Responsibility

by John Quiggin on May 17, 2004

It’s striking to observe that the Daily Mirror has more stringent standards of personal responsibility than the Blair government (or, for that matter, any government in the Coalition of the Willing).

To spell this out, Mirror Editor Piers Morgan was sacked after he published photos, purporting to show torture of Iraqis by British troops, that turned out to be fakes. There’s no suggestion, as far as I know, that Morgan was complicit in the fraud, but obviously his decision to accept them was influenced by his anti-war stand.

In other words, Morgan’s position is exactly the same as that of Blair and Hoon in relation to the various “dodgy dossiers”, of Powell and Bush in relation to Powell’s UN speech and of Howard and Downer in Australia. As far as I know, no-one in any country has resigned or been sacked over this, and no-one senior has resigned or been sacked over Abu Ghraib.

The earlier resignation of BBC Director General Greg Dyke reflects a standard of responsibility unimaginable for politicians nowadays, though entirely consistent with the alleged conventions of the Westminster system and “the buck stops here”. Dyke resigned because one of his employees had made a misjudgement, and he took responsibility.

{ 32 comments }

1

Nasi Lemak 05.18.04 at 12:06 am

I’m not sure I follow any part of this. Are you saying that the “dodgy dossiers” included fake photographs? (“exactly the same”) Or are you saying the governments faked the Abu Ghraib photos?

Are you saying the Mirror board sacked Morgan entirely on principle? (what about that watch-it-plummet Mirror circulation, then? the fake photos are a convenient moment, nothing more.)

Are you saying Greg Dyke resigned on principle? (er, no. Dyke demanded a vote of confidence from the BBC governors, to pursue a strategy of countering Hutton, and failed to get it. Or something very much along those lines.)

No disagreement that people ought to resign, or be sacked, at a fairly senior level over AG and over the dodgy dossiers. But presumably your examples are supposed to do more than just assert this and I’m puzzled what.

2

Matthew McGrattan 05.18.04 at 12:42 am

I presume the analogy John is trying to make is this:

In the campaign leading up to the war on Iraq, Blair, Hoon, Straw and the rest claimed that they had incontrovertible evidence that Saddam Hussein was in posession of weapons of mass destruction. Evidence was produced which has since turned out to be either false or, at best, equivocal.

Nevertheless, all of the above have held on to their jobs by claiming that they were sincere in their belief that the evidence was what they said it was at the time of its presentation. All have claimed the “sincere but in error” defence since, or had that defence made in their name

Morgan is in almost exactly the same situation. His newspaper published photographs that he claimed were incontrovertible evidence of abuse of Iraqi detainees by British troops in southern Iraq. These photographs have since been shown to be fakes and he and his defenders have made exactly the same “sincere but in error” defence.

The parallels seem pretty clear.

In addition, in both cases, a pretty strong case can be made for the view that the evidence in both situations was massively weaker than it ought to have been and that both BlairHoonStraw and Morgan ought to have been more sceptical and held the evidence to higher standards of proof.

Furthermore, in both cases, it has been claimed, the protagonists were to easily prepared to accept the evidence because the evidence supported what they already believed to be the case — that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and that systematic or at least widespread abuse of detainees was taking place.

Where’s the difficulty in seeing the parallels?

[As a side-note, in the Morgan case the pictures were pretty unconvincing from the start. From the point of view of someone, i.e. me, who has an amateurish interest in photography it seemed pretty surpising that alleged snapshots taken in the back of a darkened lorry ought to look like they were taken by Helmut Newton with a Rolleiflex and several hundred watts of carefully positioned lighting. Snapshots taken in that kind of a context — either on a 35mm point and shoot or a consumer grade digital camera — don’t usually blow up to produce flawlessly sharp black and white prints of the size floating about on the television discussions following their publication.]

3

Anthony 05.18.04 at 1:33 am

The Mirror published fake photographs as the truth and defended them as being indicative of the reality. Establishing the “truth” with a lie.

