Gloating and Biased Journalism

Gloating seems to have become one of the most used words in discussion of the Iraqi war. From the beginning ABC commentators and others who were against the war have been accused, with some justification, of gloating over every apparent reverse and mistake of the coalition forces, every accidental civilian death, and every loss of personnel on the part of the "aggressors". After the rapid and successful drive on and entry into Baghdad, those who rejoiced in the speed and the relatively low civilian casualties of the operation were in their turn accused of gloating. In some cases there was some justice in this also.

Gloating returned on the anti-war side with the outbreak of looting and civil chaos after the seizure of Baghdad, with the ransacking of hospitals and the irreversible losses imposed on the national archaeological museum, comparable only to the destruction of national heritage in China during the cultural revolution. Contrary to what one radio commentator claimed, the looting in Baghdad was not worse than that in Berlin in 1945 - the systematic looting perpetrated by the Russians was far worse, not to mention their mass rapes, most recently documented in Antony Beevor's book Berlin - the Downfall 1945.

At the time of writing the big question is, where are the weapons of mass destruction (WMDs)? The anti-American gloaters are already claiming, with the help of Saddam's surrendered science  advisor, that the whole exercise was misconceived and that no such weapons exist. This may simply be to escape war crimes charges and to be able to say, "Nobody told me". But if there were no WMDs, one can only wonder why the Ba'athists regime refused to be frank with the UN inspectors, so bringing on their own destruction. Did they think they could bluff their way through and inflict a moral defeat on America by way of the UN Security Council? But then one has to ask why, if indeed the WMDs do exist, they were not used against the invaders? Perhaps to this must be added, not yet anyway. The scorpion may not yet be quite dead. And the role of Syria in the whole affair is not clear. Could some of the WMDs have been warehoused on Syrian territory?

Certainly the issue of the WMDs must be central. This was the reason why it was argued the disarming of Iraq could not wait on further proof. If it should prove that there has been relatively little manufacture of such weapons for some years, and that the nuclear weapons program in particular was not progressing, the case for war no matter how desirable the result will look rather weak. However there was little opportunity to search for the evidence in the heat of battle, and judgement must await further discoveries. Although the huge bunker complex under Baghdad with elaborate protection against biological and chemical weapons is one indicator.

The balance of gloating now seems to have moved to the supposed determination of the Americans to grab all the reconstruction contracts. There is indeed a danger that Australian wheat delivery contracts might be threatened by American wheatgrowers, but for the rest it is mere speculation. If it is true that non-government organisations are to be excluded that is for the better, given the harm they have inflicted elsewhere. What has become apparent overall is an unsavoury climate of point scoring on both sides of the debate, but especially on the anti-war side. Not all of these have hoped for a disaster for the coalition, but the repeated use of the term "quagmire" to describe the inevitable difficulties of post-victory administration and pacification of supposed resistance fighters smacks of the same hopeful speculation on disaster. Nevertheless it is perfectly true that huge difficulties loom ahead, and the impact on Arab and other Muslim countries is unforeseeable as is that on terrorist activity. The cooler heads amongst those who regarded the war as necessary always reminded us of this.

Sometimes the gloating on both sides, especially after the entry into Baghdad, has become almost unbearable. It has been gloat and counter-gloat, according to the news of the day. Equally, there are already allegations of falsification of news. Thus, not to leave the former Iraqi information minister feeling lonely, even a few apparently reputable journalists are claiming that the scenes of rejoicing at the pulling down of the Saddam statue were staged, with few of the population actually present. While none of the reports should be fully trusted, and we will not know anything like the full story for months or years, it is apparent that the war has been an extraordinarily successful example of the exercise of overwhelming power with the minimum of damage to the civilian population, and that this is paying a political dividend in the coalition countries. Hysteria has been creeping in, with our prime minister being described by one commentator as a "despot" like Saddam. Given the nature of the regime overthrown, one can only laugh.

Overall, the nature of the war reporting has been uneven and lacking in reliable information - the journalistic popularity prizes being won, as usual, by the on the spot emotionalisers who are totally devoid of opportunity for analysis, and whose eye witness reports are so partial and by necessity lacking in perspective that they are not worth much. It is always easy in war to get a shocking picture - that is what happens in war, even one as low in overall civilian casualties as this. There became a growing proportion of the population bored with the war. It might seem somewhat shameful to admit this, particularly when people are being killed and, in the case of  coalition captives, tortured. But no matter how short the interval between the bombing of the original "target of opportunity" and the final disposal of Saddam Hussein and his regime the more boredom spread - occasionally dispelled by spectacular developments.

This must be in part the result of the saturation coverage of the war in the media. Increasingly people did little more than listen to their accustomed news broadcasts, turning otherwise to non-topical programming, and only scanning, or even flipping over, the pages and pages of reports and pictures in the newspapers. This however is only in part a matter of repetition and speculation by reporters who are doing as good a job as they can justifying the huge expense of keeping them in the field or at the command centre. The trouble is that most of them do not know what is going on, other than the dreadful routine of war. They are fed only limited and selected information by the military, while few if any can speak the local languages so they cannot gain any representative impressions of what the population of Iraq is thinking (the phenomenon, well known to war correspondents, of "Anyone here been raped and speaks English?") They can if "embedded" observe the behaviour of a few soldiers and the occasional firefights in which they are involved. But this gives no picture of the war. The Australian cameraman who was our first casualty was not at the centre of things, which was unhappily no protection.

