Watching from Afar

The war is in real-time, but where are the people?

Watching from Afar

The war is in real-time, but where are the people?

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Anticipating the US military's much-touted "shock and awe" campaign, international broadcasters trailed the start of the war like an expectant audience awaiting a fireworks display. 24/7 programming required talking heads all through the dull mid-week evenings before the show began. Long scanning shots of calm evening skies were interspersed with eerie images of a Baghdad intersection, the traffic lights changing over empty streets.

Talking heads - invariably male except for one BBC reporter in Amman - appeared time and again during extended quiet periods. Nothing here, they were compelled to report before the screen flipped to another location, another view on the disjointed narrative. Reporters following the British and American navies caught the sense of drift precisely, literally out to sea, far from the battlefield, watching cruise missiles head off without any idea where they might be headed.

Pale-faced experts, obviously working overtime, were dragged from their beds, and promoted as "monitoring the situation closely". This probably meant watching the same screens as their audiences - and getting as little rest. Some had back up from intricate electronic displays that highlighted the rugged Iraqi terrain, the reach of the enemies' competing radars, and countless different "scenarios".

US ex-servicemen with slow southern drawls expressed confidence in the "awesome power" of the US military, and their satisfaction that everything was going to plan, although the plan was already a completely different one . . .

The attempt to pinpoint Saddam Hussein and his entourage had started the campaign on a low key note. Whether or not it indeed failed, the heavy bombardment so expected did not take place. Instead the real story, whatever it might be, could not be filmed - with limited bombing in one area, some noises heard in another, rumours of a swift advance on Basra and possible "secret surrender talks" - but of course nothing first hand and nothing at all confirmed.

"Embedded" journalists serving, or rather stationed, with individual units offered intriguing footage of tanks racing across the desert towards Basra, or comical exercises in donning gas masks. (Less fortunate ones occasionally sought to speak through the contraptions.) But again, there was minimal information: the troop commander, who had just provided a briefing, averred that everything was going to plan, the men were well prepared for their mission, and so on. On the rare instance when information might have been available, it was operational, and the reporter acknowledged, could not be reported. "It's going to take us a while to get used to this embedding system," noted one presenter.

The main stations followed type. Fox, America's hard-line patriotic station, ran a "War on Terrorism" moniker over a waving flag - perhaps not even updated since 9/11. A reporter shown unshaven and still in a T-shirt breathlessly reported on a local firefight - dramatic, frightening, no doubt amazing, but of no relevance, no sense.

CNN bounced between US military officers on one hand and military star reporters and commentators on the other - Wolf, Christiane, even Larry King manning a news anchor format during his programme. The station maintained a neutral tone - only occasionally admitting admiration for the sheer extent of the US forces - but spoke almost uniquely to American, and official sources.

The BBC filmed less in the field - at least during my night owl hours - and more time in the studio. But they provided a more diverse picture than their rivals. Although the station, like all others, did not seem to acknowledge anything but the war - we are, after all, not watching the news but The War - they did focus on related side events. One was the tense Brussels meeting of European political leaders, still rankling over the UN bust-up . In a unique round-up report, it was the only station of the several I surfed that had any report about the substantial demonstrations against the war, in Europe and America, reporting many arrests in San Francisco.

All this highlighted the primary problem in the coverage: there were no people. True, it was after hours. But there were no reports from people on the front lines, in the regions, on the streets or in their homes. Most of all, there was not a single Iraqi or Kurdish voice, far less an Arab. So short of interview subjects were the reporters that at one point, in a glowing profile of a ship's weaponry, it seemed as if the journalist might interview the cruise missile. "Is everything going to plan?"

Two days in the war, we had seen not a drop of blood.

Getting closest to the truth, perhaps, was a frustrated David Shuster of NBC News. Standing in the cavernous briefing room in Doha, Qatar, he wondered why the US military had spent considerable taxpayers' money to construct a press facility it had so far not used. There were no press briefings, operational details could not be provided even if the reporters had them, and there he was, stuck hundreds of miles away from any action.

"They don't want us to get the big picture," he said. "We don't have any sense of the overall. That's by design."

Anthony Borden is executive director of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting.

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