No. 10, Spring/Summer 2003
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Credo of a Crouching Couch Potato

By Humphrey Davies


Sunday, March 23, 2003

Watching BBC and Al Jazeera (9-10.30 approx.)

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!

3/26 c.9:30 p.m.

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.

3/27 c.11.0

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 what?

Saturday, 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, right?).

Friday, 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.

Sunday, 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.

Tuesday, 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.

April 4

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.

April 6

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.

April 7

"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

Copyright 2003 Transnational Broadcasting Studies
TBS is published by the Adham Center for Television Journalism, the American University in Cairo
E-mail: TBS@aucegypt.edu