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
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
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-à-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.