The blindness of contempt is more hopeless than the blind-
ness of ignorance; for contempt kills the light which is ignorance
mereley leaves unignited.
– Rabindranath Tagore, East and West, 1922
Norms and values, as well as information, are transmitted to audiences in overt and covert ways via the news media. In the event of a conflict, the news media, with its growing ability to define ‘reality’, is all too often expected to take on the task of creating public consensus, of contributing its patriotic bit. This means abandoning a questioning stance and highlighting certain issues at the expense of more uncomfortable ones that go against the dominant script. In order to project unity, rhetoric about national and cultural identity gets revived, even invented, in order to stimulate feelings of homogeneity within groups, and to identify the enemies as ‘they’. While this phenomenon holds true in much of the western (‘international’) media’s coverage of global events, it was particularly evident in the weeks leading up to the war in Iraq, with the underlying elite consensus structuring facets of the news, choosing subjects and framing issues in a manner that consequently limited what the public read/saw in the name of news.
The mainstream (and overwhelmingly corporate) media in America under-reported the massive and unprecedented anti-war protests seen all across the world, including in the US. Once the war broke out, this popular opposition went even more under-reported in the Anglo-American media. Biased towards elite actors – the ‘newsmakers’, as the media constantly reminds us – this omission was justified in terms of the lack of formal political opposition, with US Democrats and British Conservatives backing their respective governments in the war on Iraq.
The conduct of the media during the course of the military conflict also reveals such biases. Throughout the campaign, the media regularly reminded their audiences that non-embedded journalists reporting from within Iraq had “their movements monitored by the Iraqi regime”, suggesting that such journalists’ accounts were somehow tainted as a consequence. Yet there was little parallel discussion of the outcome of accounts by embedded journalists made to sign contracts to follow the coalition’s direction and orders: the one-sidedness of reporting from the perspective of the troops, the culture of silence that working and living with their ‘protectors’ engendered, or even the outright falsity of their early news reports – Iraqis firing Scud missiles or the ‘fall’ of Basra and Umm Qasr, for instance – that arose out of a singular reliance on US and UK military sources.
About 600 journalists, mostly Anglo-American, acquiesced to the contract described by the US Department of Defense as “mutually beneficial to both the Government and news media organizations”, and requiring journalists to abandon their duty of holding power accountable for its actions and effectively to function as a propaganda arm of the aggressors.
A parallel policy by the Pentagon created inequality of access to events in Iraq for journalists who resisted the embed programme (and by extension to military dictates about what should be reported), leading the European Broadcasting Union’s head of news to comment: “They have created a caste system with embedded journalists – usually from countries in the so-called coalition who can associate with the troops – and the truly unilateral broadcaster who is prevented from coming anywhere near the news”. Indian journalists who had to report from countries neighbouring Iraq also drew attention to this discriminatory policy, the implications of which are disturbing: a shrinking of space for independent perspectives with even countries like India with independent, developed media systems depending on secondary sources – primarily Anglo-American news organisations and agencies – to interpret for their audiences events through defining stages of the conflict.
In bed with the Pentagon
That embedded journalists, including those of the BBC, often resorted to the term ‘we’ while referring to US and UK military efforts reveals the defining orientation of such reporters towards the coalition’s interests and objectives. London Times reporter Chris Ayres’ account of his embedded experience, which among other things necessitated trying hard “not to think about the Iraqis being blown apart” (emphasis added) by American missiles, exposes the severe limits of the neutrality and fairness of such reportage. “I noticed that some of the US press corps had brought along their own American flags (complete with poles) to stick in the Iraqi mud”, Ayres notes when commenting on the relative lack of enthusiasm for invasion displayed by the Marines in contrast with the excitement of many war correspondents. “So much for objectivity”, he laments. Ayres’ portrayal of Iraqi soldiers, rather underdeveloped and one-dimensional, provides a sharp contrast to his empathetic portrayal of American troops as complex human beings, progressively altered by the experience of military combat. (Emphasis added):
At al-Diwaniyah, the Iraqis seemed to be everywhere: in front of us, behind us and to both sides. Every night they attempted crude attacks. Day by day, I saw the Americans become more brutalised. As the fatalities mounted the Marines began to resent the rules of engagement that prevented them firing at civilians. Many of these civilians, after all, turned into warriors at night. It was sad to see the Marines – many of them intelligent and sensitive men behind the defensive bravado – lose their innocence. They had become killers, and talented ones at that.