The government published two dossiers, neither were dodgy except with the use of a retrospectoscope. Even the one that used parts of a Phd thesis was not factually incorrect, but just failed to cite the reference. Plagiarism may not be acceptable in coursework at University, but it does not invalidate the material quoted.

If the dossiers had included photoshopped and staged pictures of alleged torture by Saddam Hussain’s regime, later found to be fake, but then was defended as indicative of the reality in Iraq by Blair, you might have a point.

Dyke ended up in the position he was in because of a feud with Blair. He did not want to go either, so spare me the taking responsibility rubbish.

Blair did not fiddle with the dossiers, so did not have to resign. End of story.

If you know otherwise, then post the evidence that showed he did.

4

Brian Weatherson 05.18.04 at 3:10 am

I’ll leave the finding the false statements by British politicians to others, but here’s a “nice long list”:http://www.lunaville.org/WMD/billmon.aspx of very dubious statements about WMDs by American officials, most of whom still have their jobs.

I took John’s point to be the quite sensible one that this isn’t a criminal trial, and different standards apply. When you’re in charge of a shooting war, you have to get it right. Intending to get it right, or not intending to deceive, or not “lying” (if that requires intent to deceive) is insufficient. If you start a war based on false information, you’re not doing you’re job and you should resign. That seems like the weakest principle of personal responsibility imaginable, but some conservatives it seems don’t believe in personal responsibility when it applies to them.

5

Jack 05.18.04 at 3:18 am

Antony, you spare me. The dossiers suggested that we could be attacked with weapons of mass destruction within 40 minutes and are not dodgy? Moreover Blair’s office certainly had feedback into the presentation of these facts and has now promoted the man responsible for producing it, the Piers Morgan figure in this parallel.

Don’t any lawyers read this? The Hutton enquiry judged the BBC on whether there was any sense in which a single comment made by Andrew Gilligan was even a little exagerated and its complaints procedure and whether John Scarlet approved the final dossier. Those are completely different standards and far more demanding of the BBC than the government.

Publish claims that Iraq can attack us with WMDs within 40 minutes from a single source against the advice of your foremost expert and get it wrong, consequences nil even if you did go to war.

Make a similar mistake in a red top newspaper? (Except for the going to war bit) Pay with your career.

For heaven’s sake the government complained that Gilligan had only a single source and called Dr. Kelly a senior intelligence source which is apparently code for management rather than specialist. As for the Yellow Cake affair which also stemmed from British Intelligence…

6

Jack 05.18.04 at 3:26 am

Oh, and if Greg Dyke is not a good enough example you always have Gavyn Davies. I believe Lord Hutton did not expect any resignations from the BBC and did not expect his inquiry, with terms set by the main, and legally trained, investigatees to be taken as a kangaroo court to try the BBC. (For what? Temerity?)

In any case, the honorability or otherwise of Greg Dyke is beside the point, the system controlling the BBC called some people to account for failure to meet a standard that is higher than that we demand of the intelligence services even though we are prepared to go to war on the word of the latter.

Ministerial responsibility is clearly dead.

7

Sean 05.18.04 at 6:08 am

Great post! I guess you can add a post-graduate degrees in hindsight to the equally worthwhile ones you currently possess. Keep up the good work – the barbarians need all the help they can get!

8

Sean 05.18.04 at 6:15 am

Great post! You are hereby awarded another post-graduate degree in hindsight to add to the equally worthless ones you might already possess (I’m guessing you are more a metaphysician than a real physicist). Keep up the great work for the barbarians – they need all the help they can get before installing you as master of the universe (albeit a 7th century manifestation). Still, it’s much better than anything your talents have got you in today’s world – no?

9

John Quiggin 05.18.04 at 6:17 am

Nice shot on hindsight, Sean. Except that I pointed out the weakness of Powell’s UN speech at the time it was delivered.

