The readers' editor on ... The Observer under attack on Iran
Sunday June 17, 2007
Serious allegations have been hurled at The Observer since a story appeared on the front page last week headlined 'MI6 probes UK link to nuclear trade with Iran'. The paper has been flooded with emails, accusing it of, for instance, printing 'distortions' against Iran 'similar to the reports in 2003 that paved the way to the bloodbath in Iraq - nearly all of which are now discredited'.
Last week's story alleged that a British company had been caught in an apparent attempt to sell black-market weapons-grade uranium to Iran. It said that the Secret Services and Customs and Excise had spent the past 20 months tracking a group of Britons as they obtained uranium from Russia which, they maintain, was destined for Iran, via Sudan.
The story reported that a British company allegedly involved in the illicit uranium sale had been closed down and a man charged. It added that investigators believed a wider plot had been uncovered, offering the first proof that al-Qaeda supporters had been actively engaged in developing an atomic capability.
The Campaign against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran - among others - wrote to protest that The Observer had started with an incriminating headline and first paragraph 'totally unsupported in the body of the article', and had produced irresponsible journalism 'to be used by the warmongers in their attempts to soften up public opinion for an attack on Iran'.
That is a serious charge, so I spoke to the reporter who wrote the piece. He explained that he first came across the story in May last year, when disturbing evidence was offered to Parliament's Quadripartite Committee, which monitors arms exports. Investigations were at a crucial stage and running the story then, he said, could have wrecked the case.
'We had the name of the company and the name of an individual being investigated [both of which have been divulged to me], but we could not publish those without prejudicing the investigation.
'Despite this being manifestly in the public interest, we held off for a year until we knew last week that the man in question had been charged. That, of course, brings its own problems because so much then becomes sub judice, but we felt this was the responsible way to report this.'
Some protesters saw the article as an example of an officially 'planted' story, but our reporter vehemently denies this. 'I spent 12 months carefully monitoring the progress of the investigation with many sources,' he said.
'European intelligence assessments have established that Russian uranium is finding its way to Iran via Sudan. But there is no firm evidence at this stage that the Tehran and Khartoum governments were involved in this alledged plot, and I was careful to distance them from it.'
So, even when newspapers have well-sourced information at their fingertips there are legal constraints to what they can report, and consequently- as in this case - they can be unfairly vilified.