Who can we believe?

Is the media giving a true picture of the war in Iraq? Military experts complain of naivety, errors and misinformation, reports Ian Burrell. And, below, Geert Linnebank, editor-in-chief of Reuters, says 'embedding' reporters with the military is working
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Reporters are dug in, camera crews are keeping up a 24-hour bombardment and news executives are holding briefings on the encouraging progress in the ratings and circulation battles. It is often said that this is a war unlike any other, fought in the media as much as on the battlefield. So what do the armchair generals and defence experts think of the journalists' campaign so far? Their verdict: "The Media are not having a Good War."

Reporters are dug in, camera crews are keeping up a 24-hour bombardment and news executives are holding briefings on the encouraging progress in the ratings and circulation battles. It is often said that this is a war unlike any other, fought in the media as much as on the battlefield. So what do the armchair generals and defence experts think of the journalists' campaign so far? Their verdict: "The Media are not having a Good War."

Just as concerns are increasingly being expressed in newspapers and in television news that the fight against Saddam Hussein is not going according to plan, so retired military experts are frustrated by the way the campaign is being reported. They say that basic errors, misleading images, and a lack of understanding in newsrooms of the nature of war make a nonsense of claims that we have never been so well informed about unfolding events in a conflict zone.

Some military experts call the jingoistic tone of The Sun "revolting" and The Times "chauvinistic" and claim that the anti-war coverage in the Daily Mirror is "ridiculous". Television news is so distorted, according to these "armchair generals", that they choose largely to ignore it.

Major General Julian Thompson, who commanded British forces in the Falklands War, says many of the journalists covering the conflict seem "very inexperienced". "You get an instant impression of what the chap or chappess is seeing through his or her own eyes, and they may be projecting their own anxieties."

Thompson sayseven experienced war correspondents have a limited view of events, and that "unilateral" journalists who expected to cover the war unembedded, as they did in Bosnia, have been unable to operate in the same way in a "proper war". He turns to trusted analysts and correspondents for information, admiring in particular Robert Fox's columns for the Evening Standard and General Wesley Clark's analysis in The Times.

Thompson has little time for rolling news. His favourite source of TV coverage is Channel 4, though he also watches Channel 5, and is especially impressed by the former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell. Like his fellow military pundits, Thompson listens to BBC Radio 4 for news updates, though he dislikes the aggressive interviewing on Today and often turns instead to Radio 5 Live.

William Hopkinson, former Assistant Under-Secretary of State at the Ministry of Defence, is also critical of dramatic rolling news pictures and descriptions such as "heavy bombing". "One only has to think of the raids on Hamburg, let alone Dresden, to know that this is not heavy bombing, it's concentrated bombing on one or two targets. I don't think television helps with that at all," he says. "I'm not very interested in the big flash on the screen or tracer blips going across the sky. It doesn't add anything to our knowledge or understanding."

Reports from journalists "embedded" with military units cause further confusion, says Hopkinson, because they can only present "the platoon commander's eye-view rather than the general's". He says that lessons about the effectiveness of new methods of warfare cannot be learned from "very small vignettes put together by journalists covering this or that battalion". Hopkinson, an associate fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), approves ofFinancial Times coverage. "My interest is in understanding why people go to war, objectives, and how the campaign is contributing to those objectives – not whether Private Jones of the 59th has had a good day."

Hopkinson praises the FT's Martin Wolf and Quentin Peel for their incisive writing, and says The Independent's Saturday edition is also "very good" and "rounded". By contrast, he says that the reporting of the war by The Times has been "useless... too chauvinistic". He criticised as "incredibly trivial" a front-page story in the paper on Saturday that told how a unit of US Marines was suffering from a shortage of beans, bullets and Band-Aids. The Sun's coverage, Hopkinson believes, has been characterised by "unthinking cries about our boys" and "blood and thunder".

Hugh McManners, a former Army major and a military author, has more sympathy with The Sun. "You could say that The Sun is doing is what it ought to under these circumstances," he said. McManners, who also served with the Special Boat Service (SBS), disapproves of the Daily Mirror. "You look at the Mirror and you'd think the whole world is coming to an end," he says.

He is scornful of the lack of understanding among journalists writing about Professor Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, seen alongside Saddam at a war cabinet meeting screened last Friday on Al-Jazeera television. "The tabloids are calling her Chemical Sally and the broadsheets are calling her Miss Anthrax. The fact is that she's a biochemist, so she's going to be involved with biological warfare, not chemical warfare. But the tabloids don't seem to understand the difference," he says.

