Credo of a Crouching
By Humphrey Davies
March 23, 2003
Watching BBC and Al Jazeera
Both running live coverage
of operations in Umm Qasr.
BBC correspondent is "on
a raised platform" with the officer (US marines) directing the operation and a
cameraman (who has to duck every now and then - it is implied - because he is
on a higher position and potentially exposed to enemy fire). Nik Gowing in Doha
(right side of screen) talks to Adam Mynott in Umm Qasr, whom we can't see because
the left of the screen is showing this bit of dusty scrappy waste land and at
the back a cluster of dusty trees and some non-descript low-rise buildings and
pylons, etc., from which enemy fire is coming; US tanks can be seen in the middle
distance and US marines much closer, prone, with their rifles aimed at the cluster
of trees form a long row about five yards apart along a road. Sporadic firing
and after a while the tanks move towards the buildings. It strikes me - and this
is later made much of by Mynott - that this is the first time that the couch potatoes
of the world can watch a real live battle close-up; but instead of seeming like
modern still photographs of war leaping to life from the page of a newspaper,
it makes me think more of those engraved illustrations in the Illustrated London
News of the 19th century in which the war artist has caught the British officer
(impeccably kitted, heavy mustache, and slightly womanish face) leading his crouching
troops forward, saber extended, towards the snarling fuzzy-wuzzies. This not because
the scene on TV is very lively (in fact it is rather static most of the time)
but perhaps because the sense of really being there, in real time, is better captured
by this amazing sense of closeness than the intervening generations of still photos.
Here, yes, that marine lying not far from the camera might actually get a bullet
in his head - and what would one do? Gasp, leap forward in one's chair instinctively
to help him, cower, switch channels? We no longer have to wait for the movie:
this is the movie.
There is an interview
with a British officer (the British are apparently commanding American troops
here, very ecumenical) who describes the resistance as "light" and generally gives
the impression that these things are to be expected and are really minor incidents
in terms of the larger picture. The BBC guys don't question this assessment, though
they do bat back and forth, slightly plaintively, the question of why there is
any action here at all since Umm Qasr was said to have been "taken" yesterday,
if not earlier; they agree that there is definitely still the need to go on "prodding"
and not taking at value everything that the military says.
Over to Al Jazeera. Immediately
things hot up. First of all the cameraman seems to be taking a lot more risks:
the soldiers right next to him are actually firing their guns and running forward;
and this is indeed mubashir (live). It looks as though the cameraman could get
hit at any moment too and is even more of a derring-do type than the BBC cameraman,
pace the concern over the latter's exposed position. But the images do not last
long and the anchor woman (in Doha) takes over. Her main theme is the discrepancies
in Coalition claims re Umm Qasr, etc.; she is brusque, unsparing: this was said
but this happened; indeed, the facts do make the Coalition look duplicitous, or
at least foolish (and ditto the BBC, with its air of gentlemanly quibbling - in
the classroom, Jazeera would be yelling at the teacher, while the Beeb patiently
held it's hand up). Soon, however, the anchor introduces a commentator, Muhammad
al-Saeed Idris from Al Ahram's Center for Political and Strategic Studies. More
heat than light here, unfortunately, as Idris, asked about the significance of
the fighting at Umm Qasr, launches into a tirade that is long on politics (the
fighting shows that the supposedly invincible might of the US can be opposed and
that all the US threats of "massive force" have failed to materialize, meaning
that the US is a straw man and that the Arabs have only to break through the "fear
barrier" and they can effectively oppose US hegemony) and short on analysis of
what is taking place on the ground before our eyes (a small screen still carries
the battle as he talks). A pity, since the momentum of the red-hot camera work
is soon lost in the tedium of predictable wishful thinking, generality, and question-begging
(is it not possible that the failure of the US forces to slaughter tens of thousands
is a deliberate strategy rather than a failure? and what exactly is the implication
of Idris' sarcasm at the expense of American shortcomings in this respect - that
they should have lived up to their implied threats and carried out a holocaust?).
Altogether the contrast of Al Jazeera's professionalism at the anchor level (she
tries to call Idris back to specifics) and tendentiousness at the commentator
level is striking. Later, the anchor calls on a retired general in Cairo, who
gives a more technical assessment of the meaning of the Umm Qasr fighting and
does point out more generally that the US is unlikely to use their mega-bombs
in the cities since they are rather messy and the US probably does not want to
provoke world opinion even further.
