How much can we believe in the news campaign?
Jay Rayner tells how the war of words opens another
War on Terrorism: Observer special
War in Afghanistan: Observer special
Sunday October 14, 2001
Tayseer Allouni knew exactly
what to do when the first bombs started dropping on the Afghan capital last
Sunday night. As Kabul correspondent for al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based Arabic
news station and the only television network with a presence in the city,
he would have to be the eyes of the world.
He turned the bureau's news camera on the night sky to record the tracer
fire now arcing impotently towards the incoming missiles. The pictures were
uploaded, via al-Jazeera's 24-hour satellite link, to the channel's headquarters
in Qatar, 1,200 miles away. From there they were picked up by broadcasters
across the world.
In London, the BBC's news producers saw the pictures and immediately called
the three correspondents they had managed to station in northern Afghanistan
with the opposition Northern Alliance on their satellite phones. The BBC's
journalists on the ground knew nothing of the attacks. They had no way of
knowing - Kabul is miles away across a country with no modern communications
including John Simpson, had to be told by London that the attack had started
so that, a few minutes later, they could repeat the news back to the viewers
in Britain. 'It was all window-dressing,' one BBC producer said last week.
'The reporters in Afghanistan didn't have a clue what was going on.'
Richard Sambrook, head of news for the BBC, put it more delicately. 'Of course,
we told our correspondents what we knew in London,' he said, 'But you don't
just look to someone like John Simpson for a report on what happened where
they are 10 minutes ago. You want analysis.'
If ever there was a symbol of the challenges the media are facing in covering
the conflict, it is the distance the echo from those falling bombs had to
travel before it could be reported. There is a vast hunger for information
and the mass media with which to deliver it.
And yet this is a war without a frontline upon which to station reporters.
Unlike the Gulf War, when Peter Arnett of CNN was stationed in Baghdad, and
the Kosovo crisis, when Simpson was in Belgrade, the Western media have no
independent sources inside the battle zone.
'This will be a particularly difficult war for us to cover,' says the BBC's
defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan, now in Pakistan. 'Most of the action
will be invisible and there are no independent reporters able to challenge
the official version of events.'
As things stand, incidents such as the bombing of a refugee column during
the Kosovo crisis - first denied by Nato, and only admitted to when journalists
arrived at the scene - will this time round remain unchallenged.
There is, simply, an aching information vacuum at the centre of this war
on terrorism, which sources on both sides of the conflict - both governments
and terrorists - are trying to fill. The result is an increasingly difficult
relationship between the US and British governments on one side and Western
journalists, who are not used to being brought to heel, on the other. This
weekend's announcement that the Blair Government is to follow President Bush's
lead by calling on UK broadcasters to think carefully before allowing video-taped
messages from Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network on to the air, is
proof of how tense that relationship has become. In this conflict the mass
media has become as much of a weapon as the Tomahawk missiles launched from
the Arabian sea last weekend, only one that's less easily targeted.
The first of those contentious videos aired on Sunday night, as the bombs
were dropping. One of Osama bin Laden's couriers emerged in Kabul to deliver
a video-taped message for the world from his leader to the al-Jazeera bureau.
It was broadcast live to Qatar.
'From a journalistic point of view, the mere fact that the tape included
bin Laden's face for the first time since 11 September made it important,'
says Yosri Fouda, deputy executive director of al-Jazeera's London bureau.
'And he expressed joy at what had happened, which was also important.'
The next day, Tony Blair, dismayed at bin Laden's assertion that the West
was mounting a war on Islam, appeared on the same channel to rebut the allegation.
By the end of
the week, however, following al-Jazeera's decision to screen another al-Qaeda
message, this time promising more terrorist attacks, the news channel was
no longer a route to hostile Arabic public opinion for the Western alliance.
Now it was interpreted as a part of the hostile public opinion.
According to Condoleezza Rice, National Security Adviser to President Bush,
the tapes could contain coded messages to terrorist cells, spurring them
into action. In a telephone conference call last Wednesday morning with the
presidents of the big five US networks, she called on them to stop broadcasting
Afterwards, the US broadcasters, carefully walking the line between being
seen to serve both journalistic freedom and the US national interest, said
they had taken on board what had been said. 'After hearing Dr Rice we're
not going to step on any of the landmines she was talking about,' said Walter
Isaacson of CNN.
Richard Sambrook of the BBC, speaking before this weekend's announcement
from Downing Street, says no such pressure had yet been brought to bear.