And it’s good to have you remind us that any criticism of our leaders is giving aid and comfort to the enemy – democracy is safe with defenders like you.

10

dsquared 05.18.04 at 6:59 am

I’ve noted on a couple of occasions that if you had tried to float a company on the London Stock Exchange on the basis of a prospectus as weak and poorly established as the prospectus for war, you would quite possibly have gone to jail and very probably been banned from the Exchange for life. But I think John’s analogy has a bit more punch.

11

dan 05.18.04 at 7:28 am

Matthew McGrattan asked: “Where’s the difficulty in seeing the parallels?”

Well, one difficulty comes immediately to mind: John Guiggin has apparently just–and I’m sure innocently–equated assuming the worst about the British military with assuming the worst about the monstrous regime of Saddam Hussein.

That apparently easily overlooked epistemic distinction, after all, is all that really distinguishes the gleefully libelous assumptions of the Daily Mirror from the arguably prudential assumptions of the British Government.

The uncomfortable timing of Guiggen’s reprise of last year’s Where’s Waldo? WMD oratorios is also worth mentioning. Not least because Coalition troops are at this very glib moment confronting the ugly reality of elusive WMD worries.

Rather than, say, straining to score political points by them from the redoubt of a comfortable chair.

12

Andrew Brown 05.18.04 at 7:44 am

The real difference is surely that Trinity Mirror’s American shareholders wanted Morgan to go; Blair’s American shareholders want him to stay.

With that said, I think it would have monstrous if Morgan stayed. I am really shocked that he should be in line for a payout of a million pounds. Spotting pictures like that as fairly obviously fake is one of the basic skills of tablo9id editing.

13

nick 05.18.04 at 7:59 am

Not least because Coalition troops are at this very glib moment confronting the ugly reality of elusive WMD worries.

One has to laugh. Shells from unguarded Iran-Iraq War-era ammo dumps (i.e. US supporting Saddam-era) do not an ongoing programme of WMD production make. And given the number of false alarms reported rabidly by Fox News and its brothers-in-arms, how about waiting a couple of days to see whether further tests on these particular shells prove to be as conclusive as those in the past?

Because the ‘ugly reality of elusive WMD worries’ (i.e. decade-old binary shells) seems to be much prettier than the ugly reality of not-that-elusive-at-all high-explosive shells used in suicide car-bombings, as the diminishing membership of the Iraqi Governing Council will gladly attest.

14

dan 05.18.04 at 8:18 am

NICK

I foolishly wrote “glib.”

Your jocular “One has to laugh”, attitude about the plight of Coalition troops in Irag at this (for most of us) hair-raisingly uncertain WMD moment is so much more callous than I’d imagined when I typed that word.

My mistake.

15

MFB 05.18.04 at 10:28 am

Dan, I think that Nick’s amusement is not at the situation of American occupation forces in Iraq, but at you.

That is, he finds it funny that you think that one ineffectual, time-expired nerve-gas explosion which did not harm or kill anyone, is more important than armed uprisings, ambushes and suicide bombings killing hundreds of people.

I would prefer to weep, myself, but in any event it’s pretty clear that your interest in the well-being of Iraqis or American troops is insignificant as compared with your interest in transmitting conservative propaganda.

16

MFB 05.18.04 at 10:30 am

Dan, I think that Nick’s amusement is not at the situation of American occupation forces in Iraq, but at you.

That is, he finds it funny that you think that one ineffectual, time-expired nerve-gas explosion which did not harm or kill anyone, is more important than armed uprisings, ambushes and suicide bombings killing hundreds of people.

I would prefer to weep, myself, but in any event it’s pretty clear that your interest in the well-being of Iraqis or American troops is insignificant as compared with your interest in transmitting conservative propaganda.

17

dsquared 05.18.04 at 10:36 am

John Guiggin has apparently just—and I’m sure innocently—equated assuming the worst about the British military with assuming the worst about the monstrous regime of Saddam Hussein.

