The war on TV

Submitted by AWL on 6 April, 2003 - 7:16

By Vicki Morris

Alongside the ground war, and the war for hearts and minds, we have the propaganda war (and the TV channels have a ratings war).

Nowadays, the credit to the UK/US side appears to consist not so much in the lies they are allowed to peddle as in the gratitude they earn from the TV companies for meeting televisual demand. (And, hey, why isn't the army sponsored yet?)

The US decided to allow 500 journalists to travel with the troops.

Since 1991, when the future of CNN was secured by its coverage of the last Gulf War, there are more TV stations with many more hours to fill in the schedules. "Embedded" journalists fill them.

Technological advances like the satellite telephone make it possible.

Embedding is not new. Print journalists have often been invited to travel with the troops. As long ago as in the Boer War this was happening.
To what extent are the "embedded" propagandists, to what extent are they able to see for themselves?

Of course, an embedded journalist, until his guards, on whom he depends for sustenance, protection, companionship and advice, advance
on their foe, literally sees only one side of the conflict.

There is little direct censorship of embedded journos, but there does not need to be. There is a strong danger of bias inherent in the whole system.

The UK/US side are confident of victory, so they are happy to be filmed and recorded. As far as I know, no journalist is embedded with Iraqi forces. It is hard to imagine anyone accepting the assignment or an employer mean enough to send them.

Of course, journalists are in danger. Journalists are being killed or dying in accidents. Their unions - in this country NUJ and BECTU - are taking up the issues.

Any journalist who decides to travel independently in Iraq is in particular danger when they send their reports electronically: the
UK/US said they would make no effort to identify whether signals were being sent by journalists and might well fire on anyone that they could not identify.

The movements of journalists in the care of the Iraqis are controlled. But, despite the health warning given that their reports are "monitored by the Iraqi authorities", there is no sign that Iraq is censoring journalists.

Do the reports from Iraqi Iraq provide balance? Only up to a point: Auntie says no dead bodies - not before the watershed, and then few after it.

The rationale for this is to spare people's feelings, taste and decency and all that.

There is a debate to be had whether the "pornography" of seeing dead bodies, horrific injuries, people crying serves much useful purpose.

But that debate is not being had.

Wars, whatever they are about, are about killing people. Regardless whether your motive is pure or impure, you will find, if you want to see it in all its glory, that this war is pay per view.

Millions worldwide are prepared to pay. More and more are subscribing to Al-Jazeera and other Arab TV stations that show dead bodies and

Al-Jazeera [the peninsula] was begun in 1996. Based in Qatar, it is funded largely by the emir of Qatar.

Al-Jazeera has its own agenda. If the propaganda on UK stations is well camouflaged, the trend on Al-Jazeera is all the other way. (If
you have not seen it, try to find it on the web. It has an English language site but that is being hostilely hacked into so it might not be available at the moment, and the address changes.)

It is anti-war, which, for the anti-war partisan, is good, but journalistic impartiality is not its strong suit. It promotes Islam, which is not good. But it carries serious reports and interviews and it shows the dead bodies. All things considered, Al-Jazeera is providing better coverage of this war than the BBC.

The "no dead bodies" issue - censorship - aside, I have said that any propaganda in UK TV-land is light touch. The regime appears to be harsher in the US.

A website,, was taken down for showing stills from Al-Jazeera TV of dead US soldiers.

CNN banned one of its correspondent in Iraq, evin Sites, from doing his weblog. (A colleague points out that this might for contractual, commercial reasons, rather than political censorship.)

Veteran reporter, Pulitzer prizewinner Peter Arnett has been sacked from NBC for giving an interview to Iraqi TV in which he cast only
the slightest aspersions on US fortunes in the war or its commitment to honest reporting. The Daily Mirror is claiming to have bagged Arnett for its own news team.

Al-Jazeera reporters are banned from the New York Stock Exchange.

There are more issues, many more issues: the quality of the reporting; TV's relative loss of interest in the war now that it is going to last longer than a week, and now that, in the case of the BBC, the News 24 channel has been promoted sufficiently - late night it's been replaced now by plugs for BBC3.

There's Alastair Campbell, the Downing Street Director of Communications and Strategy, complaining about "the weaknesses of our
democracy": "We cannot tell lies in the way that dictatorships tell lies - it gives them an advantage in the way this thing is being prosecuted.

"They exploit in their eyes the weaknesses of our democracy, the weaknesses of our media systems, they exploit them to their own advantage and I think sometimes our media allows them to do that." In other words, journos censor yourselves! For the good of our side.

There's the issue of whether anti-war protest is being covered enough or fairly.

There's the issue of whether Iraqi TV stations are a legitimate target for UK/US bombs. Is any target legitimate in this war?!

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