Embedded journalists are the greatest PR coup of this war. Dreamt up by the Pentagon and Donald Rumsfeld the ‘embeds’, as they are now routinely described, are almost completely controlled by the military. Embeds as is now well known agree to give up most of their autonomy in exchange for access to the fighting on military terms. They also gain the advantage the use of facilities such as transport and accommodation. Reporters who are not embedded are pointedly denied such facilities. Most importantly embeds are afforded protection from physical harm by the military. So far in this war the main danger for journalists has come from western military. So the protection on offer is more of a threat than a reassurance for independent reporters.
Each embedded reporter has to sign a contract with the military and is governed by a fifty point plan issued by the Pentagon detailing what they can and cannot report. The list of what they can report is significantly shorter than the list of what they cannot.
According to reports there are 903 embedded reporters including 136 with UK forces. There are none embedded with the small contingents of other nations such as the Australian military. Only 20% of reporters embedded with the US are from outside the US and 128 of the embed with UK forces are from the UK. Even countries with military involvement such as Australia have very little access to the embedding system with only two reporters embedded with US forces. French journalists in particular have complained about being excluded. The Anglo American dominance of the reporters is no accident, but a key part of the strategy.
The PR genius of the embed system is that it does allow unprecedented access to the fighting and, also, unprecedented identification by the reporters with the military. British minister of Defence Geoff Hoon has claimed: ‘I think the coverageâ€¦ is more graphic, more real, than any other coverage we have ever seen of a conflict in our history. For the first time it is possible with technology for journalists to report in real time on events in the battlefield.’ It is certainly true to say that it is new to see footage of war so up-close, but, it is a key part of the propaganda war to claim that this makes it ‘real’. In fact, the aim of the embedding system is to control what is reported by encouraging journalists to identify with their units. To eat and drink together, to risk danger and to share the same values. Ted Koppel of US network ABC, told The Washington Post that his feelings towards the soldiers were ‘very, very warm’.
This identification with the soldiers works to ensure self censorship is generally effective. Phillip Rochot a respected reporter for France 2, currently working independently in Iraq â€˜Embedded journalists do a fair amount of voluntary self-censorship, controlling what they say. In any case their views are closely aligned with the anglo-american position. They are soldiers of information, marching with the troops and the political direction of their country. They wonâ€™t say anything wrong, they feel duty-bound to defend the anglo-american cause in this war.â€™ Christina Lamb of the London Times agrees that embedded journalists are: ‘ giving a more positive side, because they’re with the troopsâ€¦ and they’re not out in the streets or out in the countryside seeing what’s actually happening there.’ Hoon has himself acknowledged the effect of this reporting in appearing to reduce opposition to the war in the first days: â€˜The imagery they broadcast is at least partially responsible for the public’s change of mood.â€™
But towards the end of the first week of the war US and UK officials started to mutter about too much access and claimed that it was the pressure of 24hr coverage which was circulating misinformation. Both US and UK military sources blamed embedded reporters and the pressure of 24 hour news cycles for circulating misinformation. This is a straightforward propaganda manoeuvre designed to distract attention from the fact that the false stories have all been authorised by military command structures and also to warn journalists not to get out of line. The proof that this is propaganda is that they are not proposing to change the embed system which has served them very well.
Some embedded reporters fell over themselves to explain that they only reported what the military allow them to. Late at night with very few people watching Richard Gaisford an embedded BBC reporter said ‘If we ran everything that we heard in the camp then certainly there would be a lot of misinformation going around. We have to check each story we have with them. And if they’re not sure at the immediate level above us – that’s the Captain who’s our media liaison officer – he will check with the Colonel who is obviously above him and then they will check with Brigade headquarters as well.’
This open acknowledgement of the system of control is rare and was provoked by official criticism. It illustrates the tight censorship imposed by the military but not acknowledged in US or UK reporting. News bulletins in the UK are full of warnings about Iraqi ‘monitoring’ and ‘restrictions’ on movement in reports from Baghdad. The closest that they get to this on the UK/US side is to note that journalists cannot report on where they are and other security details. In fact the embed controls are, if anything, stricter than the system imposed by the Iraqi regime.
Gaisford’s comments is also interesting for the acknowledgement it makes that reporters are actually fully integrated into military commands structures. This complements the identification revealed by phrases such as ‘we’ and ‘our’ in reports of military action. Reference to the ‘level above’ as the press officer does indicate a fundamental subordination to military propaganda needs. But this is hardly surprising since the contract that reporters sign explicitly requires reporters to ‘follow the direction and orders of the Government’ and prohibits them from suing for injury or death even where this ‘is caused or contributed to’ by the military.
The unprecedented access is the carrot, but the stick is always on hand. Two embedded journalists who have allegedly strayed over the line have been expelled and during the second weekend of the war ‘many embedded reporters found their satellite phones blocked for unexplained reasons’. Moreover, – and much less discussed in the global media, with the military a rung above the journalists’ in the command hierarchy. Some embeds are, according to Christian Lowe of US military magazine Army Times, being ‘hounded by military public affairs officers who follow their every move and look over their shoulders as they interview aviators, sailors, and maintainers for their stories.’
Each military division in the gulf has 40 to 60 embedded journalists, and between five and six public affairs officers ‘behind the scenes’. They report up to the Coalition Press Information Center (CPIC) in Kuwait and the $1 million press centre at CentCom in Doha. From there the message is co-ordinated by the Office of Global Communications in the White-house in consort with Alastair Campbell, Blair’s top spin doctor in Downing Street. The fanciful notion that the misinformation of the first weeks of the campaign were been due to journalists having conversations with ‘a squaddie who’s shining his boots’, as a British MoD official spun it, is itself a key part of the propaganda war. All of the myriad misinformation coming out of Iraq in the first two weeks has been fed out by the US/UK global media operation. As one reporter in Doha noted ‘At General Tommy Franksâ€™s headquarters, it is easy to work out whether the dayâ€™s news is good or bad. When there are positive developments, press officers prowl the corridors of the press centre dispensing upbeat reports from pre-prepared scripts, declaring Iraqi towns have been liberated and that humanitarian aid is about to be delivered. Yet if American and British troops have suffered any sort of battlefield reverse, the spin doctors retreat into their officers at press centre and await instructions from London and Washington.’
The threat to independent reporting
If the embeds have been an opportunity, the Pentagon and British military have seen independent journalists as s threat. There have been a stream of reports of hostility, threats and violence against independent reporters. UNESCO, The International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Sans Frontieres and the British National Union of Journalists have all condemned these threats. Some have been subtle and others less so. On the ground and away from the cameras the threats are pointed and can include violence as several journalists have already found out. The subtle threats include those made by British Ministers such as Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon: ‘one of the reasons for having journalists [embedded] is to prevent precisely the kind of tragedy that occurred to an ITN crew very recently when a well known, hard working, courageous journalist was killed essentially because he was not part of a military organisation. Because he was trying to get a story. And in those circumstances we can’t look after all those journalists on this kind of fast moving battlefield. So having journalists have the protection, in fact, of our armed forces is both good for journalism, [and] it’s also very good for people watching.’
Here, Hoon takes on all the charm and authority of a Mafia boss explaining the benefits of a protection racket. The message is clear : stay embedded and report what you are told or face the consequences.
David Miller is a member of the Stirling Media Research Institute, Scotland. [email protected]