To show or not to show
As non-stop war footage is fed back to the UK, John Sparks is among those who decide what is fit to be seen on TV
Tuesday 08 April 2003
When you watch the television news you can often see the newsrooms behind, where faceless individuals scurry around. It's a voyeuristic experience of limited value, but these figures seem an important part of the set as we focus on the intonations of the presenter.
When you watchthe television news you can often see the newsrooms behind, where faceless individuals scurry around. It's a voyeuristic experience of limited value, but these figures seem an important part of the set as we focus on the intonations of the presenter.
I am one of these anonymous bodies – the chief sub video, with a dark little corner of my own and a bank of television screens, above which I will sit throughout this war. I make decisions on what images you watch – and my job has never been so difficult.
Raw, unedited pictures are flowing into newsrooms in unprecedented quantities. Eight open-ended satellite lines feed war coverage from Iraq and the region into the UK around the clock, including the voice tracks and rushes (unedited pictures) provided by correspondents working for the main broadcasters. The picture agencies, Reuters and APTN contribute their own material, as do freelance journalists and cameramen. Then there is the on-air output of broadcasters such as Abu Dhabi, who have had the best camera points on the Baghdad skyline, and al-Jazeera, with its correspondents within Iraqi-held areas.
A significant amount of this material is unbroadcastable – mangled bodies by a flaming tank or badly burnt corpses in a smouldering bus. Above me on screen two, US marines fire off a rocket launcher in their attack on Baghdad Airport. "I don't know what happened," says a voice off-camera, "but we shot the shit out of it." On screen three, cameramen invited to film the worst casualties of the day in a Baghdad hospital show the badly burnt fact of a three-year-old. The effect is draining and sometimes sickening, and these images will reappear throughout the day.
Much of the footage rolling in is dull – soldiers stopping cars at a checkpoint, Iraqis buying tomatoes at a Baghdad vegetable stall, correspondents filing pieces to camera. But the sheer quantity of material and the plurality of views it offers is astonishing.
The fact that there is so much footage available reflects both the Pentagon's strategy of embedding journalists in front-line units and a profusion of new broadcasters – some of whom have their own correspondents embedded in Saddam-controlled Iraqi. Tensions between broadcasters and those who provide access are rising. But from my point of view, it is the Pentagon's relationship with the media that will grow uncomfortable. The coalition's press handlers are feeding an uncontrollable beast. If liberation turns into occupation and resistance, the media will be in an unparalleled position to ask awkward questions. The generals in Qatar will find if difficult to remove journalists when they get in the way – to do so would offend those Western values attached to press freedom.
Evidence of this potential problem abounds in the daily intake of rushes. This is one example, but there are countless others.
A CNN feed showed soldiers blasting Iraqi tanks, lorries and personnel carriers. As if in a clip from Jackass, one soldier launched a rocket-propelled grenade at a tank, and the missile missed the target, sailing into a house behind. The audio clearly picked up the soldiers' laughter as the home of an unknown number of civilians collapsed in a cloud of dust.
Pictures that speak of questionable tactics, bewildered or bored troops and disgruntled Iraqis allude to another sort of war that makes no appearance in the daily Qatar briefing. That these pictures now exist makes my job vital.
The best images of the day are used for the headlines at the top of the show. The presenter, producer and editor are also involved in selecting the shots and deciding on how we present them. It is often a difficult process. Viewers expect to be informed, but we must also protect them.
With so much material now available, the coalition's greatest vulnerability lies not on its flanks or in the suburbs of Baghdad. It's in the rushes. At the moment few are aware of it. But that will change if this war drags on.
John Sparks is, for the duration of the war, chief sub video for Channel 4 News
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