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Distrust and deception in the war zone

September 14, 2004

By Guy Dinmore

Published: September 14 2004

Nearly 50 years after William Howard Russell made his name in the Crimea, Winston Churchill, writing for various newspapers from Afghanistan, observed that war reporting was a kind of “game” that proffered “prizes, honour, advancement or experience”, writes Guy Dinmore.

Churchill wrote that the war correspondent “may remark occasions of devotion and self-sacrifice, of cool cynicism and stern resolve: he may participate in moments of wild enthusiasms, or of savage anger and dismay the skill of the general, the quality of the troops, the eternal principles of the art of war”.

Churchill’s observations carry echoes over a century later. Just as he followed the British campaign in Afghanistan, war reporters in Iraq were “embedded” with US and British forces, developing a similar intimacy with their uniformed companions, marvelling at their fortitude and the technology of modern warfare.

Since Americans tend to believe that propaganda is something only other countries use, embedding was a great success for the Pentagon. It succeeded in framing the issues for the daily bulletins, aided by the ability to broadcast live from the battleground.

After Saddam Hussein’s statue came tumbling down, however, marking the end of the first phase of the Iraqi conflict, reporting on this war has tended to return to more modern fault-lines, marked by distrust on all sides.

About 40 reporters and media workers have been killed in the conflict so far, including as many as 10 by US forces. Over the weekend, a Palestinian television reporter was killed during an attack by US helicopter gunships.

Despite the Pentagon’s denials, some journalists continue to believe media workers have been targeted deliberately – notably the tank shell that killed two cameramen from Reuters and Spain’s Telecinco, and the missile strike that killed an Al-Jazeera correspondent last year. And without doubt, Iraqi rebels have targeted reporters.

The fault-lines of distrust are also rooted in feeding a voyeuristic public that wants to feel – at a safe distance – for the victims and oppressed while enjoying the downfall of their persecutors.

I felt this acutely when I reported on the Kosovo conflict. Looking back, it is striking how reporters managed to evade – or were allowed to pass – Serb checkpoints and front-line positions to enter ethnic Albanian villages that had been brutalised by the Serbian soldiers and militia.

It is a fact that until Nato ground forces entered Kosovo in June 1999, not a single western reporter was killed in that brutal but low-intensity war. Western diplomats and monitors conspired to tip us off about the latest atrocity. The rebels – the Kosovo Liberation Army – felt encouraged by the favourable publicity to incite these raids by mounting their own on Serbs.

There is a strong suspicion among reporters that sometimes the rebels deliberately left their own villages defenceless, knowing that retribution would follow and that Nato would intervene.

So it did, and then the other shoe fell. When the press reported on Nato’s bungled air raids and missile strikes that killed many civilians – Serbs and ethnic Albanians – Nato was often evasive.

I remain sure that it was part of British “psy-ops” that I received a call one morning in Belgrade from the Foreign Office telling me that, tragically, a group of our ethnic Albanian friends in Pristina had been murdered. In fact, none had been killed. After the war, Alastair Campbell, then Tony Blair’s communications director, accused the foreign reporters who remained in Belgrade of allowing themselves to be used by the enemy.

The “war on terror” is the hardest to cover because, of course, it is not really a war at all. In his latest book, Al Qaeda’s Great Escape -a tale of how Osama bin Laden and his men evaded capture in Afghanistan – Philip Smucker muses on how the nature of war reporting has changed in his experiences over the last two decades.

Recognising that war reporting can be addictive and thrives on voyeurism, Mr Smucker – an American who was detained and thrown out of Iraq by US forces – warns that the western media risk making the clash of Christian and Muslim civilisations a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“I plead guilty, as a member of the Fourth Estate, to having promoted an ‘us versus them’ view of the current conflict,” he writes, accusing the media of failing to hold up for true scrutiny the US commanders and the nation’s policies.

Guy Dinmore, now the FT’s US diplomatic correspondent, has reported on conflicts in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Rwanda

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