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Press Watchdog slammed by 'Don't Attack Iran' Campaigners

Source: Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII), UK
The Press Complaints Commission was today criticised for a “lack lustre” response to serious complaints about the use of unnamed sources in articles by the Daily Telegraph. The complaints, in particular the one launched by Professor Abbas Edalat of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran (CASMII)  in December last year, centred on the fact that “extraordinary” claims made in a number of headline articles about the threat posed by Iran were all based on unnamed and untraceable sources.
In an ironic echo of President Bush’s demand that Saddam produced WMD’s that turned out not to exist, the Press Complaints Commission responded to the complaints, saying that the complainant “had not presented any evidence that the unnamed sources had been inaccurately quoted”.
The response followed complaints from the international campaign group, CASMII, questioning the reliance of unnamed intelligence sources in several far-fetched articles about Iran by the Daily Telegraph’s executive foreign editor, Con Coughlin. On 24 January 2007, relying on an unnamed “European defence official” Coughlin alleged that North Korea is helping Iran prepare a nuclear weapons test. In December the Telegraph ran a headline article by Coughlin claiming that Iran was “grooming Bin Laden’s successor”. Both stories were universally dismissed by Middle East and military experts, and no attempt has been made to substantiate either allegation over the months since publication. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East correspondent described the ‘Bin Laden claims’ as “wholly implausible” and pointed out that Al Quaeda, a Sunni organisation would not be supported by the Shia administration in Iran.
These stories led CASMII to conduct a broader analysis of the accuracy of Mr Coughlin’s stories and the journalistic methods he uses. Analysing 44 articles by Mr Coughlin on Iran, CASMII found some stark patterns in terms of his journalistic technique:
  • Sources were unnamed or untraceable, often “senior Western intelligence officials” or “senior Foreign Office officials”. 
  • Articles were published at sensitive and delicate times where there had been relatively positive diplomatic moves towards Iran. 
  • Articles contained exclusive revelations about Iran combined with eye-catchingly controversial headlines; 
  • The story upon which the headline was based does not usually exceed one line or at the most one paragraph. The rest of the article focused on other, often unrelated, information.

In addition, they revealed that Coughlin was none other than the journalist who, with the help of unnamed intelligence sources discovered “the fact” that Saddam Hussein could launch weapons of mass destruction in 45 minutes and unearthed “the link” between the 9/11 hijacker, Mohammed Ata, and the Iraqi intelligence.
A CASMII UK spokesman said today:
"The response from the PCC would be funny if it were not so serious. Whilst we recognise the quoting of unnamed sources as an essential aspect of news reporting, we asked the PCC to assess whether there were any grounds to find that Coughlin was abusing the practice in order to give substance to otherwise implausible political stories. In their response the PCC dismissed the complaint on the grounds that “the complainant had not presented any evidence that the unnamed sources had been inaccurately quoted”. It is true that we cannot prove that these unnamed sources do not exist. To be asked to prove something whose very existence is being called into doubt is a logical impossibility. It is reminiscent of the demand made on Iraq to prove they had no WMD and it is the same Catch 22 situation that Iran is facing with regard to their alleged nuclear weapons programme. Rather than the PCC asking us to prove that these mysterious sources exist, the onus should be placed on Coughlin to demonstrate, in strict confidence, that his sources are genuine."
The complaints have now been referred to the Independent Charter Commissioner for further investigation.
CASMII provided a detailed list of sources used by Coughlin for his articles published in the Daily Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph within the last year.
  • 10/10/2006: “The West woke up too late to the nuclear threat of rogue states” Source: none.
  • 04/08/2006: “Teheran fund pays war compensation to Hizbollah families” Source: “A senior security official”.
  • 21/07/2006: “Meanwhile, Iran gets on with its bomb” Source: none.
  • 14/07/2006: “Israeli crisis is a smoke screen for Iran's nuclear ambitions” Source: none.
  • 13/07/2006: “Cat and mouse games on border that is 'our front line with Iran’” Source: An Israeli soldier.
  • 12/06/2006: “Iran accused of hiding secret nuclear weapons site” Source: A senior western diplomat”
  • 11/04/2006: “The West can't let Iran have the bomb” Source: “An official closely involved in the IAEA's negotiations with Iran”
  • 07/04/2006: “Iran has missiles to carry nuclear warheads” Source: “A senior US official”
  • 07/04/2006: “UN officials find evidence of secret uranium enrichment plant” Sources: “A diplomat closely involved in the IAEA's negotiations with Teheran” and “A senior diplomat attached to the IAEA headquarters in Vienna”.
  • 04/04/2006: “Iran's spies watching us, says Israel” Sources: “A senior Israeli military commander” and “an officer with Israel's northern command”.
  • 06/03/2006: “Teheran park 'cleansed' of traces from nuclear site” Source: “A senior western official”
  • 11/02/2006: “Iran plant has restarted its nuclear bomb-making equipment” Source: “A senior Western intelligence official”
  • 30/01/2006: “Iran sets up secret team to infiltrate UN nuclear watchdog, say officials” Source: “a senior western intelligence official”
  • 16/01/2006: “Iran could go nuclear within three years” Sources: “A senior western intelligence officer” and “an intelligence official”
  • 27/11/2005: “Teheran secretly trains Chechens to fight in Russia” Source: “a senior intelligence official”
  • 29/10/2005: “Smuggling route [from Iran] opened to supply Iraqi insurgents” Source: “The National Council of Resistance of Iran”
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