100 deaths of British soldiers and we're all wise after the event

On The Press: As the death toll ratcheted up through the nervous nineties, the press got ready for the ton
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The Independent Online

So as the total of British military deaths in Iraq ratcheted up through what the cricketers call the nervous nineties, the press prepared for when the psychologically significant ton was reached. Death 100 came last week when Corporal Gordon Pritchard was blown up by a roadside bomb in southern Iraq. He was clearly the best possible example of the British soldier. He was the right stuff.

The picture every paper used of the 31-year-old Royal Scots Dragoon Guardsman, a married father of three, showed him staring straight into the camera, the peak of his cap pulled well down, the determined expression on the open, confident face confirming the description provided by his parents: "the epitome of a modern professional soldier". The Daily Telegraph, reminding us how powerful the impact of the old broadsheets could be, had Corporal Pritchard, against a black background, staring out of half the front page under the word "SACRIFICE".

It was of course fortuitous that number 100 had a proud family, who while obviously grieving did not make political points or personal attacks on the Prime Minister who sent Corporal Pritchard to war. Dignity surrounded number 100 to the end, and it was underlined when the picture emerged a day later of him and the Prime Minister chatting and smiling together when Tony Blair visited the troops in Iraq.

But it did not stop those whose grief had turned to anger and bitterness making their contribution to the milestone death.

Most newspapers used the now routine device, tried and tested in Northern Ireland, of spreading "mugshot pics" of all 100 dead across one or two pages. But it was in the accompanying stories, features and leaders that the tone of the coverage came through. It was hostile to the Government, hostile to the Prime Minister. It felt as though a nation divided at the time of the war itself was now united - in opposition to the war and the need for Corporal Pritchard to die.

At the time the decision to go to war was taken, the Independent titles and the Daily Mirror stood out as the three papers that were forthright and unequivocal in their opposition. One hundred deaths later, hindsight opposition seems to have spread across most of the national press, with even those who can't quite bring themselves to say the decision was wrong finding a form of words a long way short of ringing endorsement.

So we have the King and Country press in the shape of the Express declaring: "Our 100th soldier is killed for a lie. So what does Blair do? Send out more troops." Its editorial said: "This newspaper supported regime change in Baghdad after being assured by Mr Blair that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction ... Had that been the case, the invasion would have been vindicated. But Mr Blair's claim was at best a reckless exaggeration constituting a false prospectus for war, and at worst an outright lie."

The Mail's continuing criticism of the war reached a new crescendo with five pages of coverage for death 100. "How many more, Mr Blair? Now bring our boys home." Columnist Stephen Glover, in a bitter attack on the Prime Minister, suggested one inevitable outcome of the Iraq adventure: "The tragedy is that the British people are unlikely to back a British government in the foreseeable future in any foreign war, even if the cause were a genuinely pressing one. This may be Mr Blair's most destructive legacy."

The Sun, still supporting the war, and the Mirror, as opposed as ever, both found Kate Moss being interviewed by the police over cocaine allegations irresistible as the main story of the day. But they did provide plenty of coverage of the Pritchard death inside. The Mirror brought back, "for one day only", the constant feature of its war coverage. This was the WMD-ometer, reminding readers that it was now "1009 days since the end of the war - still no WMD found."

The Telegraph could not bring itself to withdraw support, but came near to sharing its angst with readers.

It remarked: "War consists of men past fighting age sending boys to die. What should all these bereaved think?" It did not answer its own question.

The Independent, so constant in its view that the war was a terrible mistake and so committed to maintaining coverage of it as the months and years pass, was restrained over death 100.

While providing a black front page of the 100 names of the dead, and the page of photographs inside, it seemed to stand back from the milestone markers in its sober leader. "A precipitate withdrawal would be irresponsible," it concluded gloomily.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield