No. 10, Spring/Summer 2003
Issue 10 home page
Return to current issue
Archives main page

The Iraq War As Seen In Britain:
UK Satellite Coverage

By Brian McNair

The widespread availability of real time news is a recent feature of the British media environment. CNN has been around since the 1980s, and Sky News was launched in 1989, but for years neither had significant reach in a country where cable TV was under-developed and satellite was slow to take off. In 1997, BBC News 24 came on air, and ITV News Channel began broadcasting in 1999, bringing to three the number of UK-based 24-hour news outlets available to the British viewer. By the late1990s the cabling of Britain was much more advanced, and digitalisation on satellite, cable and terrestrial platforms had begun in earnest. As the invasion of Iraq began on March 20, most British households had access to one or more of these services: the first time that war had been conducted by British forces in such circumstances.

The unique nature of the Iraqi conflict was heightened by the decision of British and US political leaders to allow unprecedented media access to the battlefield. More than seven hundred journalists were 'embedded' with front line units in Iraq itself. Hundreds more were installed at media centres in Qatar and Doha. Together they provided real time, round the clock coverage of what became, to a degree only hinted at by coverage of Gulf War I, the first virtual war.

Since the launch of CNN in June 1980 the development and expansion of 24-hour news has been event-driven. Successive political dramas, natural disasters and military crises have pulled more and more viewers into the reach of 24-hour news providers-the Challenger space shuttle explosion, the first Gulf war, the O.J. Simpson arrest and trial, the wars in former Yugoslavia, 9/11. Thirty-three million people in Britain watched BBC News 24's coverage of the September 11 attacks. By then, nearly seven million people were watching some 24-hour news at least once every week. Gulf War II, then, as it loomed into view last August, was always going to be a moment of intense competition for Britain's three providers, as each fought for the increased audiences likely to tune in to one or another of them.

This competition, it has to be said, was never going to be one fought between equals. BBC News 24 is part of the world's largest news organisation, with a budget and resources to match. Sky News is poorer, but still with access to the assets of Rupert Murdoch's immensely powerful News Corporation, and with the advantages of established longevity and familiarity on its side. ITV News Channel, on the other hand, is both the most recent addition to the UK's 24-hour news, and its least resourced, existing mainly to give its parent Independent Television News (ITN) the appearance of parity with the BBC and Sky in a new technological era where a 24-hour presence is seen as a hallmark of quality. Before the Iraqi invasion began, ITV News Channel's audience was barely measurable by the usual indicators, reaching only one 500th of the multi-channel market. BBC News 24 and Sky News were more successful, reaching between 0.65 and 0.9% of the multi-channel audience on average.

When the conflict began all three channels saw their audiences increase dramatically: ITV News by 400 percent to 0.9 percent of the audience, BBC News 24 by 500 percent to 3.2 percent and Sky News by an astonishing 820 percent to 8.3 percent. All those viewers who subscribed to Sky for the football and the premium movies had, it seemed, discovered a reason to watch the news. BBC benefited from its traditional status as the national news provider of choice, to which people turn at moments of crisis, and frequently transferred its 24-hour service to the free-to-air BBC1. ITV, though sharing in the general trend of rising audiences, remained a very poor third in audience share.

These differences in audience share were not a reflection of major differences in the quality of the respective channels' coverage. Each channel has its own identity, comprised of such elements as studio design (BBC News 24 goes for subdued red strap lines, for example, while Sky News prefers a bolder blue) and the verbal style of news readers and announcers (Sky has a more self-consciously dramatic approach, closer to CNN than the BBC). All three channels combined the standard mix of talking heads in studios, supported by graphics and maps, roving reporters on the ground, and library footage.

BBC News 24 was able to field the greatest number of correspondents, and to tap into the immense newsgathering apparatus of the parent corporation. Sky News, too, wore the resources of News Corp on screen. But all three channels had correspondents on the ground in Iraq and at Coalition media facilities in the Gulf states. Some of the most obvious differences in coverage were the accidental consequence of which channel's correspondents happened to be where on a given day. A macabre, unintended competition for the most dramatic and compelling stories emerged. None of the news channels sought out violent death, but it came to them in different ways, and provided them with poignant scoops which marked out significant moments in the campaign.

