The UK Media and the Moral Case for the Iraq War

Olivia Noden, University of Exeter

In present-day society, the United Kingdom’s participation in the Iraq War typically incurs criticism, both from the British public and mass-media publications. These criticisms have been louder and more prevalent in the public domain since the publication of the Chilcot Inquiry in 2016 which delivered a damning verdict on Tony Blair’s decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. However, at the time of Blair’s decision, the majority of UK newspapers supported the Prime Minister as he committed troops to the Iraq bilateral invasion. Despite this, reflections on the UK invasion have rarely addressed the role of the UK media in advocating the moral case, or humanitarian responsibility, of the intervention.

The former Prime Minister’s case for intervention in Iraq was characterised by many UK newspapers as one that was morally-led and driven by liberationist ideals. In a speech in 2003, Blair described Iraq President Saddam Hussein’s regime as one ‘that contravenes every single principle or value anyone of our politics believes in’, thus entangling the British public’s self-image with foreign policy strategy. The invasion was even optimistically named ‘the operation of Iraqi freedom’ by the Bush administration, influencing perceptions across the Atlantic. This characterisation of a US-UK humanitarian intervention was promoted throughout popular Western media outlets, with newspapers across the political spectrum advocating Blair’s moral duty in the Middle East. These papers included The Sun, News of the World, The Times, and even extending to left-leaning publications, like The Guardian. For instance, The Guardian’s article ‘Why we should go to war’ provides an important example of how overt some of the paper’s publications were in support of Blair’s invasion.

The UK media, therefore, played on the ‘hearts and minds’ of the British public, constructing a moral case for the Iraq invasion that would convince the general population. Many publications argued that President Hussein’s regime had long prohibited the ‘autonomy, freedom and justice’ of ordinary Iraqi civilians, imbuing Blair’s cause with a humanitarian angle. This rhetoric, combined with Blair’s lobbying, emphasised a public belief in the urgency for war. In this way, editors crafted an illusion of a desperate Iraqi population, longing for foreign intervention to ‘save’ them from their morally corrupt leader. During Blair’s lobbying period in 2003, The Guardian gave less coverage to anti-war arguments, instead publishing articles that focused on Hussein as a defiant and deluded leader who rejected Western values and presented a viable threat to the world and his own citizens.

This support for the Iraq invasion on moral grounds was seen throughout newspapers in the UK. The former financial newspaper Sunday Business openly supported Blair’s agenda and the bilateral intervention. In a 2004 article, one of their journalists confirmed the publication’s steadfast support of the military intervention and the regime change in Iraq, citing the domestic and international threat of Hussein’s reign. In tandem with The Guardian, Sunday Business used moral rhetoric to add colour to their pro-war agenda. Journalists at Sunday Business drew parallels between Adolf Hitler and Hussein, comparing how both endangered liberal democracy and ‘British values’. Recalling the horrors of the Second World War, this rhetorical tool emphasised that the UK government should intervene as a preventative strategy and adopt a global policing role. Thus, the Iraq intervention would, once again, demonstrate the UK as the moral force for good against an international evil, as during the Second World War. Building upon popular conceptions of Britain’s conduct during the Second World War invigorated nationalist expectations of the country and amplified neo-colonialist aspirations.

Eighteen years on from the intervention, UK newspapers across the political spectrum now embrace an overwhelming anti-war agenda. In light of the Chilcot report’s findings, it is clear that there has been a change of opinion across the UK, indicating the political influence of public inquiries and their impact on popular memory. In 2016, The Guardian asserted that Blair’s reputation was in tatters after the Chilcot report. British newspapers that once supported the Iraq invasion now feel comfortable describing him as a ‘monster’, seeking to distance themselves from the war and their own position in 2003. Blair’s lies about intelligence of weapons of mass destruction became commonly known as a ‘weapon of mass deception’, reflecting broader feelings of betrayal from the British public in the aftermath of the Chilcot report. However, Blair’s continued prominence as a consultant and speaker for foreign policy audiences across the globe suggests that his standing has endured, despite The Guardian’s assertions otherwise. More importantly, the lack of a reckoning within the UK press regarding their role in promoting the Iraq war suggests that the British media has similarly emerged relatively unscathed from their involvement in the intervention.

Although contemporary sentiments for the Iraq invasion are largely negative, it is important to remember that during 2003 many of the UK media organisations performed a crucial legitimising role in advocating for the invasion, helping to reinforce the moral case of Blair and Bush’s strategy and their broader neo-colonialist agenda.