You shoot. We ask the questions

The fog of war applies as much in the newsroom as on the battlefield. But the journalist's role is more than one of keeping up morale, says Adrian Hamilton
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Journalism and patriotic responsibility are fractious bedfellows at the best of times. And war is both the best and worst of times for newspapers. Best, because it is real drama and a real chance for reporters to achieve fame and fortune. In the huff and puff of propaganda and misleading military briefings, the journalist can claim the high ground of truth and objectivity. And yet it's the worst of times because once one's own soldiers are involved, one cannot pretend to have no regard for the consequences. That's as true of this "war", limited though it is, as it was of the last world war.

Even more so in certain ways, for so much of the action is covert where careless talk by reporters could cost lives, and those of your own troops. And the question of morale and how the war is seen across the globe is still more crucial than all-out war. You need a patient home front and one ready to accept risks of retaliation against civilians without being made overfrightened by them. And you need a world opinion that accepts the goodness of the coalition's intentions. Shouldn't the journalist help in this?

In the last "war" of this sort, the Gulf war, I was at The Observer when, even before anyone knew that land operations had started, a reader rang in to say that he had been listening to the radio frequencies and had heard exchanges between special seaborne units revealing that they had been put ashore at a certain spot. We consulted the retired colonel we had brought in to advise us on the finer military points and he hastened away. Three minutes later one of our reporters rushed in shrieking, in outrage, that the colonel had been phoning the Ministry of Defence to tell them to shut the traffic. He was doing his duty, I suppose, and we eventually did ours by deciding – to some strong objections from within the staff – not to run a story saying British troops were finally engaged, scoop though it undoubtedly was.

At the end of the war we earned the wrath of the ministers, and not a few of our own readers, by making an entirely different decision. It was the last days; Iraqi resistance had been completely overrun and what the Americans graphically described as the "turkey shoot" of the retreating enemy had begun. The picture editor came in with a photograph of quite horrendous impact – an Arab driver literally fried to a skeleton at his wheel, his face a skull dripping with burnt flesh and contorted grin.

There were voices of caution who wanted it rejected on grounds of taste – were the readers ready for such a shocking image of war. It might record the truth, but that would benefit the paper little if it turned off the readers and belittled the efforts of our boys in the field. The Observer after all was the paper that had lost nearly 10 per cent of its circulation overnight for claiming in a leader that Anthony Eden was lying during the Suez invasion. It was proved right. But in recovering its honour it never recovered its readers.

Faced with the same choice over the Gulf war picture, other newspapers, which had equal access to the photograph, decided not to use it. We did, and prominently. It was too great a photo to be passed by – the kind of image that only comes across a newspaper desk once a decade. And it seemed to some of us an absolute encapsulation of the war – which the paper had supported – as it had now become. It could even, together with the television pictures of the retreating Iraqi conscript forces, claim to have influenced events, pressuring President Bush Snr to stop the onslaught a day or more before he had intended.

But then if the onslaught had continued and Saddam Hussein had fled – as he would almost certainly have done – maybe we would have been spared the deaths of a hundred thousand children starved by the criminal sanctions policy that has since been pursued to keep the beast caged.

Journalists are not at their best with consequences. The fog of war applies as much within the newsroom as without. Contrary to the suspicions of politicians and certain prejudices of the military, most journalists are not out to undermine the national interest and do down the armed forces. Indeed one of the worst aspects of war is the way that some reporters take to it with positive glee, abandoning all sense or perspective and even truth in their enthusiasm to be introducing a programme from a tank and gaining a battlefront by-line.

Little better are the would-be experts among defence correspondents who gloat over the details of every weapon of destruction, seizing on the vernacular of conflict to proclaim their membership of the military circles. They are easy prey to misleading briefings and unwarranted knowledge of what is happening on the ground. When it comes to briefings, on- or off-the-record, it is the admission of ignorance that is the most truthful to the craft and most use to the reader.

In that sense, pace the politicians – it is the job of journalists to deconstruct, not to set out to destroy, the grandiloquence of politicians and the economies of truth of the military. All the more so in a war such as this where the extent, the aims, the risk and the involvement are quite so confused, and the politicians are so intent on disguising this.

While the leaders set out certainties, the reporter is there to ask questions. What does the Prime Minister mean when he talks about this being a "war on terrorism"? How much war and whose terrorism? What does President Bush Jnr intend when he suggests pursuing terrorists to other countries? Which countries, when?

The more subtle problems between politicians and journalists arise when it comes to the question of morale. David Blunkett was at it this weekend, saying that "when things do get very difficult, we ask our press not to erode and corrode the will to take on the terrorists".

From the Government's viewpoint, one understands the difficulties. In this uncertain semi-war, perseverance is all important and morale crucial. If too much is made of airmen shot down and captured to be paraded before the public in captivity (as they were in the Gulf war), or too much weight is given to the threats of bombs in shopping centres, then the public may lose heart. Journalists should take account of this and behave "responsibly".

To a government, it seems a reasonable enough request. But is it? If the public is to support an endeavour such as this, it has a right to be made aware of the risks and understand the problems as they develop. Ministers are not going to tell them; it's not in their interests. The military will not reveal anything; it sees revelation as an obstacle to winning. It is only the journalists who can assess, with as much objectivity as possible, how the war is going, how great the risks being taken are and where public opinion at home and abroad is heading.

Ultimately, what Mr Blunkett is betraying, as so many of his predecessors have done (Winston Churchill demanded constant reports on the state of London morale during the Blitz, convinced the public might turn defeatist), is a lack of faith in their own electorate.

If that is their fear, they shouldn't have undertaken this foreign venture at all. You can't blame the journalist for standing in the wings questioning whether the play is going quite the way that ministers are proclaiming it is.