Yeh, but you’ve just equated printing a photograph with starting a war, and I’m not at all sure you were doing it innocently.

18

nick 05.18.04 at 1:40 pm

Thanks, mfb: you managed a piece of straightforward reading that dan did not.

dan: like I suggested, it’s a bit ridiculous of you to have a Eureka moment over the supposed ‘ugly reality’ of those two shells, when, had said shells been like 99.9% of those used in roadside bombs since the occupation began, they’d have led to the twisted-metal and broken-bodied reality that results from the detonation of high explosives. A plight that truly sickens me.

And had Ezzedine Salim been confronted by your ‘ugly reality’, the result would have been a somewhat embarrassed suicide bomber heading to Abu Ghraib, for whom I wouldn’t have shed many tears.

19

Matthew 05.18.04 at 3:03 pm

Our politicians constantly remind us the great responsibilities that their position entails, and make liberal use of the associated powers, but they have totally failed to assume the counterpart of these responsibilities, as you point out.
Responsibility is SO last century.

20

dan 05.18.04 at 6:34 pm

MFB wrote: “it’s pretty clear that your interest in the well-being of Iraqis or American troops is insignificant as compared with your interest in transmitting conservative propaganda.”

That was particularly uncharitable, MFB. You could, after all, have entertained the possibility that anyone still worrying about WMDs being unleashed against Coalition troops in Iraq (whether amateurishly or not) is simply misinformed or alarmist.

Instead you instantly assumed I was more interested in transmitting “conservative propaganda” than I was about the lives of my own friends and relatives deployed in Iraq. That’s unfortunate. Especially since at no point did I make light or confess wanting to “laugh” about the danger of conventional I.E.D.s.

As for the explanation that Nick was merely making fun of my (apparently sidesplitting) worries about WMDs being unleashed against Coalition troops, as opposed to making fun of WMDs actually being unleashed against Coalition troops, I’m afraid I feel only marginally better. But I appreciate the thought.

NICK: if you can’t imagine any difference in the degree of harm unleashed by WMDs, versus the harm unleashed by conventional explosives (as horrible and craven as they are), then I honestly don’t know how to persuade you that there is a difference–and therefore a legitimate reason to fear the former even more than the latter.

dsquared: I did indeed compare “printing a photograph” libeling British troops with “starting a war”–with the monstrous regime of Saddam Hussein.

As did John Guiggin, in case you’ve forgotten.

We may certainly disagree about the wisdom of initiating that war, but don’t, in your eagerness to reaffirm your aged opposition to its initiation, entirely overlook the point of my original comment–which was that the ominous assumptions of the Daily Mirror and the British Government were employed against very different objects.

Equating those two objects, after all, does a deep disservice to one of them.

21

armando 05.18.04 at 8:15 pm

So what you are saying Dan is that the British Government, due to the seriousness of the war and WMD, should be held to a much lower standard of account than the Daily Mirror? This involves something like a precautionary principle, I suppose. It is better to kill tens of thousands of Iraqis than even take a smallest risk that there might be WMDs in Iraq?

And the more serious the rhetorical threat, the less acceptable it is to hold governments to account for their innacuracies (never mind the near treasonous suggestion that they may be lying)?

22

dan 05.18.04 at 8:52 pm

Armando,

Since neither I, nor the “international community” (including the UN and those nations which objected to removing Saddam Hussein’s monstrous and deceptive regime by force), would agree with you that the threat Saddam Hussein’s regime represented should be described as “the smallest risk” or a “rhetorical threat,” your characterization of my comments is inaccurate.

It’s exactly what and who the Daily Mirror and the British Government were assuming the worst about that’s at issue here.

If you believe that an infamous mass murderer and pathological liar should rightly be given the very same benefit of the doubt as the British military–if you see no substantive difference between those two objects of suspicion–you’ll naturally concur with John Guiggen’s comparison between the two.

If you don’t, you won’t.

