The Pentagon made it clear from the beginning of the Iraq war that there would be no censorship. What it failed to say was that war correspondents might well find themselves in a situation similar to that in Korea in 1950. This was described by one American correspondent as the military saying: ‘You can write what you like – but if we don’t like it we’ll shoot you.’ The figures in Iraq tell a terrible story. Fifteen media people dead, with two missing, presumed dead. If you consider how short the campaign was, Iraq will be notorious as the most dangerous war for journalists ever.
This is bad enough. But – and here we tread on delicate ground – it is a fact that the largest single group of them appear to have been killed by the US military.
Brigadier General Vince Brooks, deputy director of operations, has told us the Americans do not target journalists. But some war correspondents do not believe him, and Spanish journalists have demonstrated outside the US embassy in Madrid shouting ‘murderers’. I believe that the traditional relationship between the military and the media – one of restrained hostility – has broken down, and the US administration has decided its attitude to war correspondents is the same as that set out by President Bush when declaring war on terrorists: ‘You’re either with us or against us.’
Journalists prepared to get on side – and that means 100 per cent on side – will become ’embeds’ and get every assistance. Any who follow an objective, independent path, the so-called ‘unilaterals’, will be shunned. And those who report from the enemy side will risk being shot.
The media should have seen it coming. Last year the BBC sent one of its top reporters, Nik Gowing, to Washington to try to find out how it was that its correspondent, William Reeve, who had just re-opened the Corporation’s studio in Kabul and was giving a live TV interview for BBC World, was blown out of his seat by an American smart missile. Four hours later, a few blocks away, the office and residential compound of the Arab TV network Al-Jazeera was hit by two more American missiles.
The BBC, Al-Jazeera, and the US Committee to Protect Journalists thought it prudent to find out from the Pentagon what steps they could take to protect their correspondents if war came to Iraq. Rear Admiral Craig Quigley was frank. He said the Pentagon was indifferent to media activity in territory controlled by the enemy, and that the Al-Jazeera compound in Kabul was considered a legitimate target because it had ‘repeatedly been the location of significant al-Qaeda activity’. It turned out that this activity was interviews with Taliban officials, something Al-Jazeera had thought to be normal journalism.
All three organisations concluded that the Pentagon was determined to deter western correspondents from reporting any war from the ‘enemy’ side; would view such journalism in Iraq as activity of ‘military significance’, and might well bomb the area. This view was reinforced in the early days of the war in Iraq, when the Pentagon wrote officially to Al-Jazeera asking it to remove its correspondents from Baghdad. Downing Street made the same request to the BBC. In the US a Pentagon official called media bosses to a meeting in Washington to tell them how foolhardy and dangerous it was to have correspondents in the Iraqi capital. But no one realised it might also be dangerous to work outside the system the Pentagon had devised for allowing war correspondents to cover the war: embedding. In total, 600 correspondents, including about 150 from foreign media, and even one from the music network MTV, accepted the Pentagon’s offer to be embedded with military units.
I found only one instance of an embedded correspondent who wrote a story highly critical of the behaviour of US troops and which went against the official account of what had occurred. On 31 March, American soldiers opened fire on a civilian van that had failed to stop at a checkpoint, killing seven Iraqi women and children. US officials said the driver of the car failed to stop after warning shots and that troops had fired at the passenger cabin as ‘a last resort’.
But William Branigin, of the Washington Post, embedded with the Third Infantry, witnessed the shooting. He reported that no warning shot was fired and that 10 people, not seven, were killed. It will be interesting to see what becomes of Branigin’s relations with the US military. For the rest of the embeds, the conclusion of veteran New York Times journalist Sydney H Schanberg applies: ‘Embedded means you’re there,’ he said. ‘It also means you’re stuck’.
But that is what the Pentagon wanted, and after the death of ITN reporter Terry Lloyd, and the probable deaths of two of his team (they’re still listed as missing) who had been operating unilaterally, the Coalition Commander, General Tommy Franks, pointed out that no embedded correspondent had been killed.
What Franks did not reveal was exactly how Lloyd died. Now, more than a month after Lloyd’s death, neither the Ministry of Defence nor the Pentagon has told ITN what the investigation into his death has revealed. It may turn out this was an unfortunate accident, another ‘friendly fire’ incident. But what happened at the Palestine Hotel was a different matter. On 8 April, three war correspondents were killed when an American tank fired a shell at the suite on the 15th floor. Tarek Ayyoub, a cameraman for Al-Jazeera, was killed when a US plane bombed the channel’s office in Baghdad. American forces also opened fire on the offices of Abu Dhabi TV, whose identity is spelled out in large letters on the roof.
