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Media turnaround

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

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The BBC's television centre in London. The broadcasting agency is at the centre of a storm.-JIM WATSON/AFP

The BBC's television centre in London. The broadcasting agency is at the centre of a storm.-JIM WATSON/AFP

The collaboration between the mainstream Western media and the Bush and Blair administrations over the Iraq war appears to be over - the former have, though belatedly, begun scrutinising intensely the claims made by the two regimes.

THOSE who politicised intelligence in order to lead us to war, at the expense of national security, hope to cover their track by corrupting the system even further." This quote from a recent column by Paul Krugman in The New York Times shows how far the mainstream media in the United States have swung, from the time the invasion of Iraq was launched until now. It also pinpoints the key concerns that are agitating the media in the U.S. and the United Kingdom as they shed their deference to the governments concerned and revert to the role of watchdogs of the public interest.

It was not as if the media in the two countries that invaded Iraq and currently occupy it, collectively underwent a Damascus experience. Atrocities had been committed against civilians during the aerial campaign and ground attack; the killing of dozens of civilians in Hilla had been reported by Robert Fisk of The Independent and a few others who covered the war from the Iraqi side; pictures of bodies lying torn up in a Baghdad suburb had been carried by the world's newspapers. But the photographs and reports had not evoked the same degree of abhorrence in the media or among the public as had the images from My Lai in the Vietnam War. The media, especially the segment that was "embedded" with the invading forces, appeared to have taken the horrors of the Iraq War in their stride.

Then again, the anti-war movement was at its strongest before the war began and, in fact, progressively faded to the margins as the Anglo-American formations advanced into Iraq. Therefore, the change in the media's attitudes could not be attributed to a drastic shift in public sentiments. Neither did the media suddenly succumb to their pack-instincts and follow the lead of diligent journalists who had covered the real war. Fisk, easily the best on the West Asian beat, had been something like a lone beacon during the war and for much of the period of occupation. If anything, the change in the media's attitude towards Iraq appears to have been shaped by the commercial interests of the organisations that run the media and the professional interests of the journalists. Considerations, both moral and legal, raised by the invasion have had, at best, a secondary impact.

Many journalists were shaken free from their "embedded" shackles once President George W. Bush, declared that the phase of formal combat was over. These journalists could no longer limit themselves to reportage of the actions of the military units they were embedded with. The competition for exclusive "sound bites" and special reports forced them to cast their nets wider. At the same time, their audience's euphoria over the easy victories had begun to abate. The other side of the picture began to emerge almost immediately.

Reports about the lack of enthusiasm, often the outright hostility, with which Iraqis greeted the Anglo-American forces were the first signs that the worm had begun to turn. The lack of security in Baghdad and other cities and the collapse of the civic infrastructure were the other areas that the media began to inquire into. In this phase the reportage was still skimming the surface with the journalists trying to draw a clearer picture of the situation in a country after a war had been inflicted on it. Overall, the theme was that there were problems in plenty, that the media were drawing attention to these problems, and that those in control in Iraq were serious about repairing the situation. In the immediate aftermath of the war the media continued to repose faith in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the group of American and British civil administrators running Iraq, or in the governments behind them.

One snake, however, continued to lurk in the grass. At first the media appeared to be merely teasing the CPA and the military leadership about their lack of success in discovering traces of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which Iraq was supposed to possess. But, as time passed and the occupying forces were unable to unearth any weapons stocks, or manufacturing facilities or even documents, the media's suspicions began to grow. The tactics that the U.S. and British governments adopted to deal with the media's quickened interest in the matter conveyed the impression that they had not anticipated that the phase of supportive coverage would come to an end so soon.

At first, U.S. and British governments spokespersons thought they could get away with confident assertions that traces of the WMD programme would indeed be found. They then shifted tack and began to contend that although traces of the WMD might not be discovered, there could be no doubt that such material did exist at one time and that, therefore, the war was justified. By then the media were getting ahead of the game. It had moved on to the question of whether the war had been necessary when Iraq did not possess the means to threaten its neighbours, leave alone the U.S. or the U.K. The two governments, still complacent, began to talk of the well-recorded brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime as the real justification for the war.

