Volume 16 Number 3
Truth, Lies and Freedom
01 June 2003

Has all this reporting given us the real story? At the time, the 1991 Gulf War was the 'most televised conflict ever'. Yet the public was given precisely the picture that suited the American-led forces-that this was a high-tech war of 'surgical strikes' and few casualties.

As a youngster I was greatly impressed by an uncle who told me that, although he was a conservative, he read a socialist newspaper. He wanted to be presented with viewpoints and arguments different from his own so that his mind would remain challenged and alert.

I recalled this when reviewing media coverage of the recent war in Iraq. Democracies which go to war with public opinion so divided take great risks. If there is any truth in the axiom (of American journalist IF Stone) that 'all governments lie', then it is likely to be true at such times.

Certainly politicians have been very aware of the media's potential as a weapon of war. In Britain, the Home Secretary and the Commander of British Forces in the Gulf were among those highly critical of the way the war was being reported, whilst the Foreign Secretary acknowledged that television images, in particular, could impact military strategy.

Given such political interest in what the media reports, it would not be surprising if some politicians went beyond criticism to more sinister attempts to control the media. This is the accusation made by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU)-which represents the BBC, CNN and French, German and Italian independent and state broadcasters. Early in the conflict the EBU secretary-general claimed that US Central Command policy was 'actively restricting independent newsgathering' in southern Iraq, and creating a 'caste-system' in which certain journalists-usually from coalition countries-were 'embedded' with troops and allowed to report from the front line, whilst other journalists were being forcibly removed from the area.

At about the same time, Britain's Defence Secretary wrote in The Times that he had 'sanctioned the "embedding" of 128 British journalists and technicians within our units'. He went on to claim that 'the imagery they broadcast is at least partially responsible for the public's change in mood, with the majority of people now saying they back the coalition'.

New York journalist Michael Wolff described the 'hermetic' world of the Coalition Media Centre. After he had been there 48 hours he realized that 'information is probably more freely available at any other place in the world than it is here'. According to him, 'there are two kinds of forward reporters: the official embeds with units on the ground in Iraq, who know only the details of the action they see, and those posted to military press centres in Kuwait or Qatar who know only what they are told'.

One good thing about the unprecedented numbers of journalists reporting from the front line was that the coalition military had to be on their best behaviour. At the time of writing there have been no reports of the kind of atrocities that, sadly, have all too often been a feature of warfare.

But has all this reporting given us the real story? At the time, the 1991 Gulf War was the 'most televised conflict ever'. Yet the public was given precisely the picture that suited the American-led forces-that this was a high-tech war of 'surgical strikes' and few casualties. The truth was somewhat different. In a 1991 report by Human Rights Watch, the largest human-rights organization in the United States, the US Air Force chief of staff is quoted as saying that only 8.8 per cent of the munitions dropped by Allied Forces were 'smart bombs'. The remainder were unguided bombs with an estimated accuracy of 25 per cent. And whilst downtown Baghdad (with its international journalists) was bombed using only precision-guided weaponry, other cities suffered a disproportionately high amount of damage. The true human cost of that war may never be known, but a 1993 report by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War estimated that over 200,000 Iraqis died in 1991 from the effects of the war or post-war turmoil. One could add to that the thousands who have continued to die since 1991 from the effects of damage to health and sanitation infrastructure.

A major difference between the time of the last Gulf War and now is the existence of the Internet and satellite media. Qatar-based al-Jazeera TV station claims to have picked up an additional four million European subscribers since the start of the conflict, bringing the worldwide total to more than 50 million. Clearly not everyone is pleased about this. At one point the Iraqi authorities expelled them from Baghdad. The Pentagon wrote to the station asking them to refrain from broadcasting 'sensitive' material but found that there was little pressure that could be brought to bear on them (although al-Jazeera's accreditation at the New York stock exchange was revoked). Perhaps the bombing of al-Jazeera's Baghdad office by two missiles was a 'grave mistake' as US forces claimed, along with the 'accidental' bombing of other media offices. But the Arabic station says that it was careful to give the Americans its exact position to prevent such accidents, and sees the bombing as deliberate. (Its office in Kabul was also bombed by the Americans during the Afghan conflict in 2001.)

We in the West are rightly proud of our freedom of speech. It is fundamental to all other freedoms. Freedom, by definition, means choice. Freedom of thought therefore implies the possibility of choosing between different ideas, perspectives and points of view. George Orwell understood this in his nightmarish depiction of totalitarianism, 1984. A government that controls the raw material of thought (language and information) can enslave people's minds without them even realizing they are not free.

Regimes that lie and ruthlessly control the media to prevent their lies being exposed are nothing new. Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini used these tactics. So did Saddam Hussein. (Western journalists were subject to stringent controls in Saddam's Iraq.) Compared to the efforts of these tyrants, Western democracies' attempts to control the media seem half-hearted, almost benign.

There are, I think, more worrying forces. One is media monopolies. In Rupert Murdoch's native Australia, the best-selling newspaper in every major capital apart from Perth is owned by his News Corporation. Worldwide he owns 175 newspapers as well as the gigantic Fox television network. All but one of these titles (in Tasmania) has taken a pro-war line, prompting at least one journalist's resignation (from Britain's The Sun).

In early April, the lower house of the Italian Parliament voted to limit to two the number of TV channels any single company could own, thus forcing Prime Minister Berlusconi to give up one of his three channels.

But even media monpolies may be less effective than self-censorship when it comes to stifling freedom of thought. we can be our own 'secret policemen' denying ourselves exposure to 'dissident' ideas.

Thanks to new technology we have access to a wider range of information sources than ever before. Yet there is evidence to suggest that people are simply choosing to tune into the channels which reflect their own biases. It is easy to understand why. Doing so makes us feel good and confirms our sense that we are right and others are wrong. Yet, if we truly care about freedom, we should follow my uncle's example-or its cyber equivalent.
Mike Lowe

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