June 12, 2003


Lindsey Hilsum should be thrown out of journalism:

Channel 4 News diplomatic correspondent Lindsey Hilsum has admitted that she "self-censored" her reports from Baghdad and did not tell viewers that Saddam Hussein's regime was hiding Scud missile launchers in residential areas, because she did not want to be thrown out of the city.

Hilsum saw a missile launcher in a back street of Baghdad after losing her way when driving to the scene of the first marketplace bombing in the city, in which 14 people were killed.

Although Channel 4 News was not censored by Saddam's secret police, the Mukhabarat, Hilsum decided not to report on what she had seen for fear of being ejected from the city.

How does one so opposed to the most basic element of journalism - you see something important and tell other people about it - reach the level of “diplomatic correspondent”?

(Via alert reader Andrew Murphy.)

Posted by Tim Blair at June 12, 2003 02:06 AM

How does lindsey reach the level of “diplomatic correspondent”?

errr by being very very every diplomatic about anyone with anything to hide.

You should fisk her excuses too, truely pathetic.

Posted by: GILES at June 12, 2003 at 03:26 AM

So it was a "scandal" that 3 American networks left Baghdad before the war, but just good journalism to lie through the teeth to keep one's self in town and in vittles. Very clarifying.

Posted by: Harry at June 12, 2003 at 04:28 AM

CNN reticence syndrome - I came, I saw, I decided to protect my ass.

Posted by: rem0tly at June 12, 2003 at 04:43 AM

Just consider yourselves very, very lucky you don't actually get to _see_ Channel 4 News...

Posted by: blooKat at June 12, 2003 at 08:23 AM

The difference, Harry, is that the networks who left were not participating n a coverup by filing false or bowdlerized reports.

See, if I resign my job at a firm because I think it is breaking the law, I am not complicit in that firm's activities. If I stick around, see the crooks doing their crook things, and decline to report what I have seen WHEN IT IS MY JOB TO DO SO, I am complicit. In fact, I might well be "aiding and abetting" the crooks under the law in this circumstance.

Posted by: T. Hartin at June 12, 2003 at 08:56 AM

Get that woman a job at CNN!

Posted by: KevinV at June 12, 2003 at 08:58 AM

Hey T. Hartin -- what gave you the idea I disagree? I used the word "scandal" because Ms. Hilsum herself used it in the Grauniad story to describe the departure of the (in this case) more honest networks.

That she's a slaphead is pretty obvious.

Posted by: Harry at June 12, 2003 at 10:05 AM

My thoughts about "diplomatic" too.

Posted by: Andjam at June 12, 2003 at 10:12 AM

Going on her weasel attampt to exculpate herself of her sins, she must be in the failed preppies in the infant school of diplomacy.And journos wonder why they are the butt of jokes and contempt.

Posted by: d at June 12, 2003 at 10:31 AM

I posted the following in the MediaWatch guestbook:


You complain about "Embedded Truth" with embedded journalists being allegedly performing a positive spin for the US.

But where are you when there's another report of the media covering up Saddam's crimes in order to remain in Iraq? (This time involving Lindsey Hilsum from channel 4 news covering up that missile launchers were put in residential areas "for fear of being ejected from the city")

Posted by: Andjam at June 12, 2003 at 11:00 AM

How STUPID is she? First she fails to report the Scuds. Then she tells people that she failed. Jesus H. Christ - I've made mistakes in life too, but I don't advertise the fact. Talk about a rush of shit to the brain!!

Posted by: Razor at June 12, 2003 at 02:16 PM

I think we should institute a new award for these people - the Duranty Award. Named for Walter Duranty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning NY Times reporter who reported from Russia for years without mentioning Stalin's atrocities.

Posted by: Jim C. at June 12, 2003 at 03:47 PM

Excellent suggestion Jim C. Have to try this:

This years Duranty award goes to X ...pan shot of terrified lying journos at dinner tables in soiled evening dress and
X runs screaming out the door for , the Duranty award is the kiss of death to journos who should get a job they are a really suited to, selling snake oil.

This award seems so momentous Canberra, Washington and London should institute it a.s.a.p.Unlike the Logies and such like, I reckon I could glue the eyeballs to the idiot box to watch it.

Full marks for an inspired recommendation Jim.

