Tales from the Tabloids

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Can we rely on press reports of the war in Afghanistan?

There is another battle going on that is a long way from the bombings and fighting on the frontline. This is the fight to dictate public opinion through the control and manipulation of the media. We are all familiar with the terms and phrases used by government ministers and defence officials who try to sanitise some of the horrific effects of war. In order for the government to keep the public on board and support for the war high, it has to make sure the right message gets out and any critical comment is kept to a minimum.

'The government puts a lot of pressure on journalists and the broadcasting institutions to support what they term "our side",' says Greg Philo, a professor in media studies at the University of Glasgow. And he goes on, 'We saw this very clearly in the Falklands War, where the BBC were criticised for being unpatriotic. Yet by the end of the war almost the whole of the media were criticising the way in which the government had handled its information policy. This is because they were putting out stories that were completely untrue. So, for example, they said there would be no D-Day style landing in the Falklands - and a few days later they did exactly that. They put this story out to deceive the Argentinians, but all of the papers and the BBC regarded it as unacceptable because of the damage it did to their own credibility. They said that they couldn't be seen so clearly to be government stooges.'

The military learnt an important lesson from the Falklands War - that one of the best ways to ensure you get the right stories out was to control the movement of journalists. Greg Philo recalls, 'The Americans were rather admiring about what happened during the Falklands War, and were interested in organising news management in what they would see as a more productive way. The American military blamed the media for having lost the Vietnam War, so when they saw what the British had been able to do during the Falklands War they instigated a whole number of changes. The main change was to control the movement of journalists. When the US invaded Grenada they actually stopped anyone going in for three days. Then the Americans went into Panama and they put the journalists in a hotel, who were extremely limited in what they were able to do. When they got to the Gulf War the whole system had been refined again into what became known as the "pool system", where journalists were accredited, and put in the pool. If you were not given accreditation then you were not treated as a proper journalist and were not given information by the authorities. If you are out of the pool you are on your own, and are likely to be deported. Journalists that stay outside the pool, like Robert Fisk, have the constant threat of being deported hanging over them.'

The pool system has also been in operation during the war in Afghanistan. To give some idea as to how restrictive this can make the work of journalists, here is a report from the Washington Post correspondent Carol Morello on 7 December who was with American troops at their base in Afghanistan. Morello reports just as news was coming in of American casualties: 'Late Wednesday evening a Marine spokesman approached reporters preparing to leave the Marine base in Afghanistan known as Camp Rino, and announced that American servicemen injured near Kandahar were at that very moment arriving and being treated less that 100 feet away. Another Marine spokesman read aloud from his computer a defence department news release about a "friendly fire" incident in which a US B-52 bomber had dropped ordnance near American and Afghan anti-Taliban forces, inflicting dozens of casualties.

'The journalists, confined to a warehouse, sprang to their feet. Could a photographer take pictures of the wounded arriving? No. Could print reporters just stand to the side and observe? No. Could reporters talk to Marine pilots who had airlifted the wounded to the base? No. Could they talk to doctors after they had finished treating the wounded? No. Could they talk to injured Afghan fighters who had also been transported to the base? No, none spoke English...

'In every war there is an innate tension between the military and the journalists who want to cover the battles up close, and cover the poignant and horrific reality of combat. With US troops in southern Afghanistan, however, reporters have operated under limitations even more restrictive than those imposed during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when reporters travelling with troops had their stories read and cleared by military escorts.'

Control of information

However, the Afghan war did present some difficulties for the military. 'The Afghan war all happened too fast,' says Greg Philo, 'plus there are many countries around Afghanistan, and the Americans didn't have much of a presence on the ground. So the information that came out was not very well controlled. This worried them, especially early on when they thought they were losing the propaganda war. Alastair Campbell went over to America to try and sort this out.'

Governments, however, can often call on their friends in the media to control the flow of information and support their actions. Nowhere was this illustrated more clearly than in the prelude to the Afghan war when Blair presented his 'evidence' that Bin Laden had been guilty of the events on 11 September. According to the Times the evidence was 'compelling', and 'there is no further need for diplomacy or room for negotiation - the choice, as the prime minister said, is to defeat the terrorists or be defeated. Action is therefore imminent.' The Daily Mail described it as a 'remarkable dossier', the 'liberal' Guardian said, 'It is simply perverse to pretend that anyone other than Bin Laden and his group is responsible,' while the Independent claimed the dossier was 'more than enough to justify action'. As for the Daily Telegraph, it commented, 'Even if there had been no evidence at all to link Bin Laden with the terrorist attack on 11 September - even if those attacks had not happened - the United States would be wholly justified in tracking him down and killing him.'

