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Military-embedded media and the Jessica Lynch phenomenon

One Man’s View (Phillip Knightley) / 4 September 2010

During the American invasion of Iraq there was an incident, which, although it received considerable attention at the time, failed to register as a milestone in the history of war reporting.

Private Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old army clerk from Palestine, West Virginia, a member of the US Army’s 507th Ordnance Maintenance Corps, was captured on 26 March 2003 when her company took a wrong turning just outside Nasiriya and was ambushed. Nine of her fellow soldiers were killed and Private Lynch was taken to the local hospital, which at the time was swarming with Iraqi soldiers.

Eight days later US special forces team stormed the hospital, took Lynch from her bed and whisked her away by helicopter. The whole dramatic event was captured on video by a Pentagon team using night vision cameras.

At Coalition headquarters in Qatar, the war correspondents corps was summoned from their beds in the early hours to hear the good news. They were given five minute-long video tapes of the rescue-green, grainy shots of crouching Navy Seals and Army Rangers, guns at the ready, taking over the hospital and carrying Private Jessica to safety in  a stretcher.

This was the story that, first the American public then the rest of the world, learnt that morning.

The result was extraordinary. President Bush announced that he was “full of joy for Jessica Lynch”. Her rescue was hailed as a testament to a core American value—it took care of its people. Private Jessica Lynch became the first hero of the Second Iraq war, complete with “America Loves Jessica” fridge magnets, T-shirts, mugs, country songs, an NBC made-for-TV movie and a sign outside her town saying, “Home of Jessica Lynch ex-POW”.

There is only one problem. It did not happen like that. Jessica Lynch was captured and she was in the hospital in Nassiriya and she was taken from there by US Special Forces. But the rest was all fiction, an audacious piece of Pentagon news management, which probably would not have been revealed if it had not been for a courageous BBC documentary called “War Spin”.

In the documentary, the BBC presenter asked Bryan Whitman, the architect of the Pentagon’s whole media strategy for the war, if he would release the full videotape of the rescue rather than the edited version. Whitman said no, he would not.  Jessica herself could have resolved all the conflicting information in one interview but the Pentagon would not allow it. It explained that she now had no memory of the incident and probably never would.

But she did, and she had the courage to announce that the Pentagon’s video tape was almost entirely a fiction, that she had been well-treated by the Iraqi medical staff and that she was embarrassed by the fuss.

The story died and the media moved on. But the affair had been noted by the British Ministry of Defence and its significance has only just emerged. The British Army has deployed its own embedded media squad, the Combat Camera team (CCT) in Afghanistan, a result of the MoD “identifying a need for managing the media during conflicts”.

The CCT’s video, photos and reports are distributed to broadcast and print media and published on the army’s YouTube channel. In other words the traditional war correspondent has been completely by-passed and the news of what is happening in Afghanistan is being provided by the MoD itself.

Obviously this cannot be objective. One CCT officer puts it; “Obviously, we are not looking to show the people we are with in a bad light—any Public Relations person doesn’t want to do that. But it you put out material that is overly biased it is never going to be used, so that would be counter-productive.”

If Afghanistan were full of traditional war correspondents, the presence of CCT teams would be balanced by their activities. But according to an MoD spokesman, except for a documentary team, there are no embedded war correspondents in Afghanistan at the moment.

So we have a situation where the news of what is happening there comes from the government department running the war. How can the public possibly know what is really going on as distinct from what the political/military class tells it is going on. The media should have seen it coming with the Jessica Lynch scandal. It did not and is paying the price.

Phillip Knightley is a veteran London-based journalist and commentator. For feedback, write to opinion@khaleejtimes.com


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