Posted by: d at June 12, 2003 at 04:51 PM

Tim: you're arguing that she should be "thrown out of journalism" because her reports *weren't* scrutinised by the Mukhabarat? (I presume you're not saying that the journalists who may have seen similar things, but whose reports *were* scrutinised (and clearly labelled as so), shouldn't be "thrown out of journalism"?)

Even if she wasn't assigned an official Mukhabarat scrutineer, don't you think she's under de facto scrutiny? None of the reporters on the Iraq "side" were reporting the truth--I don't see that Hilsum has done anything particularly wrong in this context.

Posted by: Michael S. at June 12, 2003 at 06:32 PM

The last comment here is extremelysilly. Journalists in Baghda d have worked under spook censorship since way back when. Mostly newspapers and TV stations have prefaced reports from countries where this happens with a caveat about official censorship and tht is fair enough.

CNN admitted a similar offence to Hilsum's -- self-censorship –- in order not to lose its Baghdad bureau. It was pilloried, rightly, for having failed to reveal this fact in its reportage.
The basic covenant with your readers is violated when you fail to do thism and your credibility is completely destroyed; in her case, this may be permanent.

I would rather be seen to have been censored than to misrepresent my misleading reports by failing to declare that I was censoring them myself. The ethical position is absolutely clear.
I am a working journalist, by the way.

To give ou an idea of just how damaging such deception is , the failure to report the existence of launchers in Baghdad streets in the market area left readers or viewers having a false impression about the stray market missile. The military said at the time that there were legitimate targets in that area and were scorned. Now it appears they were understating the fact.

Thanks to Lindsay and other right-on " correspondents" a major PR coup for the Baathist regime was brought about.

There has been a litany of these ethical transgressions in the Middle East reportage of the UK and European media in particular. This is hard for me to understand.

The problem seems to be that the commentators straining to be king of the moral high ground need desperately to take a side in order to do so. That makes it easier to report in black and white terms. Real journalists know there is rarely such clarity -- particularly in wartime -- and use caution in their reports.

Self-censorship was forced on South African journalists who wanted to carry on working in the mainstream -- or at all, really -- during the darkest days of the apartheid era. That's when I left the country and went to the UK. You always have a choice, unless you're actually dead.

Posted by: Dave F at June 12, 2003 at 07:49 PM

Scuds were banned as WMDs by cease-fire Resolution 687. There were many reports of illegal Scuds being used in the opening stages of GW II. None of them were confirmed.
A "missile launcher in a back street of Baghdad" would have almost certainly not have been a long range "Scud". Most Scuds have a range of between 150 km-800km, and are used for ground-to-ground attacks. A long range mobile-launched Scud would have a maximum range of 600km and not be placed in Baghdad as it would not be able to reach foreign cities from there. Only the "Al Abbas" Scud (range 800-km) could reach a foreign city, and it can only be fired only from static mount.
The launcher she saw was most probably a Surface-to-Air Missile.
Perfectly legal, and in the context of an air campaign targetting Baghdad, a non-story.

Posted by: Jack Strocchi at June 12, 2003 at 11:46 PM

Dave F: CNN's transgression occurred at a time when you could reasonably expect a news organisation to not be withholding facts. War is quite different. She's working in Baghdad, and attaching her name to her reports. Don't you think she would have exercised some discretion? Even to avoid being accused of spying? (I agree it wouldn't have hurt for her reports to carry a disclaimer.)

Besides, I think most readers would simply have *assumed* she was being censored--all the reports I saw (CNN, BBC) carried prominent disclaimers saying that they were prepared under Iraqi supervision, and it hadn't occured to me that there might be independent journalists working in Baghdad.

Certainly you could argue that *no* news organisation should have remained in Baghdad under conditions that did not allow them to report whatever they wished. But the argument seems to be not that reporters shouldn't have been in Baghdad at all, but that Hilsum--for not reporting on thing she saw (and I agree with Jack's analysis, by the way)--has committed a particularly grave offence.

Posted by: Michael S. at June 13, 2003 at 12:30 AM

Er, Jack---possession of the weapons might have been perfectly legal, but placing them in residential areas certainly isn't. At least, it's contrary to the Geneva Conventions. It tends to get your civilians killed, which a government is supposed to want to prevent.

