Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Not Good Enough

Newsweek has decided that its evidence for the claim that US interrogators flushed a copy of the Koran down the toilet was too flimsy to be published, and as such is retracting the statement. It's nice that they can own up to their mistakes - unlike, for example, the odious Piers Morgan who still refuses to admit he was wrong in publishing the hoaxed torture photos in the Daily Mirror.

But the apology isn't good enough, and should worry all of us in the West. I don't deny the right to freedom of speech. The prominent position of Newsweek, however, has been obtained through a trust in the veracity of its reporting. The publishing of such an erroneous story does not only damage that reputation, but it is also fundamentally against our interests in trying to limit the spread of Islamic fundamentalists and to stem the flow of people willing to blow themselves up.

People in the Middle East will believe the original story as printed. They will use it as further evidence that the Iraq war was a Christian crusade against Islam; that the West does not tolerate and respect their religion. It will be used as a recruiting call for Al-Qaeda. In short, it will almost certainly lead to a greater loss of life in Iraq, greater instability in the Middle East, and greater problems for us in the West trying to convince the rest of the world of the benefits of liberal democracy.

It is my fervent belief that not only should editors be 110% sure that stories of this nature are true before they go to print, but that they should even then think very, very carefully before publication. The malignant forces of Islamic fundamentalism don't provide a remotely fair and balanced news service - instead, they will seize upon every negative story about democracy, America and the West they can find and use it in their propaganda. I am not arguing for censorship here. The editors have a right to print the news; we have a right to know the news. There are, however, very serious consequences involved with this kind of story, with a large human cost and strategic dangers. The seeming willingness of editors to publish dodgy stories is of grave cost. Even issuing a retraction of the original claims is not good enough, for the damage caused is already too great.

UPDATE: For more information on the Newsweek story, here is a good article about it on Slate.