In the Iraq war the Pentagon regarded Al-Jazeera as an enemy propaganda station, putting out devastating accounts of Iraqi civilian casualties to a vast Arab audience, fuelling anti-American sentiment. Al-Jazeera was apprehensive about US reaction and repeatedly informed the US military of the exact co-ordinates of its Baghdad office. It was a waste of time. The Pentagon has offered neither explanation nor apology.
When the news of the Palestine Hotel attack first came, the American command said nothing until it emerged that the French TV channel, France 3, had filmed the tank aiming and firing. Then the coalition put out a series of contradictory accounts. Colonel David Perkins, commander of the Third Infantry Division’s Second Brigade, said Iraqis in front of the hotel were firing rocket-propelled grenades at the tank. The division’s commander, General Bouford Blount, issued a statement saying the tank had come under sniper fire from the hotel roof and had fired at the source of the shooting, which had then stopped.
Correspondents in the Palestine Hotel insisted there had been no grenades and no sniper fire. But the most telling evidence is that France 3’s cameraman had started filming some minutes before the tank opened fire, and his camera’s sound track records no shots whatsoever.
More puzzling was an official Spanish government statement that the coalition had actually declared the Palestine Hotel a military objective 48 hours before it was attacked and that the correspondents should have left. This was news to the correspondents, all of whom denied knowledge of any warning.
I am convinced that in the light of all the evidence the Pentagon is determined there will be no more reporting from the enemy side, and a few deaths among the correspondents who do will deter others. And the Pentagon’s policy will work. Al-Jazeera seriously considered pulling all of its correspondents out of Iraq because it could not guarantee their safety. Arab TV and British media bosses will think twice in any future war of sending staff reporters to the enemy side – not least because insurers will refuse to underwrite the risk. I think the Pentagon is not concerned in the slightest about its attacks on journalists because it is convinced that the public will support its view and its actions.
With five out of 10 Americans believing that most of the terrorists who carried out the attack on 11 September were Iraqis, the American media decided that its readers and viewers were not interested in the plight of Iraqi victims. The New York Times said it aimed to capture the true nature of the war but avoid ‘the gratuitous use of images simply for shock value’. The biggest radio group in the US, Clear Channel, used its stations to organise pro-war rallies. McVay Media, one of America’s largest communications consulting companies, advised its radio clients to play ‘patriotic music that makes you cry, salute and get cold chills’, and under no circumstances cover war protests. When New York magazine writer Michael Wolff broke ranks at the coalition’s daily press conference at Qatar and asked General Brooks: ‘Why are we here? Why should we stay? What’s the value of what we’re learning at this million-dollar press centre?’ Fox TV attacked him for lack of patriotism, and right-wing commentator Rush Limbaugh gave out Wolff’s email address – in one day he received 3,000 hate emails. Finally, a mysterious civilian in army uniform took him aside and told him: ‘This is a fucking war, asshole. No more questions for you.’ Wolff realised that the press conferences were not for the benefit of correspondents. The correspondents were extras in a piece of theatre. The farce could not have taken place if the correspondents had gone home, but given the competitive nature of war reporting, there was no danger of that.
Let’s finish with a look at the image that everyone will still remember when the debate and all these issues are long forgotten. As seen on television and on the front pages of newspapers around the world, cheering Iraqis attach a rope and a chain to Saddam’s neck then call on the services of an American vehicle to haul him down. The statue hesitates, bends at the knees and topples into the dust. In an information war heavy with symbolism, this marked the end of Saddam Hussein and the coalition’s victory.
But this image was not quite what it seemed. The statue was pulled down by American troops using American equipment – the Iraqis on their own would not have been able to do it.
Although there were lots of other statues, the toppling of this one took place opposite the Palestine Hotel, where most members of the international media were still staying. Without the media, the event would have meant nothing. Long-distance shots show that the Iraqis who helped topple the statue and later celebrated its fall numbered no more than 100.
So what happened? Was it as portrayed – a spontaneous outpouring of joy by ordinary Iraqis? Or was it a photo opportunity, a staged event in the theatre of propaganda? Excited TV presenters told their viewers they were witnessing history. But whose history?
– Philip Knightley is the author of ‘First Casualty’ (Carlton), a history of war correspondents and propaganda.
– A longer version of this article appears in the BJR edition 14(2), available from SAGE Publications, 6 Bonhill Street, London EC2A 4PU. Subscription hotline: 020 7330 1266. E-mail: [email protected]