Archive for May, 2011

"That's all for now, folks! I'll be in touch later!"

“Osama bin Laden is dead” is quite a headline to wake up to on a sunny May morning and worthy of a few immediate thoughts while the full story filters through.

If the Al Qaida attacks on America, Madrid and London can be defined as “the propaganda of the deed” – purely symbolic and having little or no military, strategic rationale – then so can the assassination of Osama Bin Laden. It works on two counts: the fact that US special forces shot him in the head and dumped his body at sea (not very Islamic) and the reality that this will not change anything other than provoke retaliation from terrorist groups that have supported him. But like all such symbolic acts, it may also have unintended consequences.

It may send out a signal that once again, the US projects its power around the world with lethal force: a message that will not be lost on those bent on direct retaliation. But was that the only option available? I can’t help think that taking him alive, although fraught with all kinds of security risks, would have made a much more telling point – that under Obama, the US is doing things differently, that it is fighting terrorism according to the rule of law. But that’s the thing about the terrorism/counter-terrorist paradigm: like all paradigms, once it’s established, it’s very difficult to move out of it and work within a new one.

So in its latest effort to protect civilians in Libya, NATO has killed Gadaffi’s son, Said al-Arab, and three grandchildren with an attack on their home in Tripoli, yesterday (30 April).

Aftermath of the NATO air strike on Gadaffi residence.

By all accounts, the leader himself was in the house but narrowly escaped. (This has eerie echoes of 1986 when the US bombed Gadaffi’s residence and killed his adopted daughter, Hanna). The incident has barely registered in the UK and Ireland amid the orgiastic coverage of the royal wedding. But what there was on TV followed the usual convention for reporting civilian victims of friendly western bombing, or the Israeli military, and works according to the following formula.

The reporter stands solemn-faced at the site of a bombing and declares to camera that, “This house looks as if it’s been hit by a NATO bomb but we cannot independently verify that at this time”.  Cue film of the dead and wounded being brought into hospital and reporter’s voice-over: “Doctors say that these women and children were killed or injured by a NATO bomb dropped on a residential area of the city but we are unable to independently verify this. But if true, these pictures will be valuable propaganda for the regime.”

Cue news presenter back in London: “That was our Middle Eastern correspondent reporting under enemy reporting restrictions. NATO, meanwhile, says it does not target civilians and that this latest incident may have been caused by stray anti-aircraft fire.”

But they can’t independently verify that, right?  Well, there’s no need to because sources such as NATO, the Pentagon, the US President and the British PM appear to be the means by which the BBC and other TV news outlets independently verify facts and obtain evidence.

It is a news convention learned during coverage of the Gulf War in 1991, when ITN got into trouble for its early reports from Baghdad that contradicted the western propaganda line: i.e. that hi-tech, “smart missiles” were so accurate and efficient that they minimized the risks of civilian casualties. One report in particular showed the aftermath of a hit on a residential area, including explicit pictures of dead and wounded women and children in hospital. The correspondent also infuriated critics by interviewing an Iraqi minder at the bombsite and examining fragments of the cruise missile that did the damage – complete with serial number.

The casualties of war? Impossible to independently verify.

Politicians condemned the British media in Baghdad for being propaganda dupes for the Iraqi regime, forcing a marked shift in the tone of coverage. From then on, reports on the effects of the allied bombing campaign in Iraq were heavily qualified with caveats and health warnings to viewers that everything they were watching was Iraqi propaganda and not to be believed. The ITN presenter, Trevor McDonald, even introduced one film report on the aftermath of the bombing campaign with the advice that the pictures were taken on an ITN camera handled by “a Jordanian cameraman” (their emphasis). Footage in the film of “collateral damage” and civilian casualties could not be “independently verified” or was labelled as “Iraqi-supplied material”, in other words propaganda.*

What you are about to see is enemy propaganda! Look away now!

This is classic Orwellian doublethink passing for public service, broadcast journalism. Present a piece of evidence, say it looks like a fact and walks like a fact but cannot be independently verified and then proceed to verify it, or perhaps not, with a statement from a source that has an interest in shaping the facts its way. It is doublethink wrapped up in journalistic routine and works as one of the most effective forms of propaganda. To show how effective, I will invert it and apply it thus to a hypothetical report on a Hamas rocket attack on Israel:

“Israeli settlements near Gaza have been hit by rockets today, killing, the Israelis allege, three civilians and injuring many more. An Israeli spokesman claimed that the rockets were fired by Hamas militants in Gaza but we cannot independently verify that at this moment.  Hamas says it does not target civilians and is investigating the possibility that the incident may have been the result of Israeli friendly fire. The following report features pictures of what appears to be dead and wounded. It was filmed on a BBC camera by an Israeli cameraman and is subject to Israeli reporting restrictions.”

Of course, the Israeli government can trust that the BBC or any other Western news outlet would never broadcast such a report because not only is it an ally that can rely on positive propaganda from friendly media but it has shaped and guaranteed such propaganda by constant monitoring and, if necessary, carefully applied pressure.

British television coverage of NATO’s operations in Libya, therefore, is by no means natural and transparent but has been forged by a long history of military propaganda and public relations. But with every conflict comes a unique twist. In the Gulf War, we had those videos showing missiles hitting their targets: perfect for TV. In Kosovo, we had the daily briefings in Brussels and the emergence of the civilian propagandist as personality, i.e. Jamie Shea. In Iraq, 2003, we had the embedded journalist. Now, in Libya, we have the anonymous civilian source as cheerleader for NATO bombing. Most of them speak fluent English and use emotive words such as “genocide” and “atrocity” without qualification or “independent verification” on the part of the media.

In the world of science and social science, such reporting would be deemed subject to major revision or judged unworthy of publication. But in the world of mainstream, TV journalism, it passes for fact.

* For a detailed analysis of the TV coverage of the Gulf War, see Greg Philo and Greg McLaughlin ‘The British Media and the Gulf War’, in Greg Philo (ed.) Glasgow Media Group Reader Vol.2. London: Routledge, 1995; pp.146-156.