None of the above, by the way, has anything whatsoever to do with demanding that elected governments are held accountable for their actions.

That’s what elections are for.

There’s no such check against libelous journalists. Only the marketplace and the civil law courts offer any remedy for the actions of newspapers like the Daily Mail.

Which is why recognizing precisely who and what they’ve chosen to assume the worst about is so important.

23

John Quiggin 05.18.04 at 11:24 pm

dan, the doctrine that governments should do as they please, subject only to the constraints posed by election, is a dangerous one. It’s particularly and glaringly dangerous when it comes to misleading the public and Parliament, which is why there have traditionally been rules about this sort of thing. After all, if you can lie and get away with it (or administer up a system in which you are served up with convenient, but false, information ) the electoral check is subverted.

On a side issue, I find it difficult to treat entirely seriously the arguments of someone who doesn’t bother to spell my name correctly, when it’s printed in front of them

24

Sean 05.18.04 at 11:51 pm

I still have a problem with your equating government intelligence dossiers and newspaper photographs. As soon as the photos came out they were recognised as false – no such thing happened with the dossiers. Even the axis of weasels pretty much agreed that they were an accurate account of what was known. If any government official needs to resign it’s Chirac for promising to veto a second enabling resolution UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES!

25

armando 05.19.04 at 12:39 am

Dan. We can disagree about the threat posed by Saddam (and the international perception of it), but the implication of your argument seems to be that the higher the stakes, the less accountable people should be. Which seems…unconvincing.

As for this wierd invocation of moral equivalence, I’m afraid that you’ve lost me. Some people tell untruths. It is even possible for someone to tell an untruth without being as evil as Saddam Hussein. Its a subtle point, I realise, that a lie told by a good man is still a lie.

I might give the good man the benefit of the doubt, sure, but I don’t judge whether something is true by simply looking at the characters of the people involved. And I think both cases have easily passed the stage where we are just giving the benefit of the doubt.

26

dan 05.19.04 at 2:29 am

Armando

We’ll apparently have to agree to disagree about more than one thing if you truly see no difference between assuming the worst about tyrants like Saddam Hussein and assuming the worst about the British military.

In my case, I think it’s incumbent upon governments to assume the worst about the former, and disreputable for newspapers to assume the worst about the latter.

Weird it may be, but there you go.

27

dan 05.19.04 at 2:32 am

John Quiggin wrote: “dan, the doctrine that governments should do as they please, subject only to the constraints posed by election, is a dangerous one.”

Absolutely. And I certainly didn’t mean to suggest otherwise. I’d assumed we’d been discussing the particular (and difficult to prosecute) case of misleading statements uttered by governments, rather than governments generally doing “as they please.”

(In the case of speech, as I’m sure you’d agree, prosecuting elected officials based on dubious or exaggerated statements they’ve made would end with the world’s entire elected political class in the dock.)

After all, if you can lie and get away with it (or administer up a system in which you are served up with convenient, but false, information) the electoral check is subverted.

Since politicians of whatever party “lie and get away with it” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 356 days a year, on any number of subjects–from fudging economic statistics to engaging in rabid partisan hyperbole–I’m assuming you meant only “lie and get away with it” regarding something as exceptionally serious as, say, war.

And I couldn’t agree more. If anyone ever provides credible–by which I mean credible to the disinterested, as well as the impassioned–evidence that any Coalition government actively lied about its reasons for invading Iraq, I’d be among those clamoring for that government’s head.

Such damning evidence hasn’t been provided, however. (As of today, at any rate.)

What has been provided is evidence that many governments (in and out of the Coalition) assumed the worst of the monstrous regime of Saddam Hussein, and, further, that at least one of those assumptions has since been proved incorrect.

On a side issue, I find it difficult to treat entirely seriously the arguments of someone who doesn’t bother to spell my name correctly, when it’s printed in front of them

I’m sorry that I mispelled your name, John. I’m even sorrier now that I recognize just how debilitating someone mispelling your name is to your rational faculty.