You are correct on one thing---the track record of journalists identifying military hardware is pretty poor. If she said she saw a "Scud launcher", it may have been a crane or a cherry picker instead. (Unless the missile was on it; I give her credit for being able to recognize a missile of some kind, even if she gets the kind wrong.)

Posted by: Angie Schultz at June 13, 2003 at 12:38 AM

There's an understatement, Angie. After years of gun-rights debate in the US, half of the fourth estate *still* can't tell the difference between automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Expecting them to correctly identify missiles is a bit much, alas.

Posted by: Harry at June 13, 2003 at 01:36 AM

Michael S, you seem to be missing my point. Most journalists working out of Baghdad were censored by Ministry of Information minders who literally looked over their shoulders.

The independents who seemed to enjoy non-censorship included, for an infamous example, Robert Fisk, since the Iraqis correctly presumed he wouldn't report in such a way as to put the heat on them. I don't know whether Lindsey Hilsum was subjected to any official censorship, but I would have been fine with that.

Self-censorship (deciding to leave things out WITHOUT BEING ASKED for fear of losing the gig) might just about be acceptable if she had cautioned us that she was observing certain limitations. At least then we could have taken her stuff with a pinch of salt. But there is no doubt that readers were UNWITTINGLY misled by her approach, which is ethically unacceptable. Again, did Lindsey report the market missile in denunciatory terms? If she did, while omitting the small matter of the Scuds, she is guilty of serious distortion. Even if she didn't adopt a critical tone, the damage is almost as severe.

Wartime may be hell on the truth but it puts an even greater responsibility on reporters to get the story straight as far as they can before running into the blue pencil boys. If she wasn't prepared to do that, she should not have been there. I wonder what the Independent thought of her admission. History will not be sparing of people like Fisk and Hilsum. They have aided the black propagandists in their myth-making

Posted by: Dave Farrell at June 13, 2003 at 06:22 AM


Nice dismissal of the story. How convenient.

Posted by: AndyM at June 13, 2003 at 06:23 AM

ER, Channel 4, not the Independent, sorry -- I am dashing this stuff off at a rapid rate.

Posted by: Dave F at June 13, 2003 at 06:24 AM

Jack -- that's quite wrong, I think. Can't recall the details, but it's generally a violation of the Geneva Conventions to station weapons in residential areas. It most certainly *was* a story, whether Iraq was a signatory to the conventions or not. Of course, in addition to annoying her hosts, filing such a story would also inconveniently corroborate American claims regarding the marketplace tragedies. Couldn't have countenanced that.

Posted by: Harry at June 13, 2003 at 09:20 AM

Dave: I agree that Hilsum's reports would have been improved by the addition of a disclaimer. Where we differ, I think, is that I do not agree that people generally thought they were getting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth from *any* reporter inside Baghdad (whether their reports bore disclaimers or not). It's quite literally a war zone--in such circumstances, what country would allow reporters to walk where they like, report what they like?

Posted by: Michael S. at June 13, 2003 at 11:55 AM

Well, I expect to get the truth from a _news_ reporter, at least to the possibly meager extent he or she is capable of perceiving it. Call me old-fashioned. And who thinks it's OK to get something other than "nothing but the truth" from any reporter, to the extent he or she perceives it, war or no war? If we're going to grant license to publish rank, politically convenient fiction, why not label it as such?

Posted by: Harry at June 13, 2003 at 12:49 PM

One last try. We knew with the embedded reporters that we were getting precisely one side of the story,as riveting as that was. As viewers, we therefore knew exactly where we stood. When independent reporters refrained from saying things on a selective basis of their own choosing, without telling anyone, they falsified the picture. That goes for those who deliberately discarded or played down facts that got in the way of their predetermined approach (like a certain party whose name iis immortalised on weblogs), but also for those whose motives might have been, say, ambition to use the gig as a career platform.

I think I'm wasting my breath here, but still.

Posted by: Dave F at June 13, 2003 at 08:26 PM

Don't worry. I've had my eye on Ch4 for many months now and monitor the 7pm news almost every day. Would you believe it even ran an item about how Bush and Blair COULD BE (!) tried for war crimes. The item was transmitted even before the war began. (COULD BE doesn't sound like news to me - more like rabble rousing. When I have enough evidence I'll email you with quotes. Till then if you are in the UK watch CH4 and make notes. It's amazing what you'll see and hear.

Posted by: Robin Lewis at June 14, 2003 at 09:34 AM