Speaker by Various Artists

Tabloid Tussle

by David Williams

Get out your togas and sandals, it's the Circus Maximus of British press battles.

In gladiatorial combat, complete with tridents and nets, are The Sun - that hugely popular fighter sporting the blue-collar of the British worker - and the Daily Mirror, the liberal underdog with the fierce left-hook.

Of course I'm talking about the scandal over photos printed by the Mirror last Saturday (May 1) allegedly showing British soldiers committing abuses against Iraqi captives.

In Friday's (May 7) Sun Says, the paper rages that British soldiers‚ lives have been put at risk by printing fake photos (which is fair enough if this proves true) and it says the handling of the "dodgy" pictures has turned it into a laughing stock. The first paragraph of the editorial noted Trinity Mirror has always been a highly reputable newspaper publishing company (written to the sound of lawyers collecting their pay cheques), but the paper went on to say in the interests of fair and accurate journalism the Mirror should apologise for running the pictures, "and to our troops".

All of Britain is talking about it. Most British papers, including the broadsheets, have given space to the issue. A war reporter for The Independent, Kim Sengupta, asks if the Mirror's editor, Piers Morgan has gone too far. Other papers were much more forthright. The Daily Express ran with "Shameful Truth of Fake Mirror Photos", while the Daily Star simply said: "Mirror torture pics: they are fake".

Yet, in the face of stinging criticism, the Mirror won‚t back down - which seems incredible considering the evidence that seems to be piling against it. Morgan is even traipsing off to Parliament to explain the finer points of the story to MPs.

In the Voice Of The Mirror, it says the case it exposed is not the only one and troops are facing increased dangers "not because a few pictures appeared but because some soldiers are treating prisoners brutally". "Publicity-hungry MPs and rival newspapers may enjoy attacking the Daily Mirror but by ignoring the real problem they are not helping our troops or our nation's reputation," it moralistically declares.

It would be wrong to say the Mirror is viewing with glee the growing scandal over the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison by US soldiers, but it obviously helps its cause - and many US newspapers, usually blind to British rumblings about the war, picked up on its world exclusive. On the plus side for the beleaguered daily, there must be some satisfaction in reports that President Bush is squirming over the issue AND that his popularity has hit an all-time low.

The Sun‚s criticisms seem fairly reasonable. If the Mirror has been conned - and The Sun says there are military and photographic experts queuing up to declare the Mirror's photos are fakes - then the paper has a duty to apologise. Profusely. It's not that stance I take issue with.

While The Sun was typically scathing in its editorial, it seemed to stay away from muck-raking and the spinning of things to a right-wing agenda. Enter columnist Richard Littlejohn. What starts as a (possibly legitimate) rant against the Mirror is slowly twisted by Littlejohn into his sustained campaign against the left-wing press, notably the Guardian.

Any right-minded person would agree that with the troubles the coalition is having, such photos were the last thing the troops needed. But to say the printing of such photos is "handing a spectacular propaganda coup to our enemies", as Littlejohn does, is a bit of a stretch for me.

Apart from him leaving open a broad interpretation of who the "enemies" are, it seems ordinary Iraqis don't need much help to dislike the fact their country is being occupied by foreign troops. You can quote all the figures you like about the supply of electricity, water or petrol - which still seem shy of pre-war levels - but from what I read the coalition "liberators" have promised much and have delivered not nearly enough.

Littlejohn mentions the scandal involving US soldiers‚ treatment of Iraqi prisoners and says Bush's apology should draw a line under it, since it was only "the stupidity of a handful of morons". Noting it is an election year, he says he can‚t help wondering if ever again it will be possible to win a war in an age of "human rights" (his use of quotes) and a hostile media. He adds: "Who needs al-Jazeera when you've got the Guardian and the BBC?"

Pardon? First of all, what has this issue got to do with winning a war that, apparently, was won a year ago? And what is wrong with protecting the rights of prisoners of war? (Interestingly, as Littlejohn notes, The Sun broke a story about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners some months ago). I'd like to hear the columnist's views on Americas concentration camp in Guantanamo Bay.

As for the hostile media call, that sounds a little rich from a columnist for the most aggressive paper on the market, which almost single-handedly forced the British Government to hold a referendum over the EU constitution.

And then there's al-Jazeera. Sure, Littlejohn can continue to wage his war against the BBC and the Guardian, but why lay the boot into a channel that is gutsy enough to show the real images of war, grotesque though it may be, while Western stations have to be mindful of upsetting our delicate stomachs at dinnertime?

To give his readers "perspective" (read: to write left-wingers off totally), he says some people see no difference between Saddam Hussein slaughtering and torturing millions and a handful of rogue US troops abusing a dozen internees. They‚d have left Saddam in place, he cries, and now they want troops out and the Iraqi people condemned to their fate.

These are very hard conclusions to draw. I don‚t know any anti-war people who supported Saddam or his methods. What they didn't like was the unseemly rush to war and what seemed like a bunch of excuses to justify it. They also objected to the Bush administration having no clear strategy as to what would take place once the evil regime was toppled. The people I've talked to are realistic about a prolonged presence of foreign troops in Iraq and, as far as they‚re concerned, any fate which hurts the country is all to do with the warmongers whose oil-soaked fingers were pulling the strings last March.

Bizarrely, Littlejohn's tirade included this remark: "I can't help thinking that if Damien Hirst put a pile of naked bodies with sacks on their heads on display at the Saatchi Gallery, it would be hailed as a work of genius and someone would pay £30million for it."

Not satisfied with attacking the opposition media, he uses his column to take a swipe at modern art - a topic which sits much more comfortably with BBC viewers and readers of, yes, you guessed it, The Guardian.

The British press is right to question the authenticity of the Daily Mirror's photos, considering the understandable outrage it has provoked in the Arab world and the damage the British Army's reputation may suffer. If they prove false the Mirror will be forced to make a highly embarrassing apology and may take a hit in circulation as a result. However we need to make sure we don‚t lose sight of the real issue, the treatment of prisoners of war and the conduct of our armed forces. It‚s too easy for the whole debate to turn into a slanging match which is more about points scoring and hidden agendas than any supposed moral stance.

Something I thought was worth noting in the American press this week. In Monday's Florida Times-Union, out of Jacksonville, next to an editorial slamming "preposterous" claims that Bush lied to take the nation to war, is a letter to the editor under the headline "Terrorists have ties to Iraq". That old chestnut. Sigh. Will it ever end?

Readers of my column mentioning Coca-Colas Dasani bottled water will be interested to hear the entire UK supply of Dasani was pulled off the shelves because it was contaminated with bromate, a cancer-causing chemical. Unfortunately for Coke, that meant it topped a rather insulting marketing poll.