Being embedded with the troops created a commonality of interest; Ayres’ resultant dilemma however could only be resolved in one way:
For journalists, wearing the chemical suits, patterned like standard Marine desert fatigues, posed an ethical problem. We looked like Marines. To the Iraqis, we were Marines. It seemed like yet another blow to our objectivity. I came to the conclusion, however, that I would rather lose what little chance of objectivity I had left than die from an Iraqi blister agent attack. That must have suited the Marines just fine. … My objectivity was shot to bits. All I wanted was for the Americans to win quickly: for my own safety, rather than any political reasons.
When after 10 days he wished to quit, the reaction from the American military planners was hostile. A senior military public affairs officer called him a “piss-poor journalist” for writing pieces on Iraqi attacks on supply lines and stalled progress in the military campaign. “I’m glad you’re leaving, because otherwise I would be kicking your ass out of here”, the officer said.
Post-war accounts from embedded journalists like Chris Ayres, or CENTCOM-based journalist Mike Wolff, about reporting under the ‘benign’ gaze of the American military provide a telling comment on the grotesque realities of war while raising troubling questions about the ethics, effects and indeed, sheer physical dangers of such crisis journalism. After the cessation of the main military campaign, the BBC admitted that it did not adequately convey to its audience that accounts of embedded reporters provided only one snapshot in the larger picture of war. The fact remains that through most of the conflict, the standpoint of the military, with little critical journalistic comment, was elevated over all other perspectives on the war. According to Ajai Shukla of New Delhi television (NDTV):
The biggest challenge for a journalist reporting the present Iraq conflict lies in bypassing the sophisticated American media management campaign that has been put in place to mould public opinion in favour of this war. Journalists must now consciously divert their attention away from the easily available stories of soldiers and military success and focus instead on the more difficult stories of human beings caught up in the war.
Chemical Ali of the sandpit
In the months since the collapse of the regime in Baghdad, the Anglo-American news discourse continues to be symbolic of an unspoken agreement between the media and the government. At times this symbiosis takes on an overtly crude form. The president of the news division of the American network CBS describes his network’s provision of bulletins for the ‘Towards Freedom’ propaganda channel broadcasting into Iraq from an American military plane as an “appropriately patriotic gesture”. Tony Blair’s spin doctors present such action as legitimate propaganda exercises. On the popular news show ‘Good Morning America’, produced by ABC television, anchor Diana Sawyer expresses urgency about American blankets reaching Iraq in time so that the Iraqis can “see examples of American generosity”. On the British television channel ITV, a correspondent reporting from Iraq, while standing amidst a landscape visibly decimated by the bombing, glibly discusses how America can “reap the benefits of this war”. In the media, captured ex-Iraqi officials are referred to by names such as “Chemical Ali” or “Dr Germ”. “Widely known as…” say these news reports, even though such epithets are more often than not circulated by the western governments to convey a sense of bestiality of demonised enemies to their publics.
Coverage of the Iraqi people, or of other putative ‘terror’ states, is no better. While the pulling down of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad was declared as “momentous” by the BBC, anti-US demonstrations in Iraq since then, attracting significantly larger numbers of people, have been treated casually at best. (“Is Iraq in danger of becoming an Islamic state which will turn against the West?” asked a news anchor on the BBC.) Syria is a victim of similar reductive, monolithic portrayal: in an interview to the BBC, a US official crudely described Syria’s cooperation with the US in the recent arrest of Iraq’s former intelligence chief as “the only good thing that has come out of that country in a long time”, a sentiment whose underlying assumptions also gain frequent expression today with reference to Iran and North Korea. Whole nations and their peoples are thus defined purely in terms of whether they are ‘for’ or ‘against’ the West, while identities, histories or national trajectories of their own are eliminated from the script.
Prior to the Iraq campaign, the Anglo-American media chose to parrot establishment views about the threat Saddam Hussein posed to the ‘civilised world’, a threat presented as so imminent that the UN could not be given the six months which Hans Blix saw as necessary to complete inspections in Iraq. The urgency displayed by America prior to the war contrasts sharply with the current calls for patience as Tommy Franks declares that it may take up to a year to trace Iraq’s alleged ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The speciousness of the coalition argument, with implications of life and death for untold numbers of Iraqis, has hardly been challenged by the mainstream media. As the goalposts get shifted, the media has now taken up the trope of ‘rescue’, ie regime change, mirroring the self-congratulatory stance of the American and British governments that view themselves as liberators of an oppressed people lacking agency.