'Another crucial element of the propaganda war', explains Richard Keeble, a senior lecturer in journalism at City University, London, 'were the public opinion polls which helped in the manufacture of public consent for the military action. For none of the polls explored in any detail public views about peaceful, legal, diplomatic or humanitarian solutions to the crisis. Since the polls were based, like most of the news coverage, on the inevitability of military action, they served to create rather than reflect opinion.'

Press wars

Governments will also contact their friends in the media to make sure they comply and present the war in the best light. Shortly after the Afghan war began George Bush's National Security Adviser, Condoleezza Rice, held a 30-minute conference call with executives of the major US networks. The executives representing the news wings of ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, as well as two international broadcasters - MSNBC and CNN - agreed to government pressure not to broadcast live or in their entirety any statements from Osama bin Laden. They also agreed that any such statements would be screened by the government and edited if the government thought them to be inflammatory. One executive said their decision was 'motivated by patriotism'.

If, however, patriotism is not enough, there is a fallback position for the American government. The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) is a government body appointed by the president that controls who gets a broadcast licence. The FCC not only sanctions the licences for the television and radio stations, but also clears the mergers that have led to the huge US media conglomerates.

During the Vietnam War it was the threat of investigation by the FCC that prevented both the New York Times and the Washington Post from publishing the 'Pentagon Papers' which were a devastating internal study on the Vietnam War by the ministry of defence, leaked by Daniel Ellsberg. Today the head of the FCC is Michael Powell, son of Colin Powell. So the one person who has the most say as to who holds a broadcasting licence in the US is the son of one of those most responsible for the war in the first place. And the relationship works both ways - before he became Secretary of State Colin Powell was a member of the board of America Online prior to its merger with CNN's parent company, Time Warner.

In Britain control and ownership of the media is no less concentrated, with just a few proprietors controlling most of the papers and news broadcasts. In the face of this dominance, what possibility is there that the anti-war message can get through and dissenting opinion can be heard? Already we have seen that the media can be forced to respond under pressure from the anti-war movement. The fact that the Guardian virtually ignored the first anti-war demonstration in London brought a barrage of protest from readers. Its favourable report of the second, much larger, demonstration, and its critical report of police numbers, showed that, just as in the Falklands War, sections of the media lose all credibility if they are simply seen as stooges of the government.

It is worth bearing in mind, also, that the media is not some monolithic singular body in which differences of opinion and tensions are absent. There is a vicious circulation war going between the newspapers and television stations that makes them extremely sensitive to sales and viewing figures. This is a point made by Julian Petley, chair of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom: 'The inclusion of the Guardian and the Independent in their comment pages of the occasional views which were critical of American foreign policy and sought to explain why Americans are so hated in certain parts of the world rapidly became the occasion for a tirade of abuse from the Murdoch press, the Mail and Telegraph against what Richard Littlejohn in the Sun summed up as the "anti-American propaganda of the fascist left press", and "vile, racist, seditious rubbish"... So while George Bush was busy declaring "war on terrorism", sections of the British press declared war on each other and on the broadcasters.' The Mirror felt it necessary to recall John Pilger and Paul Foot to write against the war - the Mirror's readers wanted to read this point of view. It led to a two-page editorial attack on the Mirror by the biggest selling newspaper, the Sun, headlined 'Shame Of The Traitors'. The Sun accused the Mirror of being so 'blinded by an illogical hatred of the United States' that it 'went into peacenik overdrive', and filled its pages with 'disgusting, obscene and treacherous rubbish'.

The spats between the columnists and media proprietors represent real tensions and differing opinions in the wider world about the merits of the war and the truth of what is being reported. In times of war there is always a struggle for the truth, and for dissenting opinion. Governments are aware that if they begin to lose the propaganda battle at home this can make the military battle abroad so much harder. So the stronger the anti-war movement, the louder the anti-war message will be heard.