I’ll try not to make things difficult for you in future.

28

armando 05.19.04 at 10:51 am

Dan, sure.

The claim was made before the war that Saddam posed a great threat in terms of WMD: Blair assured us that the evidence to support this claim was strong. Somehow, to see this as flawed and, in my view, either incompetent or deliberately misleading is to think the worst of the Blair. By this rubric, I can never criticise the government, because even when they are clearly mistaken, one can always say that Saddam was worse.

But perhaps you are right. The position that coalition troops engage in torture and Saddam didn’t have WMDs is so loony, barking and anti-american that we should dismiss anyone who even suggests it.

29

nick 05.19.04 at 1:48 pm

if you can’t imagine any difference in the degree of harm unleashed by WMDs, versus the harm unleashed by conventional explosives (as horrible and craven as they are), then I honestly don’t know how to persuade you that there is a difference—and therefore a legitimate reason to fear the former even more than the latter.

You really are very very dense, aren’t you?

In the simplest terms:

Degree of harm actually unleashed by ‘WMDs’ in Iraq since last April: not all that much.

Degree of harm actually unleashed by conventional weaponry in Iraq: a fuckload.

I don’t need to imagine that, since it’s all factual.

You appear to be projecting Day After Tomorrow-style consequences on the figurative equivalent of a light shower in June. And that’s why you’re ridiculous. What next? Are you going to say ‘But what… what if that artillery shell had been a nuclear warhead? What then?’ Get a fucking grip.

[To elaborate: the Hutton hearings pointed out the limited range and effectiveness of ‘battlefield’ chemical weapons. It’s not a new thing to point out the inadequacy of the collective term ‘WMDs’ when it covers things as disparate as mustard gas and nuclear warheads, meaning that the ‘degree of harm’ associated with a Hiroshima or a pandemic gets mis-applied to weaponry that had its heyday in the days of trench warfare.

But, for dan to expand that loose, baggy and deceptive collective term to further include a cack-handedly detonated shell of 1980s vintage, with the devastating capacity of a can of Mace, is just intellectually dishonest.]

30

dan 05.20.04 at 12:41 pm

NICK:

Just to ensure that I’ve grasped your argument, here’s a summary of it: you consider it “dense” to worry about sarin gas (one drop of which is lethal) being unleashed against Coalition troops, and consider it “intellectually dishonest” to refer to sarin gas as a WMD, because it isn’t as massively destructive as a nuclear bomb? And, further, because no Coalition troops have yet been killed by exposure to it?

If the above is an accurate summary of your thinking, I’m sorry to inform you that your thinking is deranged.

I hope, more for your own sake than mine, that I misunderstood you.

31

nick 05.20.04 at 1:51 pm

dan:

The comment about pig-wrestling comes to mind, but let’s just summarise here.

You said: ‘Coalition troops are at this very glib moment confronting the ugly reality of elusive WMD worries.’

This ‘ugly reality’? Two soldiers were treated and released on the same day. Had they been dealing with a high-explosive shell, they’d be missing limbs, or dead. The coalition command is not redeploying NCB suits (the DoD thinks the shell dates from the late 80s) and so the people on the ground seem uninclined to accept your Cassandra act.

Based upon what’s happening in Iraq, I simply suggest that you’re summoning up an ‘ugly reality’ from your imagination that demeans the actual ugly reality.

That’s to say, you’re a delusional cretin.

32

dan 05.21.04 at 12:33 am

thanks for the juvenile clarification, Nick.

Turns out I understood you well enough. You don’t worry about the threat of sarin gas attacks on Coalition troops or even consider such worries a part of “reality.” Further, you think worrying about sarin gas attacks even after Coalition troops have suffered such an attack remains “delusional”…because no troops became ill or died in that attack.

We’re apparently communicating from very different “realities,” and as strange and unprecendented as that is, the law of diminishing returns has set in.

Besides which, you’re really creeping me out now.

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