In the end, I am really
not much the wiser as to whether the fighting is a mere mopping-up operation whose
significance is greater for TV than for military history or a sign that the whole
US basis of calculation - that there will be no strong resistance until they hit
the Republican Guard, etc. concentrations - has been proved false.
Then both switch to the
press conference being given in Baghdad by the Iraqi Information Minister, Muhammad
Saeed Al Sahhaf. He says the Americans are actually in the part of Umm Qasr the
Security Council took from Iraq and awarded to Kuwait when the borders were demarcated,
which means that technically speaking they aren't even in Iraq, so there! Thank
God at least someone knows exactly what's going on!
Monday 24 March, 2003
Quick look at CNN anchors
marking time with fairly vapid- but war-related, of course- chitchat while waiting
for a speech by Saddam Hussein from Baghdad. Anchor 1 makes a snide aside to the
effect that the speech is being described by the Iraqis as "historic - for what
that's worth" while Anchor 2 states that Saddam is feeling particularly paranoid
at that moment. How come this woman is so well-informed? Does CNN have a person
in the immediate entourage? Saddam's barber, perhaps (the subsequent speech is
fascinating for the contrast between Saddam's raven-black hair - at age 65 this
guy is indeed a hero - in contrast to the dorky beret of the first speech, given
only hours after his house received its very own customized Shock and Awe transmission
- enough, no doubt, to give anyone a bad hair day)? Maybe what is called for is
one of those precision strikes, to remove Saddam's toupee.
Later: a junior reporter
on BBC World is interviewing people in Amman under the watchful eye of Lise Doucett.
No one there, she says, is buying it: they just aren't knuckling under to reality
and they're still complaining. A brief interview with a Jordanian editor and a
"man in the street" follow which confirm this point, but between their indignation
and their lack of fluency in English, the impression is of impotent and inarticulate
anger rather than an intellectually defensible point of view. One wonders why
the BBC with all its years of contact with the Middle East couldn't bring in one
of the more suave and linguistically gifted commentators of which Jordan boasts
a number. Well, in fact, yesterday I think it was, they did: a very persuasive,
personable, young, and smiling Islamist who flensed the Coalition and its collaborators
with quick, deft strokes. One wonders if he will re-appear (in fact, so far as
I can tell, he doesn't). Anyway, once done with the interviews, the reporter turns
to the press, brandishing an Arabic newspaper whose headline reads "Iraq Inflicts
Glorious Losses On American Forces." Only it doesn't, that's just what the reporter
(who stabs her fingers at the large print) says. In fact, there is no "glorious"
or indeed other qualifier to the word "losses." For the newspaper they are simply
"losses." Of course, it's a well known fact that Arabic is an incorrigibly "flowery"
language, much given to "flights of rhetoric"; so true is this, apparently, that
if the surface structure doesn't give full realization to this deep structure,
the BBC will realize for us on the surface. Thank God that we have one channel
that isn't afraid to employ a few decent meta-linguists!
BBC shows pictures of
the Baghdad marketplace where one, or two, missiles have struck, causing heavy
civilians casualties. Now I don't have to switch to Al Jazeera to see how they're
treating this as the BBC obligingly provides its own report on "How the Arab Media
Present the War" which is largely focused on Al Jazeera. It seems that "Al Jazeera
is happy to let the images do the talking" - something of a blessing I think,
given all the dubious verbal information we're getting from the Coalition. But
the BBC doesn't see it that way: it turns out that the use of these images is
"provocative" and especially so to Arabs. The images are not actually false, just
"provocative." Images in question are include those of children, B52 bombers,
and corpses wrapped in bloodied clothing being removed from the marketplace in
makeshift slings. B52 bombers? What's going on here? I could swear I've seen a
few of those on the BBC. In fact, didn't they have someone actually standing in
a field "somewhere in England" (well, Gloucestershire actually, though perhaps
I shouldn't reveal the exact whereabouts) reporting on the take off of same B52s
as they winged their way to Baghdad. Perhaps I was overdosed on war coverage and
it was all a dream.
The segment finishes and
the BBC takes us back to the market for a quick wrap-up. The final shot shows
a corpse wrapped in bloodied clothing being removed in a makeshift sling.
