Three years on
Via Garry (via Robert Sharp, who I really must add to the blogroll), an interesting piece on media coverage of the Iraq conflict which reminded me of one I wrote back on 25th March 2003 for another site. It was basically a review of the TV coverage, and as I can't find a link to the article as published then, I'll reproduce it in full here - and unedited from its initial form of three years ago. It's interesting to see how much (or little) has changed in the coverage:
Even if you are not sickened by the so-called justification for the conflict itself, and pride yourself on your John Wayne Gung-ho warmongering/patriotism, surely the television coverage of this particularly unpleasant exercise in aggression is enough to make you vomit?
In the last few days, we have been subjected to live coverage of the intensive bombing of a heavily-populated city, on the spot footage of Iraqi troops shooting at a downed airman, witnessed American Marines cheering as they blow up a building full of Republican Guard soldiers, and anchormen desperately acting like they aren’t quite pleased at the scoop that one of their longest serving reporters has been killed. Then yesterday it was revealed that the mother of one of the captured Americans only knew of her son’s misfortune when his face was flashed up on TV – sure enough, news crews were round her gaff like lightning to film the tears streaming down her face. Every time the B-52s take off, the networks know that in six hours time there are going to be some really cool explosions across the Iraqi capital, and so have plenty of warning to free up some airtime to watching the fireworks later in the day. It all makes great television.
According to the BBC, in the first five days of the conflict their viewing figures for news coverage peaked at 32 million – more than half the UK’s population. In addition, there has been a 75% increase in take-up for digital and satellite receivers by ghoulish but previously technophobic members of the public. War means money, never so much as for television companies in this age of 24 hour scrolling news. The presenters are looking decidedly knackered as we approach the second week of the war. Normally they have precious little to do, and can just slot in the same report over and over again throughout the day. With war, the situation alters by the minute, and these poor little newshounds desperately have to keep up. Considering how much stick many of the news channels have got over the last few years (especially BBC News24), it is vital to their continued existence that they pull this off well.
Then there’s the massive hypocrisy of all the news networks broadcasting footage of Iraqi prisoners, while holding back on showing any footage of captured American servicemen and women that the Iraqis have released. As the Pentagon has expressed, the Iraqis filming and publicising the faces of their American prisoners as a propaganda tool breaks the Geneva Convention. The question that has to be asked is does the Geneva Convention not apply to Iraqi prisoners? There seems to be no acknowledgement of this fact from any of the Western news channels – not even the BBC, from whom I personally would expect a little more restraint. As it stands, every news show that showed the footage of Iraqi prisoners with their faces showing has broken the Geneva Convention just as much as the Iraqis have by filming their American hostages.
With every broadcast from Baghdad, Western reporters keep insisting that the have “no way to verify” any of the Iraqi claims of prisoners, civilian casualties, or the good health of their leader. They keep stressing that their reports are being vetted by the Iraqi intelligence services before they leave the country, and that their freedom of speech is compromised. Yet not once have there been any complaints that the British and American military have also suppressed information. The closest the networks have come is to mention the “news blackout” during the first few hours of operations, yet with no complaint.
In the last Gulf War, General Schwarzkopf had the cheek to publicly thank the Western news networks for broadcasting a lot of his bluffs, ensuring that Saddam and his advisors had little idea of what was actually going on. This time it’s even more extreme, from the maps purporting to show the locations of chemical weapons factories that the UN inspectors somehow failed to locate to the constant drive to scoop the opposition by reporting unsubstantiated “facts” from unreliable sources on the off-chance that there’s some truth to them.
The occupation of Basra has, as a rough estimate, been announced five times over the last six days, despite the fact that coalition troops have yet to enter the city. On the first day of the conflict, a respected BBC journalist managed somehow to keep a straight face while claiming that the incredibly detailed troop movements he was relaying (which later turned out to be untrue) had come to him from a reliable civilian source, and that the military command did not want those “facts” to be known. Sky News reported that Saddam was believed dead, and that the video footage of him was in fact a body double, until the CIA announced that voice identification technology had verified the man as Hussein. Most networks announced the grenade attack on the coalition base in Kuwait as a “terrorist” attack, bolstering the American and British claims that Saddam has links to terrorist organisations, despite the fact the actual perpetrator turned out to be an American serviceman. All networks also reported the surrender of “8,000 Republican Guards”, with no official retractions coming at any point, even when the same channels later announced that there were only 3,000 prisoners of war to date.
It is surely entirely reasonable for both sides in this conflict to want to control the information/propaganda that is coming out – the Iraqis more than anyone. After all, they have British, American and Australian journalists deep in the heart of their country, scrutinising every action, and reporting back to the outside world. This fact in itself is amazing. Are there any Iraqi journalists being allowed to report from the coalition high command in Kuwait? Are there any Iraqi journalists “embedded” with coalition forces? Of course not – that would risk a major breach of security. It’s a major breach of security having journalists of any nationality along for the ride, but at least if they’re with you, you can control what they say.
Unlike the coalition forces, the Iraqi regime, for all its faults, has been cooperating pretty much as fully as it realistically can with the Western Media. When ITN’s Terry Lloyd went missing (apparently killed by American troops, as it turns out), the Iraqis were cooperating as much as the British and Americans in attempts to locate him. It is not in Iraq’s interest to deliberately kill any journalists – at least, not at this stage. To demonise Iraq in the manner of the Murdoch press, it is entirely possible that the reason they have agreed to let journalists from the countries that are attacking them remain in Baghdad is so that they have a ready supply of hostages and human shields to use should the war start going badly. But let’s face it, they’ll probably use the chemical and biological weapons that Britain and America keep on insisting they possess (with no evidence whatsoever) before they get to that stage, at which point the journalists will be pouring out of the country like rats.
As this war wears on and on, its instigators have, in the twenty-first century media, a propaganda tool of immense power and unprecedented reach. They are trying to utilise it to its fullest capacity, spreading images of surrendering Iraqis to encourage more to do the same, emphasising the amount of humanitarian aid waiting out in the Gulf to be delivered, putting out false reports of troop movements and military strategy, bluff after bluff after bluff, wild claim after wild claim. We were told to expect a short war, now to expect a long one. We were told Saddam is dead, now he’s alive.
As it stands at the moment, it seems safest not to believe anything the networks tell us. All information regarding the conflict is classified, no matter what may appear to be the case, and no military commander would be stupid enough to tell Fox News of his plans until long after they have been successfully put into operation. The news reports are simply acting as a slightly more sophisticated version of “Germany Calling” crossed with every lowbrow reality TV show of the last five years. “War, what is it good for?” – wild speculation, propaganda, misinformation and excruciating excuses for painful entertainment.