Fog of Journalism
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 08/25/2003
Category: Book Review
This book is a compilation of the reports and impressions, and gripes, of Guardian journalists sending despatches from Iraq during the first weeks of violent intervention with introductory chapters on “how we got there”.
The Guardian, of course, is a British newspaper and is most concerned with how the Brits got there, and what they did and felt, and how they interpreted the response of Iraqis they happened to run into.
It is sub-titled, somewhat grandiosely, as the “real story of the battle for Iraq”.
Of course some of it reads as if it is real. Particularly well done, is the story of how Tony Blair delivered his part of the deal. Less clear in this is why did Tony Blair risk his political career to back Bush. No mention of oils as spoils of war or benefits to the arms industry. Maybe, these things had nothing to do with the issue, but surely the real story might have uncovered something of Blair’s motivation.
The author(s) point out that reporting was unbalanced because one single journalist had little idea of what was going on and, in any case, censorship was heavy for the embedded reporters and cameramen. Again, that does not help with telling the “real” story. The fog of journalism mirrors the fog of war, of course.
Nevertheless, the book is a vivid account put together from the reports of a dozen journalists and photographers or more. The editor reminds us somewhat ambitiously that it is often said that journalism is the first draft of history, but that the book attempts to be the second draft. Yes, a bit ambitious. For a historian this is a document but not even a first draft. Nevertheless there are good things. The book is lively even it is only a document.
The best thing to say about the book is that journalists and the reasonably independent press (in this case, The Guardian) are a major prop for maintaining democracy and ensuring liberty. There is a fair bit of agonising about the restrictions the press worked under which makes the penultimate chapter Despatches the best. It begins with a quote from one of the most famous war correspondents of all time: William Howard Russell who is known to have said when in the Crimea in 1854 reporting for The Times: “Am I to tell these things, or hold my tongue?”
When he did tell, Queen Victoria, said of his despatches that they constituted “infamous attacks against the army which have disgraced our newspapers” Prince Albert, despairing somewhat, said that the “pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country”.
Indeed, what is to be done when “our boys” go into battle? The answer is that there is strong tendency for the person in the street to support them as public opinion in the UK did once the war had begun. But where does this leave the journalist with his new technology and his ability to report almost instantly to not only newspapers but also radio and TV?
This was William Howard Russell’s problem. The Crimean War was the first war in which journalists could get instant news back via the new telegraph system of communication. The public was ready to gobble up the reports of victory, but not of thousands of deaths through military incompetence, disease, infection and general lack of care and proper equipment. In this sense not much has changed for the journalists out for reporting truth:
“A journalist’s kit has got smaller and lighter in the past few years. Satellite phones fit in your pocket; digital cameras sit comfortably round the neck. The videophone, with its jerky image, can send pictures from the front line without a bulky satellite dish seconds after events occur on the ground. But what had not changed was the fog of war, which meant it was hard to find out what was really happening. When the American and British government and military were accused of obscuring the truth, even lying, particularly in the difficult early phase of the campaign, their guns were metaphorically trained on the journalists. ‘The UK media have lost the plot,’ exploded Air Marshall Brian Burridge…commander of British forces. ‘You stand for nothing, you support nothing, you criticise, you drip.’” In the sense that Victoria and Albert would have been really proud of Burrridge, nothing has changed, and journalists reporting on the horror of war must always risk being regarded as unpatriotic.
Hopefully journalists do stand for something: for truth, for real democracy and for freedom. Hopefully the bulk of them strove to report that truth, and that has to be the best tribute to the thirteen journalists from all countries who died in Iraq. Does this mean that instant war reporting makes for instant death for increasing numbers of reporters and photographers? Let’s hope not.