Reporting the Iraq war

WHAT has happened to the war in Iraq? On the fifth anniversary of the invasion by the Coalition of the Willing (largely the United States and Britain), the war has all but vanished from western newspapers and television screens.

By Phillip Knightley (One man’s view)

Published: Sun 23 Mar 2008, 8:47 AM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:26 PM

Yes, there are the usual anniversary roundups and comparisons and some half-hearted attempts to sum up how the war is going, but day-by-day coverage of the most important international story of our times seems to have dried up.

What has gone wrong? Rageh Omaar, who has reported Iraq for British television for 10 years says, “Our ability to report what must be the most consequential war of the past 30 years has been eroded to the point where journalists, however large and well-funded their news organisations, can only try to provide a snapshot of the war’s impact on Iraqi society.” He describes Iraq as “an information abyss” and accuses television news organisations of perpetrating a small fraud on British viewers by “not explaining our severely limited capacity to report from Iraq.”

Omaar says that the problem goes back to the system for controlling the media imposed by the Coalition right from the beginning of the invasion — “embedding”. To report the war a correspondent had either to go to Iraq as an independent or “unilateral” and risk being killed by either the insurgents or by so-called “friendly fire” from the Americans, or be embedded with a Coalition unit. He or she would eat, sleep, travel and come under fire with this unit. No change of unit was allowed. As a result, the correspondent came to identify with that unit (some journalists even joined in fighting along with the soldiers) and saw the war exclusively from that perspective.

The Pentagon considered that this would result in more favourable coverage of the war than if correspondents were allowed free movement. It was right. But in the first year and a half of the occupation a huge variety of media organisations and Iraqi and Western freelance journalists, Arab journalists from smaller and less known publications, satellite news channels and bloggers also reported from Iraq.

However, as security conditions worsened, violence against journalists and the people they worked with increased and it became dangerous to try to report on the situation. Reporters Without Borders says hundreds of Iraqi journalists have been forced into exile and are now living in Jordan or Syria. “But exile does not mean an end to their problems. Most do not find work and many have had to give up journalism.” The burden of reporting the Occupation thus fell on the Western media. But as Omaar points out, “Getting around Baghdad, or speaking to people on the streets, has become incredibly dangerous. It’s now almost impossible unless you are surrounded by armed bodyguards or you observe the ‘twenty-minute’ rule. That is, you allow yourself no more than twenty minutes to get out of a car, speak to Iraqis and then leave. Any longer and onlookers will phone local militia to say that they’ve seen Westerners on the street.”

The UN High Commission for Refugees has reports of four cases of Iraqis being killed specifically because they had been interviewed by Western journalists. But what about the safety of the green zone, the area in central Baghdad, turned into a fort by the Americans and until now considered a place of safety? Not any more. Rockets from outside the area have struck several times recently. And those foreign news bureaus outside the zone are armed compounds with concrete blast walls, turrets and security checks, and manned by mercenaries hired to protect the media. Staff members of the major western news organisations are insured against being killed or maimed while in Iraq. The cost of this insurance is now enormous and is a factor in deciding where the reporters will be allowed to go and the size of their mercenary bodyguard.

The viewer sees none of this — hence Omaar’s accusation of “fraud.” The viewer sees only a shot of the journalist talking to camera or interviewing someone. What is not shown are the three or four heavily-armed mercenaries (£500 a day) with walkie-talkies and backup cars surrounding the journalist. These are the main reasons for the poor reporting of Iraq. But there may be another, lesser known one. A British publisher is soon to issue an academic article by Susan Carruthers called “No One’s Looking: The Disappearing Audience for War”. It argues that TV audiences may be suffering from compassion fatigue, that the horror of modern warfare, the dead and maimed women and children in places like Iraq, have become too much for us and that we are simply switching off. I hope she is wrong. We should face up to what is being done in our name.

Phillip Knightley is a veteran British journalist and commentator

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