Last week, neither SARS nor pensions nor gloom of the economy could push Iraq completely off the front pages of the Euro-press. The reason: scraps of paper found in Baghdad. That most venerable of journalistic practices — rummaging through other people’s trash — not only produced the best stories of the week in first the British and now the French press, but also demonstrated very clearly that, as a rule, a journalist can always find what he’s looking for, but little else.
In the Guardian, as in most of the Press Sinister, journos are combing through the rubble of the Iraqi street hunting for proof the U.S. lost in Iraq. Disappointed that the Million Shia-man March didn’t produce the predicted anti-American rioting, they were able to find evidence growing anti-Americanism in Baghdad after an arms depot was blown up by partisans, who instantly returned to the scene with pre-printed posters, banners, and leaflets blaming the Americans for the explosion and organizing a demo for the press. When American soldiers started trying to rescue those hurt in the blast, Iraqis started shooting at them. Apparently, some of the Iraqis now feel about their liberators the same way the French feel about theirs.
#ad#Over at the BBC, the World Service was looking for war criminals. The press-produced war-crimes trial is a fashionable concept these days among the leftward and lost. Here’s how you do one: In Basra, the BBC’s Kylie Morris finds a man whose family has been killed when the missiles that killed Chemical Ali landed right next to the man’s house. The man is grim and articulate in English and tells his horrifying story with dignity. Many children were killed. Next, Morris contrives a way to bring to the scene a certain Maj. Bryant. Maj. Bryant is the U.S. Marine who called in the fire. Morris shows the Marine the damage the bombing produced, tells him about the dead children who were pulled from the rubble, then asks him how he feels. Now. Now that he’s seen what he has done. He says he feels really bad. Finally, Morris tries to engineer a confrontation between the Iraqi man and the Marine (“See this man coming toward us?”) and then ends her report describing how the major slips away, suddenly engaged elsewhere. All that remains is for Ms. Morris to find the major next week hiding in Argentina.
Finally, the Franco- German punditry was looking for more reasons to militate against the U.S. No problem! They found fervent inspiration in the threat by the U.S. to punish France, as Liberation reported, for its anti-American stance before, after, and during the Iraqi conflict (and also before, during and after the 20th century). Today’s Suddeutsche Zeitung is especially incensed at America’s refusal to embrace its old friends. In a full-Carville rant, the paper says the threat by the “brutal” Bush administration is a grim warning that if Paris continues to oppose American policies, it will be treated as, you know, an opponent.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the political divide, other journalists are looking past tragic, personal anecdotes, and manipulative reporting — and they’re finding what they’re looking for, too.
It started last weekend, when a Daily Telegraph reporter came across documents that implicated George Galloway, the left-wing MP from Glasgow, in a really ugly deal to exchange money (Saddam’s) for influence (Galloway’s). This is a big deal in the U.K., since Galloway is a sort of Jesse Jackson, but without the poetic skills. According to the Telegraph’s David Blair, files found in a burned-out Iraqi ministry showed that Galloway received hundreds of thousands of pounds of oil-for-food money channeled to him through intermediaries. The report didn’t do much to boost Galloway, who had already been accused of milking the Miriam Fund, a charity ostensibly intended to help sick Iraqi children. The delightfully slow public evisceration of the politician formally known as “Gorgeous George” (irony alert) unfolded through the week with the stately pace of a Dickens novel — not that Dickens had enough imaginative muscle to create a character as wicked as Galloway. By the end of the week, even the Independent was forced to ponder whether their man from the land of plaid skirts could have been so badly behaved.
Then came last weekend and a new pile o’ files, all plainly marked “I told you so”. First, The Sunday Telegraph discovered documents in the trashed offices of the Iraqi intelligence service that showed a clear link between Saddam and al Qaeda. The story so disturbed the BBC World Service that they dispatched the grotesque Judy Swallow, their very best anti-American sneer merchant, to suggest to her listeners that just maybe the Telegraph was making all this stuff up. But Swallow’s guest, one of the BBC’s peculiar “analysts”, refused to go that far. (As practitioners of unbiased journalism, all of the World Service’s presenters suck, but none so much as Swallow).
Meanwhile, The Sunday Times published the results (available by subscription, but described well enough here) of its own scavenger hunt: the French had been routinely supplying the Iraqi government with intelligence on U.S. activities, including the contents of conversations between Chirac and Bush, thus joining the Germans and the Russians in being implicated in anti-U.S. espionage by documents found in the trash in Baghdad.
By the end of the day, the Nouvel Observateur had the story on its website (well-worn headline: “English newspaper accuses the French of collaboration”). This morning, even as the Telegraph was reporting more freshly discovered evidence of French complicity with Saddam’s regime, the Times report appears in Liberation, as it soon will in other French dailies, perhaps next to those photos of Chirac that make him look like the happy drunk at the Christmas party. But don’t expect Jack to sober up soon: Le Figaro publishes a poll today showing Chirac’s support is deep and wide, confounding predictions that his anti-Americanism would cost him support. An astonishing 84 percent of French voters say he is right to oppose America.
The idea of a French-led EU military force is the topic of a meeting tomorrow at which the French and the Germans will slip into cheerleader suits and try to rally European support for Chirac’s brainchild. Comic relief will once again be provided by Belgium and Luxembourg, the only other takers so far. The prospect of building a European military alliance that is, by design, anti-American, instead of building one to help support policies held in common with the U.S., has many in Europe starting off the week feeling a little shaky.
In an interview with the Financial Times, and reported in the French and other British papers, including today’s Times, Blair called Chirac’s plan “dangerous and destabilizing”. The Times notes that the French are even trying to involve Russia in the project as well. Meanwhile, the Guardian’s report carries the result of a Mori poll showing that 55 percent of British respondents consider France Britain’s least reliable ally, while 73 percent think the U.S. is the country’s most reliable friend. That means 28 percent of the British public is stark raving mad. Maybe when the meeting’s over, somebody ought to send in a reporter to go through the trash. My advice: Look for one marked “French briefs.”
— Denis Boyles is a journalist based in Europe.