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Last Updated:  Thursday, 3 April, 2003, 13:07 GMT 14:07 UK
Blunkett attacks media's war coverage
Baghdad air raid, 31 March 03
Mr Blunkett casts doubt on Baghdad reports
Media reporters based in Baghdad during the war on Iraq have come under fire from UK Home Secretary David Blunkett.

In a speech in New York, he described journalists based in the Iraqi capital as being "behind enemy lines".

Mr Blunkett said that some UK media outlets had been reporting from Baghdad "as though they were moral equivalents", and that this made some of their audience believe that this was the right way to get to the true facts.

The sharp criticism from the home secretary is the latest spat between combatants on all sides and the media since the war broke out a fortnight ago.

His comments came shortly before al-Jazeera, the independent Arab satellite channel, announced that it was suspending broadcasts from Baghdad because two correspondents had been banned from working there.

Poll sample

Also on Wednesday, a UK poll suggests that support for the war is falling.

HAVE YOUR SAY
Everyone is now flustered that this war is a longer race and nobody started off at a suitable pace
Dr Duncan Campbell, UK

For the first time since military action started, most people asked did not support the war.

Of the random sample of 502 adults surveyed by ICM for the anti-war newspaper Daily Mirror and GMTV, 48% supported the US and British action, with 38% against and 14% unsure.

The same survey also suggested an overwhelming majority - 78% - do not want British troops brought home until the war is over, no matter how long it takes.

1991 war

Mr Blunkett told his audience on his visit to New York: "For the first time in our history we not only have thousands of journalists with our troops, but we have broadcast media behind what we would describe as enemy lines, reporting blow-by-blow what is happening."

In fact, in the 1991 Gulf War there were reporters based in Baghdad and in this conflict, there are only hundreds of journalists travelling with Western soldiers.

But Mr Blunkett went on to lament that the media gave equal credence to reports from behind Iraqi lines and those made with the aid of the coalition.

"Those of a progressive, or liberal bent, in my view, egged on into believing that this is the right way to get to the true facts," Mr Blunkett added.

al-Jazeera suspension

He also questioned the credibility of reports by the al-Jazeera channel when its reporters are "only there because they are provided with facilities and support from the regime".

Since Mr Blunkett's speech al-Jazeera has announced it is suspending the work of its correspondents in Iraq indefinitely after the Information Ministry banned two of them from working.

Al-Jazeera has been openly criticised by the coalition for showing pictures of dead and captured American and UK POWs, an act deemed to be in contravention of the Geneva convention.

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said he accepted that 24-hour news posed a problem because credence and credibility was sometimes given to stories "before they are properly confirmed".

But he stressed: "I think the public are wise enough to make their own judgement on the value of what people say and if ministers don't believe that, that shows an extraordinarily authoritarian and skewed view of the wisdom of the British public."

'No Saddam stooge'

Daily Mail correspondent Ross Benson, who is reporting from Baghdad, branded Mr Blunkett "deeply offensive" to journalists working in the city.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "What we have and what the Iraqis don't have is the freedom to express our views. I am here to report not what the Iraqis tell me, but what I personally see.

"For Blunkett to suggest in some way that I was a stooge of Saddam is deeply offensive.

"I think it is the responsibility of all journalists - and the journalists here are very seasoned professionals - to see what we can and then to sort the wheat from the chaff and draw the most sensible conclusions we can."

Tory MP Christopher Chope voiced his concerns at the credence he said BBC correspondents had given to Iraqi claims about civilian casualties.

Mr Chope said it was an "insult" to licence fee payers that they should "subsidise Saddam's propaganda".

Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon urged viewers and journalists to carefully consider the validity of Iraqi claims.

Coalition forces were prepared to face up to criticism over civilian deaths, but he urged people not to rush to judgement about specific incidents on the basis of certain newspaper reports.

Veteran American correspondent Peter Arnett has been sacked by NBC for giving an interview on Iraqi television during which he said that the coalition were meeting heavy resistance and as a result the war could last a long time.




WATCH AND LISTEN
Home Secretary, David Blunkett criticising some
media organisations for treating Saddam Hussein's regime as "moral equivalents"


Simon Hughes, Lib Dem Home Affairs spokesman
"The public are wise enough to make their own judgement"



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