McManners admires The Daily Telegraph's long-standing defence editor, John Keegan, for his "tremendous historical background". He also respects Michael Evans of The Times, and thinks that the Thunderer has managed better than its rivals to avoid hyperbole.

Christopher Bellamy, a military academic, ex-soldier and former journalist writing about the war for The Independent, is said by McManners to have presented a useful contrast of the tactical styles of Eisenhower and Montgomery, providing relevant insight into the current conflict. But McManners questions the idea of strategic articles published on a daily basis when the full facts may not beavailable. "They read as if they are well considered and they are not," he says. "The next day they have to write something completely different." Surprisingly, he believes many newspapers offer too much war coverage, praising the Daily Express for switching to regular news as early as page 10.

He reserves most criticism for the quality of reporting from Western journalists in Baghdad, particularly on stories of civilian casualties that depend on information supplied by the Iraqi regime. "Is anybody based in Baghdad going to be able to find out that [explosions in civilian areas are] a put-up job by Saddam, and if they are, are they going to be able to report it?" he said.

If the armchair generals are to be believed, the media may not have served the public with as much distinction as we were led to expect in the build-up to hostilities – nor as well as many news chiefs continue to claim. But according to Thompson, it was unrealistic for the news organisations ever to imagine that they would be able to find out all that was unfolding in the field of battle, and naive to demand that the military authorities provide them with the "big picture". "If the military presented it to them in totality, they would be giving away what they know about the opposition," he says. "These journalists are not reporting on a football match."

'The access is great – it's our job to use it well'

No editor sends staff to war with an easy mind. On this occasion, besides safety, news executives have an added ethical dimension to contend with as they weigh the advantages of access to the battlefield against a fear that "embedding" is being used in Iraq to manage the media.

As in the Second World War, where Reuters reporters slept, washed, ate and worked alongside the Allied troops, today we are seeing and reading some of the most compelling first-hand accounts of modern warfare. The character of 24-hour news in an era of instant satellite communication creates an insatiable demand for fact and analysis. For generals and their political masters, that is at once an opportunity and a threat.

The Pentagon is candid in seeing embedding as a way to "shape public perception". Military jargon calls it "information operational effect". The question is: what effect is it having on the coverage of this conflict?

So far it has not meant censorship. Embedded Reuters reporters have been free – subject to guidelines on not saying anything about details of tactical deployments or specific numbers of troops, or identifying casualties before next-of-kin have been informed. Fair enough. Vietnam veterans tell me they followed a similar code of practice.

But journalists have an uneasy feeling that in Iraq they are being used. In the context of information operational effect, an embedded correspondent is a part of the war effort. Even when a reporter resolves to be detached, the fellowship of the battlefield can influence their dispatches. If you are sharing a foxhole with American or British marines, they are your buddies. The incoming artillery belongs to the foe. Comrades become heroes. You demonise the enemy.

Moreover,experienced war correspondents know that they cannot "read the battle" from the front line. They are not there to file an in-depth analysis but to send what the trade calls the "colour", as often as not fragmentary and perhaps misleading. The canny battlefield writer sends what he sees, and sets a premium on scepticism when he gets an intelligence briefing "on condition of anonymity".

I acknowledge the right of an army to exploit the media to confuse the enemy. But it is our job not to fall for it. So I share a concern that, with so many reporters in Iraq, some of them novices in the art of reporting warfare, our profession may be at greater risk than usual of being a channel for disinformation.

Still, I signed off more than 30 reporters, photographers and TV crew to cover this war as embeds. I'm unrepentant. The pictures and the text are graphic, the access and instant satellite links without precedent. Embedding with combat units is better than being taken to the front in a pool to see selected scenes.

The news executive either buys the deal or misses the action. Once he has bought it, he must offset the downside. He has to brief his team. And he wants to ensure that he deploys some roaming reporters – we have 20 brave journalists in Baghdad and a further 23 in southern and northern Iraq working independently – to try to balance, if not verify, what the embeds are saying. He also needs a vigilant, and sceptical, editing desk, supported by specialist writers.

No one battlefield reporter ever made sense of a war. The challenge for a news organisation is to gather the fragments in a coherent, accurate and impartial whole.

Comments