Focus: Lights, camera, war

Reporters and their crews are staking out positions for Gulf War II. The ratings battle has only just begun
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THE NEXT Gulf conflict has already begun - not in the skies over Baghdad, but on the roof of a hotel in Kuwait City. Television news teams preparing for the possible confrontation with Saddam Hussein have been battling for vantage points on the top of the Sheraton, both to feed their pictures to the Indian Ocean satellite and to place their correspondents against the most picturesque backdrop. Lines of tape divide the BBC's territory from that of CNN, ABC from CBS.

"CNN didn't like the position they had, so they built a platform on their space," said a BBC man. "That got in the way of Newsforce [a freelance TV facilities company], so they built upwards as well. If Newsforce put a canopy on their structure, it's going to block us."

The baggage carousels at Kuwait airport are filled with electronic equipment as the TV baronies build up their forces, but they will have to go a long way to catch up with the hydra-headed BBC. Lord Gilbert, the latest British minister to visit Kuwait, was bemused when every question at his press conference seemed to come from some arm of the BBC - Radio 4, News 24, World Service television, World Service radio. "Surely you can't be from the BBC as well," he said to a man in Arab robes. "I am, actually," the man replied apologetically. "Arabic Service."

At that point the BBC contingent did not include Radio 5 Live, but now they are here as well. In another Birtist touch, the Beeb is in competition with Newsforce to sell television facilities to anyone that wants them.

The technology of reporting, however, has moved on since Kuwait last saw such an influx of journalists, during the Gulf war seven years ago. With power supplies and the telephone network smashed, the only way of communicating with the outside world then was by satellite phones the size and weight of a tin trunk filled with bricks. Now everyone has a mobile telephone on their belt that can link with anywhere in the world, and the satphones brought as emergency back-up weigh no more than a laptop computer.

The "brand name" for this war - Desert Thunder - has already been chosen. The equipment to deliver it to the living-rooms of the world is in place. The only problem for the swelling army of correspondents is that there is little to report so far. A press centre was set up nearly a week ago at the Sheraton, which is why everyone wants their satellite dishes on the roof, but American military information officers did not arrive until much later, and then provoked a near-riot with their restrictive ground rules and inability (or unwillingness) to give any information. "Welcome to the Desert Blunder press room," read a notice stuck to the board by a disgruntled reporter. It was soon removed.

THE LATEST cause of enmity between military and media is the enthusiasm of the 400 reporters currently in Kuwait to watch 6,000 fresh Marines arrive in the kingdom this week. This works out at one reporter for every 15 soldiers, and the military wants to avoid the frankly ridiculous scenes that accompanied Marine landings in Somalia. Then troops crawled ashore in night camouflage while being filmed by rows of cameramen with high- powered lights.

The reason for this frenzied mobilisation is obvious. War makes compulsive viewing and to the winner in the coverage battle goes a substantial prize. CNN made a global name for itself with its reports from Baghdad last time around. Its advertising revenues increased by 28 per cent during the war and the reporter Peter Arnett became a global pin-up as a "Scud Stud" - despite questions about the deal he did with the Iraqis that allowed him to stay and use their military communication systems to get his pictures out.

This time CNN has two satellite trucks in Baghdad and 70 people dotted around the Middle East. It estimates its coverage will cost $1m (pounds 610,000) a week. But for CNN this will be no rerun of the last war. Even Sky News has eight staff and a satellite truck in Baghdad. The BBC has 13 reporters and crew, ITN has six people for ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5. CBS is there, along with ABC, NBC and its rolling news service MSNBC.

And outside Iraq there are equally impressive media troop movements. Each major world broadcaster has people in Kuwait, Bahrain, Amman, Israel and Cairo. The BBC alone has 17 people in Kuwait. The American networks refuse to divulge how many staff they have sent to the area, but the US Fifth Fleet has 140 accredited journalists attached to its aircraft carrier groups.

The Royal Navy is dealing with things on a smaller scale. Kate Adie from the BBC, James Matthews from Sky and Paul Davies from ITN are sharing a cameraman on HMS Invincible to keep numbers down. An interesting twist on the military's relationship with the media is exposed in the forces' nickname for Ms Adie. Since the last Gulf war she has been known as the "Angel of Death" thanks to an alleged tendency to interview combatants who get killed very soon after the interview.

Among the news battalions the BBC figures as the world's biggest and most experienced news organisation, and yet it is also looking to prove itself. News 24, its recently launched domestic rolling news channel, and BBC World, which beams news into 50 million homes in 187 countries, has caused controversy in the corporation. "A big story like this can be a strong argument for continuous news," says Adrian Van Klaveren, news editor of BBC news gathering. "No doubt it will convert some people to think this is the right way to do these stories."

These continuous news operations eat up news like a greedy child which explains why all those reporters in Kuwait are desperate to film someone, somewhere, doing something. "Last time CNN had the technology to get their news out right around the clock, like broadcasting from the middle of a siege," says the Sky News anchorman Bob Friend. "This time there is much more continuous news. And continuous news has a voracious appetite for reporters talking live to us back in the studio. You really need two reporters. One to talk to the cameras and one to be out getting the stories. On top of that there are also packages to produce."

Even old-style news bulletins such as News at Ten are tarting up their output for the coming days. ITN's diplomatic editor Robert Moore will control the station's coverage from a specially designed virtual-reality studio set.

And yet there is something hollow about the focus on the logistics and technology of modern war reporting. Despite gossip about whether CNN's $1m-a-year super-reporter Christiane Amanapour will go to Baghdad, or whether the BBC will beat CNN, there are substantive news issues.

"All the technology we have, and the speed at which things can happen - and be transmitted - add a fresh layer of problems for TV news," says Richard Tait, editor-in-chief of ITN. "Perhaps even more so for the rolling news services, but you just have to be aware of the spin and the competing versions of truth, and stick to traditional journalistic standards."

THE WAR and its news will be different this time. Last time a New World Order gave George Bush and CNN a nice clean war with a specific aim. This time there are no Arab allies and precious few advocates of action in the rest of the world. When CNN tried covering Bosnia and Somalia, where the aims of action were less clear, it failed to cover itself in glory. This excursion could get equally cloudy.

"The big difference is that there is to be no ground war," says Field Marshall Sir John Stanier, author of War and the Media. "There'll be no Martin Bells bunking down with our troops in the desert. It will be down to the bravery of whatever reporter wants to try filming outside a presidential palace as the bombs come down."

In 1998 the story will be all about Baghdad. Not for nothing did the Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, personally invite Peter Arnett live on TV to apply for an Iraqi visa.

"At the time of the Vietnam war the Americans did not realise the importance of what the media was doing," says Tony Benn MP, who is leading the opposition in the UK to military action. "When the military saw that it had the power to turn people against the war they clamped down and nobody could get an opposing view.

"Now with reporters in Baghdad it may be impossible for them to control the pictures. Last time they made it look like a smart bomb could kill a sergeant without killing his wife standing next to him."

It was the American Senator Hiram Johnson who said that "when war is declared, truth is the first casualty". In fact the first casualty is likely to be an Iraqi. And this time he may be on TV.