Mr Bush's desk. The war on Saddam will happen and the spin will be about weapons of mass destruction.

Just as Lyndon Johnson used the Gulf of Tonkin incident when the North Vietnamese were alleged to have fired on an American ship (they hadn't) to send American combat troops into Vietnam, so Mr Bush will argue that Saddam's links to international terrorism justify a war to drive him out. Again I don't doubt Saddam harbours malign intentions toward America, but please give us the evidence of his links to Osama bin Laden.

With every press conference George Bush looks less convincing. There he was again this week resorting to the "with us or against us" rhetoric of the immediate post-11 September period. That message has as much relevance for the press as it does the international community. To be "with us" is to act as loyal stenographers and cheerleaders for the White House; to be "against us" is to ask not so much difficult as obvious questions, such as "where is your evidence for this claim?"

Mr Bush and his spin merchants will be happy that the focus has shifted away from the pre-11 September period. After a long period of uncritical reporting, the American media seemed to have at last regained its courage. But with radioactive bombers on the loose it will look unpatriotic to start asking tough questions.

A few days into the story, and some people are beginning to wonder aloud about the Muhajir story, but too late I'm afraid. These days the only truth is that which is reported in the first 24 hours. The culture of round-the-clock rolling news and the demand for fresh sensation on the hour militate against critical journalism. Thus the assertion by John Ashcroft, the American Attorney General, is not couched in cautious terms by the headline writers, but given the status of unimpeachable fact.

When we find out that the politicians and military men have been spinning us inaccurate or incomplete information we feel outragd, but there is no sense in which journalists are willing to admit their part in the process. The most recent phase of the war in Afghanistan was characterised by much gung-ho blather from the international press. Seduced by the choppers and the rugged men at arms, everybody bought the spin about taking the fight to al-Qa'ida. When that fight turned out to be a pointless ramble through the mountains, the press turned on the military. But what did we expect them to do? The political and military briefers have a job to do: portray this is as the defining battle. They spin. We are supposed to deconstruct the spin. Had coverage been a little more critical and less cozy from the start everybody might have been spared embarrassment.

But hard questions make people unpopular. One BBC reporter famed for asking tough questions was told by a military briefer in Afghanistan: "I know your programme and I don't like you." As it should be, I would say. It is not a popularity contest. In the light of the timorousness of our American colleagues, you could argue that the current onslaught against Mr Blair and his spinners is to be applauded. If it were about issues of serious public policy I would say yes; if this past week had seen the Government under siege over the conduct of the war or the handling of the NHS, we might regard it as a good, even great period for journalism. But we missed the real story of spin this week. We missed it because we were all part of it.

Fergal Keane, BBC Special Correspondent
Published in the Independent © 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd

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