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Cracked Mirror

Can a tabloid editor survive Britain’s torture-photos flap?

Britain’s version of the Iraqi torture photos flap has morphed into a media story. The saga began May 1, when the Daily Mirror(or “the tabloid Daily Mirror” as U.S. papers almost invariably refer to the red top) published a series of photographs purporting to show soldiers from the Queen’s Lancashire Regiment abusing Iraqi detainees. The shots showed a soldier urinating on a hooded prisoner, a captive being struck in the groin with the butt of a rifle, and three other scenes of degradation.

The initial response was a windfall for the Mirror; the Guardian reported that the paper earned an estimated $176,000—10 times the $17,600 it paid two soldiers for the shots—by selling the images to newspapers and Web sites around the world. Once the authenticity of the shots had been called into question, however, the next stage was a spate of stories analyzing the photographs. In the Guardian, a former picture editor offered observations such as, “The stream of urine does not look authentic” and “This soldier’s slim arms look more like those of an office worker than of an infantryman and his hands look too soft”—though he also pointed out that some of the equipment seen in the shots was not issued in Iraq. (The BBC provided a helpful summary of the army’s attacks on the photos and the soldiers’ rebuttals in the Mirror.) On Thursday, Britain’s armed forces minister told the House of Commons that the Mirror’s photos were “categorically not taken in Iraq,” a charge the Mirror’s editor, Piers Morgan, continues to deny. By late Thursday, “should Morgan resign?” was the dominant theme in press coverage.

A Guardian op-ed by a “senior lecturer in media law” suggested the photographs have become a distraction, allowing Tony Blair’s government to avoid more substantive discussion of prisoner abuse or the situation in Iraq by focusing instead on the authenticity of five questionable images. “Tabloid turncoats” may be out for Morgan’s head, “but they are missing the same point as our displeased politicians. All is not well in Iraq, our soldiers face torment and some of their captives torture.” It went on, “The picture the Mirror printed may prove to be fake—but only insofar as what it depicted was staged. The facts remain the same and it is these facts that it is the duty of responsible journalists to expose.” Or as the editorial writers at the Daily Mail had it: “[The defense secretary] attempts to divert attention by revealing that pictures published in the Daily Mirror were fakes. But didn’t we know that already? And does it have any bearing on the wider issues?”

Some Conservative papers rushed to defend the armed forces. The Daily Telegraph denounced the “strong but inchoate perception that our soldiers have been habitually abusing Iraqi detainees.” After all, the paper noted: “[W]hereas the case against the US soldiers is corroborated by a mass of photographic testimony, we have only the pictures that appeared in the Daily Mirror. And hardly anyone, apart from the editor of the Mirror, still believes those images to be authentic.” Meanwhile, the Mirror’s arch-rival, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, paid a visit to the Shaibah detention center in southern Iraq and came away with a story that highlighted the wonderful conditions there. As an editorial put it, “Without exception, the prisoners there are treated far better than the minimum standards laid down by the Red Cross. More visits, more food, more exercise, proper toilets and showers, clean clothes—and no abuse. One Army source says that most of the prisoners are better off inside than they were out.”

When the Independent asked a number of Morgan’s rivals, as well as some commentators and former Fleet Street editors if he should stand down, most wrapped their iron fists in a velvet glove of diplomacy. “It’s really not for me to say whether he should resign his post. We do, however, think it’s appalling that the Mirror has used these pictures and continue to claim that they are not fakes when it is obvious that they are,” declared the Daily Express’ big cheese. The Sunday Herald’s boss was more or less supportive—”I think Piers Morgan was extremely brave in publishing allegations of abuse I think he over-egged the pudding by deciding to use pictures which everybody I know is convinced are reconstructions”—while the author of a history of the Mirror verged on hysteria: “Tabloid journalism dies today, because to get it so wrong with such an important story, there’s no coming back. Piers Morgan is either the biggest idiot in the country or a cold-blooded liar. In either case you can’t be the editor of what was once the most influential newspaper in the world.”

Update: On Friday, May 14, Piers Morgan was fired from his position as editor of the Daily Mirror.