|Chomsky, where are you now?|
I have been covering war and deprivation for nearly two decades now. My ethical grid for reportage from the front, be it Jaffna or Mullaitivu or Kargil, owes much to the work of two major influences — Martha Gellhorn and Noam Chomsky. Their writings helped me look at issues that are often lost in war reporting: the propaganda machine, and the interests of the people versus those of the warring States. But this time, in Iraq, none of my guiding principles were of any use. The war machine has become more sophisticated and has discovered a willing partner in media. It is no longer a case of ‘manufacturing consent’. It is consent by consensus.
The belief that the proliferation of media would lead to a multiplicity of views and in-depth coverage has to be the leading myth of the day. In the present war on Iraq, nearly 1,800 journalists from as many as 75 countries were accredited with the US military command. One is tempted to believe that this excess would result in information overload. Nothing of that sort happened, thanks to the ingenious PR machinery of the US.
In this war, journalists are not divided on the basis of medium — print, broadcast, Internet and so on. Rather, they are divided into various sub-groups, depending on their nationality. Though the US military command had formally divided journalists into two categories — ‘embedded’ and ‘unilateral’ (sic), there are about eight sub-categories which were never spelled out, but were there for any discerning observer to see. Journalists from countries which were directly involved in the war were given precedence over others, and the coalition forces were quite frank about it. "When they report, it will comfort the near and dear ones of the guys in the field, you see," declared a US marine based in Kuwait. Journalists from countries opposed to the war were treated shabbily. The ire of the coalition forces directed against French and German journalists made even some British journalists squirm. When French and German journalists sought permission to go to Basra and other towns in southern Iraq, a British Army official shot back: "I will not permit you to file your shitty stories from my camp. The whole world knows about the role of the French in Algeria and the memory of the Holocaust is still fresh. We don’t need any advice on human rights or how to conduct war from you chaps."
The war of words was being taken as seriously as the real war fought on the ground and from the air. It forced the US-led military structure to create a new lexicon. The first issue is the agreement journalists were forced to sign in order to get accreditation. The agreement clearly abrogates the difference between the armed forces and the media. It expects journalists to behave, or risk losing their accreditation. For a moment, I considered working without accreditation, but I realised that I would not even be able to move out of my hotel room. The plight of the embedded journalists was worse. Their every word, every gesture, even the accent and emphasis, were constantly monitored. They were tutored, restrained from asking uncomfortable questions and their only communications link with the outer world was through the army.
More disturbing was the reportage from places captured by the coalition forces. With most journalists either from English-speaking countries or conversant only in English, the press division of the coalition forces took up the task of translation from Arabic to English. In fact, the Information Ministry of Kuwait was helping journalists to get interpreters. Later, journalists realised that these interpreters were tutored by the US-led forces to "identify the right people to get the right type of soundbites". In fact, when journalists reached cities like Nassiriyah and Basra, they found that they were part of a conducted tour. The coalition even marked out the streets in which journalists could travel, whom they could meet, and the buildings they could film. And, at strategic points, English-speaking Iraqis would suddenly make an appearance to deliver pungent bites against Saddam Hussein and his regime. This was not confined to ‘embedded’ journalists alone. Even ‘unilateral’ journalists were not as unilateral as their classification suggests. On the reverse of the accreditation card, it is clearly written that "the bearer must be escorted at all times".
Covering the Vietnam war, Martha Gellhorn wrote extensively about the two syndromes manufactured by the hawkish propaganda machinery — the fear and cheer syndromes. The protagonists of this war adapted the format to their own needs — they had the cheer syndrome and the jeer syndrome. Television crews were permitted to shoot whoever welcomed the advancing forces, and whoever jeered at the Saddam regime.
The US-led propaganda machinery wanted to keep the media away from blood, distress, anguish and pain. They wanted the war to be portrayed as a scientific achievement arrived at in a sanitised, sterile atmosphere. All the operational head offices were in five star hotels. In Kuwait, the coalition command office was at the Hilton Resort Hotel. Destruction and death were reduced to ‘losses’ and the war was projected as a boardroom manoeuvre of a huge multinational conglomerate. Every briefing started with a PowerPoint presentation and moved to satellite pictures showing ‘precision attacks’ on targets selected for ‘decapitation strikes’. However, when questions on issues like friendly fire which killed civilians, journalists and coalition soldiers were asked, we merely got a Clint Eastwoody shrug.
The US forces were careful not to show a single American’s dead body. "We don’t want to create panic back home," was the constant refrain. When Iraqi Television showed the images of American POWs, the US military spokesperson suddenly started talking about the Geneva Convention. When a reporter from an Arab channel tried to compare the US treatment of Taliban POWs at Guantanamo Bay with the Iraqi regime’s handling of American POWs, the reporter was silenced not just by the Army spokesperson but also by a couple of journalists. I asked about the fate of Iraqi POWs. Col. Chris Vernon, spokesperson for the British Army, said that "their lifestyle is far better than that of our soldiers fighting it out in the field." This has to be the first time in history that the living conditions of POWs has been described as a "lifestyle".
Part of this "lifestyle" narrative is to produce TV-friendly images. When Saddam’s statue was about to be pulled down, I got a call on my mobile from the coalition forces. "Hi, Saddam’s statue is going to come down. Great footage. If your channel wants it live, you can download from the following satellites…" said a press officer, and she went on to give technical details as well as the duration of the telecast. So much for the spontaneous outpouring of anger against an evil regime. But the taboo question concerned the fabled Weapons of Mass Destruction. Whichever way this question was posed, the answer remained just one line: "We are still looking for them; we’ll give you details at the appropriate time."
The new millennium has already witnessed two major wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The war machine has already identified other potential ‘enemies’. The language of war has become frighteningly sophisticated. But the language of peace is still trapped in Cold War lingo. It is time for us to create a new vocabulary of potent words that are not polluted by the PR industry — both to protect ourselves and to confront the machine.
A.S. Panneerselvan is Managing Editor of Sun News, Sun TV. He lives in Madras