And there is the usual fog of lies (sometimes, but rarely, coming from the media representatives on the spot), interpretations, speculation, theories, wishful thinking, and biased analysis. One could read equally plausible claims on the one hand that the war is going smoothly and inevitably towards the inevitable victory and on the other that the campaign has already bogged down in logistical problems and unexpected resistance from the Iraqis. While the American forces undoubtedly give highly selective and sometimes misleading briefings, the Iraqi authorities were constantly lying  to the extent that it became one of the standard jokes of the commentators and cartoonists. But after all, they knew they would be held accountable after the war is over for their crimes, not their lies. While there is debate over the use of shocking images, such as dead or injured children, the provenance of some of them should also be questioned. It cannot be doubted that the Ba'athists themselves would have had no hesitation in killing and injuring children in order to accuse the invaders. Some are undoubtedly authentic (those coming from correspondents free of Iraqi guidance). But one has to wonder whether pictures of children dead or injured in war are any worse than of those involved in car accidents, and none of those would be published.

Like the famous Vietnam War image of the naked little girl on fire from napalm, these pictures often have a propaganda function - graphic arguments against war in general and this war in particular. But that is no reason to suppress them. It certainly must never be forgotten that war does kill and maim children and other innocents - but then, so does the Iraqi regime, which would have continued to do so if there had been no war. However the main problem with the wealth of words and images is that we still do not know what was actually happening. All we really know is that there was bombing, fighting and killing. Day after day of this is boring. Most of the analysis and interpretation will prove to have been based on mistaken information, or just to have been worthless. The general interpretation of the correspondents, which eventually emerges as a kind of consensus, may prove incorrect, as much of the journalistic orthodoxy about the Vietnam War still is.

It is tempting, therefore, to return to the normal habits of peace, and to treat the war as a source of occasional news but not daily concern. Most people are not directly affected, except when demonstrations disrupt the streets or erupt into violence. Genuine opponents of violence are upset by this, and those who believe that the war has some justification experience varying degrees of irritation, which seems to have served to consolidate support for the war rather than harm the government. Boredom and blanket coverage bred a desire to get the war over but not necessarily to stop it.

The result is that the governments of Australia, the US and the UK are now more firmly in the saddle than before. This is perhaps why the oppositionists of the media are doing their best to portray the inevitable chaos following the overthrow of the Ba'athist regime as the fault of the coalition, and are accusing especially the Americans of any possible offence which might be pinned on them. But so far there is no real evidence of any deliberate war crimes or culpable omissions by the invaders. The media are however seizing on any scrap of suspicion - like the apparent survival untouched of the Oil Ministry building in Baghdad, while other administrative buildings were bombed. This is supposed to support the nonsensical allegations that the war was "all about oil". Whatever the reason for the survival of this building, it is at least possible that it was deliberately spared, not because of any desire on the part of the Americans to seize control of Iraq's oil but simply because its survival will facilitate the rapid return of oil production and export to normal levels, generating revenue for the rebuilding of Iraq's economy - instead of for the building of palaces and weapons facilities. It is hardly fair and objective reporting to confine speculation on the building's survival to the worst possible interpretation of motives.

The media efforts to blacken the actions of the Americans have extended to a campaign to establish that there were deliberate attempts to intimidate the media, even to the extent of in effect murdering independent (not "embedded") correspondents. Some of this is emanating from the usual sources on the lunatic left of journalism, but the allegations are retailed generally by those who want to believe them, under the guise of merely reporting disquiet. The events at the Palestine Hotel, where many of the press were accommodated, are not at all clear - it is not enough for some of those present to say they heard no fire from the hotel, since there must have been continual firing in the city. It does appear that the cameraman who was killed did go, against instructions, to film from a balcony. From a distance a shoulder-held camera could look very like an anti-tank grenade launcher. Suffice it to say that this incident deserves careful examination, but so far the thesis that it was a deliberate and unprovoked attack on the hotel intended to scare, or even kill, journalists is simply unfounded. A more serious story, still totally unsourced and unconfirmed, is that the Spanish government told journalists when questioned about the Spanish journalist who died that the coalition high command had issued a warning three days before that the Palestine Hotel had been designated a military target, but nobody told the journalists. This is a very serious allegation. But if true, why was there only one tank firing only one or two shells? Perhaps more serious was the attack on the Al Jazeera offices, if it was deliberate - but relevant to this is the issue of whether the Al Jazeera TV network could be considered enemy propagandists, and therefore undeserving of non-combatant status.

While truth may indeed by the first casualty of war, among its murderers must be counted those journalists who are unable to distinguish between their opinions and their anti-Americanism (or distaste for any government briefings) on the one hand, and fair reporting on the other.

Much of the debate about the Iraq war has been conducted in terms of Left and Right though these terms are essentially meaningless. Why is it Left Wing to be anti-American, to favour capitalist democracy as against fascist dictatorship, and to wage war against those who butcher their own people? It is refreshing that in Australia dissenting voices on the Left are at last being raised to support the war, and to denounce the reactionaries who reflexively oppose America whatever it does, and support its enemies however evil they may be. In The Australian of April 15 Barry York an associate of our old friend Albert Langer, both veterans of the anti-Vietnam War movement, has put what is for once a logically argued and genuinely Left view of the war  and come out in support of the coalition. (The text of the article can be found on .)

Padraic McGuinness . Quadrant  editorial . May . 2003

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