Nor would the BBC be swift to oblige if it were. 'This idea that the tapes
may contain hidden messages is very hard to prove or disprove,' Sambrook
says. 'I think it's up to governments to show this is a serious issue rather
than merely raise the possibility.'
Certainly, it seems unlikely there were hidden messages within that second
tape. Unlike the bin Laden tape, the second was heavily edited before being
shown and there was no way its creators could have known which parts would
be cut. 'They really go on and on in rhetoric,' says Yosri Fouda of al-Jazeera.
'We left just enough of it for them to make their point.'
However, the BBC has been the focus of other complaints from the Government.
Last Wednesday morning, the BBC's Kate Adie inadvertently revealed Tony Blair's
travel plans during his diplomatic mission to the Middle East, which Downing
Street had asked the media to keep secret.
The next morning Sambrook went on BBC Radio 4's Today programme to discuss
the row and again revealed something of the Prime Minister's movements. 'It
would have been better for everybody had I not named the cities,' he said
afterwards. 'I should just have referred to the Middle East. But I didn't
actually give the itinerary and in any case the information was already available
on the international wire services.'
Sambrook's point, that the modern media are not linear, with information
going in one end and coming out the other, but far more complex and less
controllable, is a factor with which Western governments are still trying
Last week, President Bush expressed outrage that a CIA report indicating
it was '100 per cent certain' there would be further terrorist attacks in
the US, had found its way to the press. 'Officials are really dismayed about
how much information is getting out here both on the terrorist investigation
and the military preparations,' says Kevin Whitelaw, a reporter covering
security matters in Washington DC for the American magazine US News and World
the information supplied to Congress, whose members he believed to be the
source of the leaks, would be limited. He was swiftly forced into a U-turn
by Senators and Representatives from both sides of the political divide.
The irony is that the US media have already proved willing to comply with
military orders when it matters. Seventeen news organisations knew three
days before that the bombing of Afghanistan was to start on Sunday, and said
attempts to control the media have been equally clumsy. 'Initially, the Ministry
of Defence told us they would like us to clear our stories with them,' says
war correspondent Robert Fox, now with the Evening Standard, who has covered
conflicts from the Falklands war to the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan
and the wars in Bosnia. 'We told them that was not the game at all. They
also discouraged us from going to other sources. Someone like me, who has
many contacts within the military, is simply a complete pain to them.' The
Ministry of Defence denies trying to control coverage.
The real problem for Western politicians trying to hold together a fragile
international coalition is that the media have great power to magnify.
Footage of Palestinians on the West Bank celebrating the 11 September attacks
was hugely damaging to a Palestinian Authority desperate not to enrage the
US, even though the crowd numbered no more than 15 to 20.
Those numbers were irrelevant. The images still went about the world. (It
led to claims that the footage was a fake, recycled from the Allied invasion
of Kuwait; the claim has been investigated by the BBC and firmly rebutted.)
By last Friday, the authorities in the Gaza Strip were banning reporters
from the area, and arresting newspaper editors, to prevent them covering
a rally by Islamic militants.
But it is not only the tiny Palestinian Authority that is falling foul of
the media's reach. James Rubin, former Assistant Secretary of State in the
State Department during the Clinton administration who regularly briefed
the press during the Kosovo crisis, says the same is happening to the Bush
administration. And this has contributed to hostile Arab public opinion.
they're new to the job, some of the officials are not realising their every
word is going around the world due to the global nature of television,' Rubin
says. 'The secret to a good briefing is to have both a domestic and a foreign
element. But because the original attack was on New York and the USA there's
now a very America-centric flavour to the briefings.'
The White House press spokesman, Ari Fleischer, formerly Bush's campaign
spokesman, has come under particular attack. In one infamous briefing, shortly
after 11 September, he warned Americans to 'watch what they say' and was
immediately accused of trying to smother dissent, especially in the media.
The language was a mistake - Fleischer later admitted as much - but he had
pointed up the clear conflict between a country trying to wage war and the
modern media trying to report it. The age of deference has gone.
And yet, as Tony Blair said last Thursday, there is still a propaganda war
to be won; one that may be even more important than the shooting war. 'One
thing becoming increasingly clear to me is the need to upgrade our media
and public opinion operations in the Arab and Muslim world,' Blair told reporters
on his plane from Oman. 'There is a need for us to communicate effectively.'
The truth is,
however, that neither he nor President Bush controls the media. As each complicated
day of this conflict passes, that is becoming ever clearer.
Related article: A decade of flak for war reporting