An examination of how the western media frames the issue of weapons as signifiers of the orientalist binaries of ‘good’/‘evil’ is crucial, not in the least because this war was, according to Washington DC and London, “a necessary pre-emptive strike to divest the Iraqi regime of its weapons of mass destruction, which pose a grave threat to the civilized world”. The effects of the weapons used by the former have rarely merited the description of ‘destruction’, let alone ‘mass destruction’ in the western media. Such skewed reportage effectively creates the sense among western public opinion that ‘our’ weapons are good/precise/smart/legitimate; ‘their’ weapons are evil/indiscriminate/illegal. Yet, in Vietnam between 1961 and 1975 the American military dropped millions of litres of chemical weapons, carrying out what the world’s leading environmental scientists have termed as “the largest chemical warfare campaign in history”. Lethal chemicals such as Agent Orange, used by the Pentagon, with full awareness of their fatal effects, linger on in the country’s environment, where they have thus far been transmitted to three generations of Vietnamese. Over 500,000 civilians have died and an estimated 650,000 people suffer from life-threatening illnesses such as cancer and birth defects.
In Afghanistan, by some estimates the most landmined country in the world, the number of civilians killed as a result of America’s continuing ‘war on terrorism’ is well over 3000, a number which continues to rise with the ongoing military activities of the 11,000 US troops stationed there. American and British governments described the dropping of 1500 cluster bombs on Iraq in the current “war for civilisation” as “a legitimate military strategy”, despite the fact that their use violates the basic moral principle of maintaining a distinction between belligerents and innocent civilians. According to Human Rights Watch, the estimated 24 million bomblets dropped by the US and UK in the first Gulf war have killed or injured over 4000 Iraqi civilians since 1991.
Use of depleted uranium (DU) continues to be justified by the American and British military establishments with the claim that harmful effects of DU exposure have yet to be conclusively proved, despite significant evidence to the contrary (Himal, May 2003). However, accounts of American and British veterans of the first Gulf war, one in four of whom are today injured, tell another story than that proffered by their former commanders – of DU exposure leading to numerous health problems, from chronic fatigue syndrome to leukaemia. The effect then, on a defenceless population on the ground – whose voices are rarely carried in the media – where such weapons are dropped can only be disastrous. This obscuring, under emphasis, even outright denial by governments of what ‘we’ do – “murder from a safe distance”, pointed out a recent anti-war statement signed by over 900 US war veterans – goes unquestioned in the western media conditioned by the worthy/unworthy victim dichotomy.
More damagingly, the media have failed to question their governments over the (il)legitimacy of fundamental issues in the current conflict: Paul Wolfowitz’s contention that the war on Iraq and the subsequent ‘reconstruction’ can be funded by Iraqi oil receipts; an American ex-general heading the Iraqi administration; the secret dealings of the Bush administration from as early as September last year to ‘reconstruct’ Iraq; day-to-day aspects of Iraqi life from oil to agriculture to education being sold off to politically connected American companies in blatant disregard of the United Nations – all have more or less gone unchallenged in the media. The extent that concerns have been raised concerns an inequitable distribution of the spoils. As a journalist from ABC said, “That big American companies would win major contracts to rebuild Iraq is not so surprising. But even such loyal US allies as Great Britain have been shut out of the bidding”.
The promises being made by Bush and Blair to the Iraqi people are exactly the ones that were given to the Afghans in the wake of their country’s ‘liberation’ from the Taliban in November 2001, when declarations of the Anglo-American political elite claiming ‘we will not turn our backs on the people of Afghanistan again’ were eagerly lapped up by the media. Given such circumstances, comment and analysis of the present state of Afghanistan would have provided valuable comparative context and depth to the reports of the conflict in Iraq and the arguments for it. However, for an event-obsessed media, Afghanistan currently holds little value. Too taken up with reporting the assurances being doled out to the Iraqis and the coalition rhetoric for a ‘free and democratic’ Iraq, the American and British media, have deemed it unnecessary to hold Bush and Blair accountable for their promises to export freedom, democracy and the benevolence of the free market to Afghanistan. 18 months after its ‘liberation’, the sombre reality is that Afghan civilians continue to be killed by American ‘smart’ bombs in the endless pursuit of ‘terror’, the country remains fractured and under the repressive influence of warlords with President Hamid Karzai’s writ effectively limited to Kabul, while trade in opium, according to the World Bank, is currently contributing more money to the Afghan economy than the much touted foreign aid, most of which in any event is being channelled into donor-administered projects with little Afghan input.