In the first days of the conflict ITN news reporter Terry Lloyd was killed in a suspected friendly fire incident. He was a "unilateral," unattached to any front line unit, and his death (and that of his colleagues) was an early indication of what would become a remarkable feature of this war: the high number of journalistic casualties. As an ITN correspondent, Lloyd's death featured strongly in ITV News' coverage for several days, including eye-witness reports, exclusive footage, and obituaries from his friends and associates.

Sky News had no unilaterals, but one of its embedded reporters became involved early on in a British assault on Iraqi positions in the south. In the ghostly green light of a night vision camera, Sky News viewers watched transfixed as troops entered a building held by Saddam's men, killed them, and exited. One British soldier was on fire, barely feet from the reporter, who kept up a running commentary throughout. The flames were doused and the soldier was not seriously injured, but the episode demonstrated the visceral immediacy of the coverage of this war, and showed Sky News determination to be at the heart of the action.

BBC News 24, meanwhile, had more reporters on the ground than any other British organisation. One of them, the veteran John Simpson, was travelling in a convoy in Northern Iraq on Sunday April 6, when a US war plane accidentally bombed it, killing a reported eighteen people. Among the dead was Simpson's translator, who joined a growing list of friendly fire media casualties. Here, tragic chance provided BBC News 24 with exclusive footage of the horrors of war. The footage, as I watched it shortly after the incident, showed dead soldiers, body parts, vehicles on fire, injured being lifted out of the fire zone, and voices warning the journalists to "get back. It's cooking." Through it all, Simpson calmly gave his report of what had happened.

This carnival of horrors was not a ratings gimmick, of course, and no news organisation would have wished its employees to be involved so directly in such an incident, regardless of the pictures. In truth, all three UK channels did a good job of conveying to audiences back in Britain the violence and chaos of modern hi-tech warfare, in which troops and journalists alike appeared to be at greater risk from their own side than from the enemy.

Much will be written in the months and years to come about the bias of the media in this war. From this viewer's perspective, formed on day 21 as cameras filmed Iraqi civilians and US marines working together to tear down a statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad, it seemed that the three UK channels preserved as high a level of impartiality and detachment as could be expected in the circumstances. The BBC adhered throughout to the formula "the British say," "the British are on the outskirts of Basra." This style is traditionally intended to convey its impartiality vis--vis the UK government, even at times of war. But there was no neutrality expected, nor offered, in coverage of Saddam's activities. The badness of the Iraqi regime was a given from the start, for all three channels. ITV and Sky were more likely to use words like 'evil', and to convey a more committed attitude to what was happening than the BBC, reflecting the different political constraints under which they operate. All media organisations operated under military restrictions, of course, and their correspondents were often used in the service of Coalition propaganda.

Criticism of the war plan was regularly covered, however, especially in week two when the main wobble occurred. Amidst sand storms and determined Iraqi resistance, US troops appeared to be getting bogged down, and UK news channels made no effort to hide that fact. Anti-war protesters and critics of the Coalition's management of the war were reported extensively. In addition to the unprecedented access extended to journalists, then, this was a war in which, from the UK perspective at least, there was no attempt by media organisations to downplay or dismiss opposition to the war policy.

At the end of it all, as the troops entered Baghdad and the Iraqis came out of their homes to celebrate, my feeling is that the BBC did a typically thorough, detached job on covering the three weeks of the war. ITV News Channel did its best with few resources, but was never in a position to lead the pack. Sky News, I suspect, will emerge from the conflict with its audience and its reputation enhanced. If coverage of this conflict is any indicator, in years to come it will be Sky, rather than ITV News Channel, which offers the most serious competition to the BBC in the UK's 24-hour news market. TBS


Brian McNair is reader in Film & Media Studies at the University of Stirling, Scotland. He is the author of many books and articles on journalism, including News and Journalism In the UK, 4th edition, Routledge, 2003.
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