The key problem with rolling news coverage, particularly that of News 24, is that the idiot conventions of the medium — infatuations with ‘liveness’ and proximity –now far outweigh concern for accurate, comprehensive reportage. Having a reporter on air live and at least within several hundred miles of the scene being described is valued far above anything the reporter in question might have to say. Required to be on call hour after hour for live links, reporters must often have little time to do any actual reporting. Often, their contributions are reduced to the banal repetition of facts implicit in anchor’s questions: “That’s right, Matthew/Sophie/George, we don’t know whether that really was Saddam.” Their contributions frequently involve little more than reciprocal commentary.
Following the long tradition of mindless live links, where reporters are required to waste their time providing ‘live chat’ with studio-based anchors, we now have even more mindless live links to Baghdad cameras showing… absolutely nothing, usually. Something goes bang somewhere in Baghdad, and we cut furiously to an image of an undisturbed street scene. It’s Baghdad, after all, so it must be relevant. Time for another traffic report from Rageh Omaar. Or yet another update on absolutely nothing taking to the skies at RAF Fairford.
As with much television news, 90% of footage is not narrative, but illustrative. The distinction is not carefully drawn, though. We are regularly shown lengthy reports in which the footage bears only the most tenuous relation to the commentary. Scenes are cut together with little regard to precise time, place or context.
News 24 frequently displays split screens in which no information is given as to the age and location of half the footage being shown. Does the ‘Live’ tag refer to correspondent or tanks? Are the tanks old library footage, or new library footage? If footage comes from other broadcasters, who are they? And speaking of library footage, where is the ‘context’ that can only be provided by images of death from the first Gulf War, scrupulously avoided throughout the long months of smug, detached prognostication? What images are we now not being shown?
What other idiot conventions are constantly thrown at us? Frequently, the context in which reporting is done is omitted. Heaven forbid the rival journalists besieging the interview victim should ever be seen. Cue correspondent’s head and torso with camouflage netting tastefully draped over Humvee in background; but never show the adjacent line of correspondents and cameramen.
Sometimes the very presence of the media produces a distorting effect, but this is rarely acknowledged; over the weekend, an Iraqi child in a Baghdad hospital howled in fear as he was surrounded by a horde of press cameras. A child, receiving even less respect for his dignity than the US POWs. Eventually, a doctor had to lunge in front of the cameras to shield him from the barbarians.
The more a priesthood attempts to conceal the mysteries of its operation, the less it can be trusted.
Let’s consider how well News 24 stacks up against the BBC’s own purported standards. “All relevant information should be weighed to get at the truth of what is reported or described.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/editorial/prodgl/)
There are oceans of information News 24 either touches on passingly or fails to provide altogether. What are the estimates of Iraqi soldiers killed? What are the effects of the coalition weapons being used? How about some nice sanitised graphics of what a fragmentation bomb does to a concentration of troops? What is the best possible evidence on the effects of the use of depleted uranium, and to what extent are depleted uranium munitions being deployed? Is there any restriction on their use near urban areas? What human rights training, if any, do US troops get? What numbers of civilian casualties would politicians consider to be intolerable? Would any number of civilian deaths be considered intolerable? Who are the participants in the ‘coalition of the willing’? What are they getting for signing up? What are they contributing, if anything? What in the current coalition strategy does not add up to a recipe for all-new Gaza Strips and West Banks in the Iraqi desert?
What about questions of principle that have never been touched, and must be, as the categories of Iraqis that are demonised expand rapidly. Is it moral, in a totalitarian regime based on fear and coercion, to use massive force against even the professional soldiers, much less the conscripts, when those professional soldiers may also be less than entirely cheerful participants in the war?
To take a step back, is it even right that a media that shrinks from advocating racism or the murder of individuals should be entirely free to give space and time to those advocating killing large numbers of people?