John Simpson (BBC World
Affairs Editor) is in Northern Iraq, as is veteran Middle East correspondent Jim
Muir; Nik Gowing is in Doha; pan-BBC reporter-anchor Lise Doucett is in Amman;
but the action is in southern Iraq. Simpson makes a reference to the possible
belated start of a northern front. Did the BBC get wrong footed in this war, or
March 29 p.m.
A brief dip into RT5,
the French national satellite channel, reveals not only some lucid analysis (moving
in this case somewhat against the current of the anchor's skeptical and mildly
polemical anti-Coalition drift) but also some fancy reporting from inside Basra
(perhaps it's not surprising that Baghdad-based journalists from Coalition countries
are not able to persuade their minders to let them in there, but it is a pity
since some of more interesting stuff comes out of there, as is the case with this
story). The French journalist discovers and interviews foreign Arab volunteer
fighters organized into brigades by nationality, in this case Sudanese and Tunisian.
Not enough time or space to do more than scratch the surface of this story, but
what resonance for an older generation of Europeans and Americans! Arab International
Brigades! A pan-Arab cause worth fighting for! (Yes, I know, they may all be baby-rapists
who have sought refuge with a baby-raping regime, but we shouldn't leap to conclusions,
March 28, p.m.
Al Jazeera is opening
a new front: Abd al Bari Atwan, London editor of Al-Quds Al Arabi (and ubiquitous
Islamist-leaning commentator) predicts the resignation of Richard Perle and George
Tennant. You wish, I think. Soon after, R. Perle resigns; one down and one to
go. Atwan also comes up with one of those large but important insights that one
almost never hears on Western channels, probably because they just aren't Arabs
or Muslims and so they just can't report "from the inside," namely that the agreement
of secularists and Islamists in opposing the war in Iraq is a "historic" meeting
of minds. Soon after more insiderliness from Al Jazeera: their reporter, then
later their Iraq coordinator, tell, live, from inside Basra, of the disappearance
of their cameraman after their car was fired on by British troops as they were
filming the latter apparently firing on food stores.
March 30, a.m.
The BBC anchor is talking
to a reporter in Indonesia who has been reporting on anti-war demonstrations there.
The reporter lists some of the reasons why people oppose the war. The anchor feels
something has been left out and states, rather than queries, "And it's a war against
Islam, right?" Well, actually, that's not a major concern, states the reporter,
politely but firmly and citing the evidence. The outlines of a process are starting
to become clear: the reporters tell it the way they see it "contradictions" and
all, the anchors process this, spin it (or at least try to), and put it into the
shape that will fit the slots in our brains prepared by months of propaganda.
April 1, 7.00 p.m.
Rageh Omaar, one of the
BBC's two men in Baghdad, is rapidly becoming my pin-up reporter for this war.
Always saying something interesting, nuanced, intelligent. This time it is in
the context of a positively girlish flurry of excitement between Nik Gowing and
Brian Hanrahan over the fact that Saddam has not appeared in person to deliver
an announced message to the nation. Having chewed this over for several minutes,
and tried unsuccessfully to get Omaar to share their excitement, the latter finally
dismisses the issue crisply by saying, "Someone is in charge in Baghdad…Make of
that what you will." What they do make of it, we do not know. Then Omaar comes
out with one of the most useful statements I've heard this week, assuming that
is that you are interested in understanding why the uprisings against the regime
that occurred in 1991 have not been repeated, and indeed how Iraq has changed
overall in the interim, which one would suppose would be a matter of hot concern,
but seems to go largely unanalyzed. Omaar points out that "People underestimate
the ability that the Iraqi leadership has to call on informal networks of patronage."
And there it is, a whole new way of understanding the mystery. Omaar should really
think about doing a Ph.D. when all this is over; except that maybe journalism
needs him more.
The BBC is showing a banner
at the bottom of the screen that states, "Some Middle East analysts say Arab opinion
is shifting towards solidarity with Iraq." Just some? And you just heard it? I
await the banner that suggests that some analysts think that the Pope is a Catholic.
I am told that a visit
to Kuwait satellite TV will be amply rewarded in terms of objective, balanced,
neutral reporting. First thing to greet my eyes is a bottom banner message that
reads "Sudanese president visits Egypt…for discussions on matters of common concern."