As was famously posited by Edward Said, the power of the self-serving discourse of orientalism effectively binds the field of meanings within which the media choose to operate. The narrowness of the coverage is reflective of a subterranean belief among journalists that Iraqis need to be led by the hand by the West, the repository of higher wisdom of what is fit for their country (and indeed the wider world). Journalism that thinks outside the frame to question, rather than uncritically report, notions of western superiority and benevolence (most notably that of veteran journalist Robert Fisk, who covered the war for London’s Independent, as well as The Guardian coverage of the war) has been disproportionately low in the overall flow of images and accounts in the western media.
To be fair, the media are hardly unique in displaying such a neo-colonial mindset. Niall Ferguson, British historian and a firm advocate of the project of empire, writing in The New York Times Magazine in late April, explicitly endorsed the view of Wall Street Journal editorial features editor Max Boot that “the United States should provide places like Afghanistan and other troubled countries with [quoting Boot] ‘the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets’”. Ferguson laments, however, that America’s “young elites have no desire whatsoever to spend their lives running a screwed-up, sun-scorched sandpit like Iraq”. If a noted academic like Ferguson would so offensively describe a land that is home to a millennia-old culture, is it surprising that journalists display prejudice and ignorance?
Dissent in a globalised world
While anti-war demonstrations seemed to unite the world in recent months, Jonathan Raban, writing in The Guardian, argues that there is a crucial difference between protests in cities like Rome, Athens, New York or London and those unfolding on the streets of Cairo, Islamabad or Amman. While the former are clearly motivated by outrage over the belligerent policies of Bush and Blair, he writes, they do not feel the latter’s “sense of intense personal injury and affront, a violation of the self.”
Yet, globalisation of the media landscape, with advances in communications technology, in particular satellite TV and the Internet, as well as the existence of significant diasporic communities, especially within western societies, is making it difficult to carry on talking in first-world dualisms about oriental and occidental cultures as wholly separate, autonomous or independent.
The existence of diasporas is perhaps the most significant: the creation of trans-national communities – and from the point of view of the media, trans-national audiences – through the large-scale movement of peoples from nearly every part of the globe across territorial borders during the past half century is an entirely novel development in human history. The intimate sense of humiliation and dishonour that Raban refers to was evident in the opinions expressed during the conflict on a morning call-in radio show on the BBC Asian Network. The station was launched nationally last October for the five million-strong British (South) Asian community, as part of the public broadcaster’s effort to rid itself of a predominantly white image and better reflect the diverse ethnic makeup of contemporary British society.
With the outbreak of war, several callers on the show took issue with Bush’s simplistic binaries, expressing opposition to an “illegal and unjust” war, deep suspicion of the motives behind it (“it is all about Iraqi oil” was a constant refrain), fear that the conflict, far from making the world more amenable to ‘freedom’, was deepening existing divides and resentment, and even hope that the Iraqis might successfully resist “the western invasion” of their country. Inevitably the global also informs the local: the divisive politics of the Subcontinent spilled into discussions, with calls on the one hand for America to similarly redress the human rights violations against Muslims by the Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat, and on the other for India to follow America’s example and strike Pakistan. As Arundhati Roy has observed, the most troubling aspect of this “racist war” is that “it engenders racism in everybody – perpetrators, victims, spectators. It sets out the parameters of the debate, it lays a grid out for a particular way of thinking”.
The call-in show audience also repeatedly challenged the line adopted by most sections of the British media that the outbreak of war had made debates about its legitimacy redundant. It is interesting to note that while 70 percent of the US public supported the Bush government’s military action in Iraq, only 30 percent of African-Americans backed it. The editor of a black newspaper in San Francisco explained this deep split as a sense among the community that you cannot export something you do not have at home, thus suggesting that at a deeper level the black community’s opposition to the war was reflective of a sense of alienation from the mainstream. While polls in Britain monitoring public opinion during the war did not offer a parallel break-up, voices heard on the Asian Network depict a similar picture of disconnectedness between the British political elite and the British Asian community. As Simon Cottle points out,
The term ‘minority’ after all is not simply a numerical designation but refers to imbalances of economic, political and social power – inequalities often forged in relation to a colonial past, diaspora histories, and contemporary patterns of disadvantage, discrimination and unfair access to the means of cultural representation.