As the governments side-stepped the queries about the Iraqi WMD, the media began to scent that it was on the trail of a big one. Reports questioning the veracity of the governments' assertions on Iraq's WMD programme had been published earlier, but they had hardly been noticed so long as the media pack had been caught up in the jingoism of the political leadership. These reports were discovered afresh. It was clear that these reports, prepared after intense interaction with U.N. weapons inspectors, provided a more authentic version of the situation. A deficit in a government's credibility is the stuff the media thrive on. In the U.S. and the U.K., the lack of credibility could be traced to the highest echelons. Bush had pushed the case for war against Iraq in his State of the Union address earlier this year. Sixteen words in that address had conveyed the unmistakable impression that he was convinced Iraq had tried to buy uranium from Niger. Serious doubts had been raised about the authenticity of reports that spoke of a Niger-Iraq uranium connection, but the media might have treated Bush's assertion as a mere, and perhaps pardonable, exaggeration if traces of a WMD programme had actually been found in Iraq. Since no such traces had been found, the media began to swing to the conclusion that the case for war had been built on fraudulent claims.

Bush and his senior aides once again resorted to evasive tactics. A careful reading of the President's words would show that he had not directly asserted that Iraq had revived its nuclear weapons programme, Bush's aides said. He had merely referred to a British claim that they believed an Iraq-Niger link did exist. If there was anyone to be faulted it was not the President but the members of his staff who had not properly vetted the contents of his address or the British government, which had passed on unverified information in the first place. Or so went the spin.

The media now had a new allegation to level against the government, that of weaselling - Bush was trying to weasel his way out of the consequence of an assertion that he had made by pointing a finger in another direction. His aides sought to bail him out with an act, which at best can be described as one of half-contrition and half-innocence. These efforts by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, failed to convince the media. So the Central Intelligence Agency's (C.I.A.) Director-General, George Tenet, came forward to confess that he was the real culprit. The media were not impressed. Tenet's grand gesture of falling on his sword to save his chief merely showed that the Bush administration would sacrifice anyone and anything to get its way, was the media's general assessment.

If the administration's lack of credibility and its willingness to sacrifice anyone for its survival were issues that were already agitating the media, it soon had another, which cut closer to the bone. Senior administration figures had already accused the media of indulging in a "feeding frenzy". New directives, reportedly issued from the highest levels, appeared to show that the administration was taking hard measures to curb the flow of negative reports. Personnel of the C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies had apparently been ordered to not speak to the press. The picture of a Republican administration that resorted to fabrications and was ruthless and hostile to the press seemed reminiscent of the Nixon era.

MATTERS are far worse for the British government of Prime Minister Tony Blair. The media and public in the U.K. have grown increasingly disgusted with his poodle-like loyalty to the U.S. administration. A raging controversy between No.10 Downing Street and the BBC had played out with more viciousness than the media-administration rumpus in the U.S. It was in this atmosphere that the David Kelly episode slammed down on Blair. Amidst all the confusion about who said what and to whom, certain facts stood out.

Kelly, one of the most respected experts on biological and chemical weapons, had told reporters, at the minimum, that Iraq's WMD capability was somewhat lesser than what Washington and London had consistently claimed it was. The Prime Minister's Office and the Defence Ministry considered Kelly's conversations with some journalists as acts of indiscretion. They, therefore, hounded Kelly to the point where he was driven to commit suicide. Across the Atlantic, Bush is in a better shape. The adverse publicity over the month had whetted the appetites of the nine Democrats who have out done their markers for next year's presidential election. Bush's approval ratings are, however, still above the 50 per cent mark and the fourth week of July brought news which seemed, at least temporarily, to mark a turn of the tide. The killing of Saddam Hussein's sons, Uday and Qusay, gave the administration some hope that it would be able to ride out the messy situation.

It is unlikely that the media will let up on Bush for anything more than a short spell of time. Quotes similar to the one made by Paul Krugman did appear before the war. But, only in the alternative media. That such opinions have begun to be expressed in the mainstream press only shows how far Bush has slid in the assessment of his country's media.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Aug 15, 2003.)

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