Then there are facts actually omitted that we must worry about. The BBC’s websites have not reported at all on the Observer revelations that the US bugged security council members, nor has there been any coverage of allegations of US massacres in Afghanistan, made in a documentary from one of its own former producers, Jamie Doran.
There is no discussion of the very recent deaths of captives in US custody in Afghanistan. In fact, the matter of Afghanistan is frequently referred to in the past tense, either completely ignoring the ongoing war still happening there, or implying it has been concluded successfully.
Since there are considerable doubts that the Patriot missiles ever actually downed any Scuds in the first Gulf War, why should we assume they work when sent up against anything faster than, say, an RAF Tornado? And what, exactly, are the type of missiles they have purportedly been downing?
What are the US/UK military preparations for meeting their responsibility for taking care of the civilian populations, discussion of which surely not restricted by security concerns? Are they going to airlift supplies to civilian populations in towns riddled with resistance, or will the resistance be starved out? How many extra troops, precisely, has Geoff Hoon despatched to the region for this purpose? What are the US strategies for distributing Aid? What peace-keeping training do US troops have? What do the Aid organisations think of the preparations for military assistance?
So much for the guidelines: “No significant strand of thought should go unreflected or under represented on the BBC.”
The BBC tells us it is at pains to get ‘impartial’ analysis — but most of the analysis provided is distinctly partial. For months, the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing US think-tanks have been a regular source of pro-war pundits for interview on the BBC — but no context as to the agenda, allegiances and funding of these organisations is ever provided.
The infatuation with punditry is such that frequently we are hauled away from rare live moments of actual substance — the very occasional moments when a politician is actually faced with a difficult question in a news conference — in order to get comment on an event still underway.
Then there is the matter of language, which clearly shows whom correspondents most listen to, and how little thinking they apply to what they hear. How many times was it uncritically repeated that, “Mr Bush has now clearly run out of patience with Saddam”?
How on earth can we trust the reporters, when they happily steep themselves in the jargon and brutal euphemisms of the professional military, talking of ‘taking out’ targets, and of “collateral damage’? Happily, repeating, like News 24’s Ben Brown, military metaphors like “hammers” for the use of overwhelming force. Why on earth should we trust gung-ho nitwits like John Nealy (sp.?) who have rushed to cover themselves in military camouflage? Just how far will ’embedding’ go? And what, by the way, are the precise restrictions and working compromises news organisations have accepted to ’embed’ reporters? Does the media have any kind of collective strategy for outmanoeuvring very successful Pentagon/MoD information management?
Finally, there is the plain idiocy of some correspondents and anchors to contend with. When ‘liberated’ Iraqis express enthusiasm for Bush, the notion that this enthusiasm — like that for Saddam — might also be motivated by fear or uncertainty is never raised.
The flaws of much Western coverage, not just that of News 24, have been amply demonstrated in the reporting of the POW issue. Iraqi POWs had been already been filmed and the images broadcast for a couple of days, without any regard for or mention of the demands of the Geneva Convention.
But when the footage of US POWs came through, suddenly we were told there was ‘editorial’ discussion of whether or not to show the images. Clearly, the purported violation of US soldiers’ right is far more alarming than the violation of Iraqi soldiers’ rights.
While the Iraqi interviews were undoubtedly more invasive than most of the footage of Iraqi POWs, it appeared the prisoners in question had been seduced not so much by fear but the universal conventions of the TV interview into willingly answering questions beyond name, rank, serial number; they were apparently not apparently facing military interrogators. A couple were bandaged, indicating they had received medical attention. They lay not on dirt and gravel like their Iraqi counterparts but, however temporarily, on plush upholstery. None of these facts, so blatantly obvious, received any comment.
BBC News 24: so much gulping down of official information. So many correspondents so poorly used. So much coverage of purported intentions, and so little of actual effects. So much macho posturing around tanks and big weapons and so little investigation. So much sanitising the unavoidable barbarism of war. Such occasional thought, courage or principle. And so many questions unanswered.