A related theme in caller opinions was the lack of identification with the language of war used by the American and British governments, its duplicity internalised by the mainstream media. While the media focussed on the immediate conflict, providing little context or history, listeners questioned the hypocrisy of a western foreign policy which had sold military hardware, including the means to create chemical and biological weapons, to Saddam Hussein’s regime in the past, withheld substantial amounts of humanitarian aid to the Iraqis through sanctions over the last decade and was now bombing the country to ‘liberate’ it. They also expressed opposition to the media’s callous disregard for Iraqi lives implicit in references to the killing and maiming of defenceless civilians as “collateral damage”, “a public relations disaster” for the American and British governments, or even more dismissively as “a war with miraculously few casualties”; the glossing over of the humanitarian effects of the coalition’s use of cruise missiles, laser-guided 2000-pound bombs, depleted uranium and cluster bombs all designed to “shock and awe” the Iraqis, their use justified by constant references to Iraq’s yet-to-be-found weapons of ‘mass destruction’. Amidst approval of the Asian Network for providing a platform to articulate their views marginalised in the mainstream debate, callers also expressed a growing reliance on Al-Jazeera television, which in their view better addressed their needs and concerns, given the establishment bias of the Anglo-American media. Defending the Arab network’s coverage of the war, a caller asked, “What right does America have to oppose Al-Jazeera carrying pictures of American POWs when the superpower’s detention of the so-called ‘illegal combatants’ in Guantanamo Bay also defies international law?”
The globalisation of television news and its accompanying international public sphere is still dominated by Anglo-American ideologies conveyed in the texts of internationally distributed Anglophone media (Reuters, CNN, BBC, Fox/Sky News etc). Their colossal power and global reach succeeds to a large extent in edging out smaller rivals from the market and limiting possible alternative views and representations that the audience can access. However, the ‘first draft of history’ is no longer being solely written by white male journalists.
Al-Jazeera’s coverage of the campaign in Afghanistan and the Arab media’s coverage of the current conflict mean that several contesting representations exist in the public domain, making for a more critical audience. This is in sharp contrast to the media environment during the first Gulf war when the overwhelming communications superiority of western powers ensured that their image of ‘reality’ got played out all over the world. (It also meant that America could get away with dubious acts, like the bombing of an Iraqi army in retreat, since the mainstream media chose not to cover it.) It then becomes interesting to consider what effects the presence of a plural (as opposed to exclusively western) news environment might be having on the manner in which the military conducts itself, and how threatened it might feel by emerging news media such as Al-Jazeera which gives Arabs an opportunity to represent themselves and contest the negative stereotypes that abound in the western media. That Al-Jazeera’s bureaus were at the receiving end of American firepower, first in Kabul and then in Baghdad; that protests against America’s attack on the Palestine Hotel inhabited by journalists who had by then moved out of the embedded programme, were flippantly dismissed by the Pentagon spokesperson – “Baghdad is not a safe place. We do not recommend anyone to be there” – and justified by Colin Powell in the most bizarre (or perhaps chilling?) terms – “The amount of force was proportionate to the threat against United States forces” – shows up the arrogant face of American power, its minatory notions about how a media displaying any independence should be ‘managed’.
At the height of the conflict, when NDTV’s news content was off air as it switched to broadcasting itself instead of on Star News, messages on its website by Indian viewers from the US and Britain to West Asia spoke of their longing for an Indian channel to provide them with a reliable account of the conflict and cover angles of the news which were not being adequately addressed. Supra- and sub-national journalism by the likes of Asian Network, Al-Jazeera and NDTV is thus creating political communities within even western nations. The presence of diasporas and cable and satellite technology means that these emerging channels are producing ‘micro-spheres’ in an extra-societal global public space creating counter-flows to mainstream news coverage not just internationally but, perhaps more crucially, domestically, creating a multi-layered information order.
Will such channels help to further discursive scope assimilating all sides in an argument towards a richer, plural, more humane debate? Or will they lead to the ‘ghettoisation’ of peripheral views while the centre continues more or less unchanged, stubbornly resistant towards, even contemptuous of, views that oppose those of its own? Either way, these emerging developments in the global media landscape must carry great ramifications. Clearly, simplistic construction of collective national identities by the mainstream Anglo-American media purporting to speak on behalf of ‘we’ is posing problems within their multicultural societies. As far as the latter go, the point of view of the ‘other’ no longer exists out there; it now has to be contended with, at home as it were, blurring, on the one hand, the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’, but also exposing the fallacies of simplistic assumptions of a common global village in the 21st century. Divisions in the ‘network society’ not only run deep, they are sustained in the prime by the media.