Unbalanced, partial, biased reporting I can take; dorky Arab government media
pap along the lines of "our leaders are in charge and the universe is unfolding
as it should" I cannot. Where's that remote?
A CNN segment on the history
of round-the-clock news coverage in wartime (during World War II, some US cinemas
showed newsreels 24 hours a day) points to the similarity with today "armchair
view of the battle" but has nothing to say about the even more obvious use of
filmed reporting as propaganda. CNN's channel motto is "Be the First to Know"
which seems weirdly egotistical. If you're the first to know at the office, do
you get more girls, or what? And if you thought you were the first to know and
it turns out that about 15,000,000,000 other inhabitants of the planet were also
watching CNN, so your title is to say the least contestable, does that mean you
can sue? Or perhaps everyone was a "co-first."
Someone, probably everyone,
is now showing another of Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahhaf's amazing press conferences.
Amazing not (or only partly) because of their increasingly obvious separation
from reality, but because he's clearly enjoying himself, hugely. He doesn't appear
to be insane, so the only conclusion is that he's brave (what did Hemingway say,
courage is "grace under pressure"?). Or again, maybe he is insane.
I relent and go back to
Kuwait: perhaps they were just having a bad air day. Their correspondent in Basra
is explaining that British troops, who have just seized a number of suspected
Baath party leaders from their homes, only do such things when they have strong
intelligence. Then he says "We will expose them (the Baathists) before the world."
"We"? Now is that impartial, or what?
And while we're dipping,
how about a look at that much ignored channel, Euronews? Euronews, in the dialectic
of satellite criticism, doesn't quite fit. It doesn't belong to someone rich.
There are no visible journalists, not one! Not one anchor or correspondent let
alone expert or panelist. There are no panel discussions! As a journalist put
it to me, "They're not very interesting. They just collect news." But this radio-with-pictures
(and good, fresh, new-angle pictures too, usually) is much to my now jaded taste.
Get it over quickly, I say. Kind of satellite-lite. Even the Euronews weather
forecast is over in about three minutes, a model of efficiency that shows up the
BBC's forecasts-with their jolly, gabbling guys and gals in clothes weirdly reflecting
the greenish glow of some trough of low pressure over Mongolia, their hands pointing
with deft mimicry to pictures they can't actually see (did you know that?)-for
the boring claptrap that it is.
"The US is in the center
of Baghdad and has taken the Rashid Hotel and ministry of information." Thus the
BBC and CNN. Al Jazeera runs a bottom band that mentions these claims as such,
but above their correspondent is looking at the ministry and says there is no
sign of US troops; the only soldiers visible are Iraqi, in large numbers. Another
Jazeera man says that there is "no confirmation from a neutral source." Thus,
from the BBC and CNN we have the unverified reporting of a claim that later in
fact turns out to be false, while from Al Jazeera we have a report of the claim,
an eyewitness report that refutes it and, just to be sure, a check with neutral
sources. Game, set, and match as far as I'm concerned. And, of course, Al Jazeera
was right, as it turned out.
Now, framing is another
matter. Al Jazeera uses a filler sequence in which the faces of Arab commentators
swim up from the depths of the screen and intone, over a dramatic musical background,
sounds bites such as "Absolute power is absolute corruption," "America is using
the stick and there is no carrot," and "We are now at the moment of truth." So
you kind of know where they stand. So what? Where would you expect them to stand?
On the fence?
Now men are running along
the top of a river bank, fleeing, we are told, a palace that has been invested
by US troops. This is the best watching, real movie stuff. You're at home, you
have a mug of good coffee, and these are real fleeing soldiers, some of them in
their underwear, which is a detail that Hollywood in its prudery would probably
omit. It is grainy, Blair Witch-style film-making, very gripping. One guy is running
along, then suddenly and for no apparent reason makes an awkward and as it were
unscripted slump to his right, tumbling onto the bank below him and kicking up
a lot of dust. Then he just lies there. I've seen, I think, my first man shot
dead, in real life, with my coffee. There is no commentary.
Well, I always wondered
whether the way they do it in the movies is realistic. Now I know: not particularly.
I could go on watching.
But I think I'd rather not. I think I'll stick to the newspapers for the rest
of the war.
"From entertainment we
came, and to entertainment we shall return." TBS