Wednesday, March 26, 2003

The first media war was the Boer War, which saw the British Empire embarking on a vicious campaign in South Africa. Stories arrived back in Britain via correspondents publishing their stories in newspapers such as the Daily Mail and the Times (for whom a young Winston Churchill reported). The comparisons between that war and the war we live through now are very interesting indeed. It was justified to the British public on moral grounds and with it a surge of patriotism was fostered. In hindsight history shows the war to have been chiefly concerned with the precious diamond resources of the region and the gaining of an important strategic base of influence. It was because there was no real or differing media freedom that extremely few contemporaries questioned the rights or wrongs of the British policy. The British committed many foul deeds during that campaign. The term 'concentration camp' was first invented as a reference to the camps set up by the British for the Boer women and children who lived in the region. But such a campaign could never achieve such widespread public support with today's information mass media such as the Internet. However in many respects the old print media has changed little and broadcast media is only a halfway house between that of the newspapers with their individual preset positions and the truth that is there to be hunted out on the Internet

On Saturday I attended the anti-war demonstration that weaved its way through the streets of London and ended in front of a large stage in Hyde Park. I'm not going to bang on about the rights and wrongs of this war, but the mainstream reporting of the demo, or rather the lack of it was more than a little disturbing. This was by far the largest anti-war rally ever held in Britain during a British military campaign and the significance of this, added to the strength of feeling expressed, was significant. At the march wasn't just the usual suspects of militants and those with vested interests but a genuine mixture of British people from all the meats of our cultural stew - from the white middle aged staple of roast beef to the naturalised bounty of chicken tikka and the European pleasure of a delicately served snail (apologies; my use of metaphor has always been a bit odd). Yet hardly any coverage was given to this important and relevant event.

What was given some limited coverage was the blocking of Oxford Street. I stumbled across this on my way home. About a hundred or so demonstrators - roughly 0.05 per cent of the total at the march (based on a figure half way between the police and the organiser's estimates of the attendees) - were sat in Oxford Street blocking traffic with about three times the number of police. This sideshow, vanishingly insignificant in comparison with the rally itself, received by far the majority of media coverage, and in some cases was the only reference given to the protests. Because traffic was already avoiding the area, the sum total of traffic stretched back as a result of this action was, and I make use of no hyperbole here, one Route Master double-decker bus; the action represented a single barrel out of an entire oil field of protestation.

But the broadcast and print media in this war has shown itself to be poor fair indeed. I have been lucky to see media reporting from a wide variety of the world's newsgathering organisations. And there are three basic positions as I see it: the American media's, the Arab media's, and the truth. And just to clarify the British position, if the American media was red and the truth was white, our mass media would represent itself as a kind of medium pink (although vitriolic jingoistic newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Murdoch manipulated Sun might be individually regarded as a kind of deep violet). I believe firmly that it is important to get as many points of view as possible. Watching or reading from one source only is not the way to get an honest view of this conflict. An individual news source can strongly influence the way a thing is seen not just with an exaggeration or a one-sided opinion but also just by simply selecting what it does and does not report.

A cursory look at just the visual representations of this war in the various medias says much. In America you will see almost exclusively images of the instruments of war - planes, helicopters, tanks and vehicles, along with interviews with Allied soldiers and their families. In the Arab media the main images are of the destroyed buildings and of civilians - often as victims. Each of course are catering for their audience's interests. The US media is, it has to be said, often self-serving, and rarely dares to risk appearing unpatriotic. Which is apparently a particularly significant crime as if questioning the motives of their representatives' actions is somehow the wrong thing to do. It does appear the President could rape children on live television and there would be at least a small proportion of Americans steadfastly unwilling to criticise. Which I hope isn't too unfair as there are many who do dare to stand up and speak their objections despite often being in the minority.

Al-Jazeera - the Arab equivalent of CNN - is the news channel of choice for most Arabs now instead of the traditional CNN or BBC, and that change may be more influential this time around than people believe. It will not be so easy for Western politicians to sway Arab opinion without the help of news organisations sympathetic to their cause. In America and Britain, broadcasters appear to present information distributed by the Allied forces as fact and label that distributed by the enemy with the classic "according to" introduction. Al Jazeera is a little more selective about what it presents as fact, although it seems willing to distribute dubious propaganda without question. In the Arab world popularity can be cheaply gained by your basic anti-American and anti-Israeli sentimentality. This is understandable to a point, but the importance of catering for your audience is not lost in Al Jazeera Towers. They know that too much pro-Western commentary does not get digested too easily. It is of interest to note that in America and Britain the invading force is referred to as "Coalition Forces" or "Allies". In the Middle East they are frequently "Americans".

Interestingly, the alleged "civilian uprising" in Basra was readily and loudly reported by the US and British media. Newspapers especially have already reported it as fact and have already began analysing and summing up its repercussions. Yet the story originated from British Army sources and has yet to be verified independently. Al Jazeera this morning (Wed 26/3) said there was 'no sign of it'. If it turns out that there was none, how far will the media go in correcting what it said?

There are other more basic differences as well. Arab TV was able to show horrific pictures of a young child with terrible head injuries. The pictures caused (even more) outrage across the Middle East. In the West, strict guidelines and rules prevent broadcasters from being able to show such an image - assuming they would choose to. Gulf War 1 proved to be the making of the 24-hour News Channel. This instalment, the most information-packed war in history, could herald the coming of a new age for the Internet and specifically for the blog. The image of that desperate child was freely available to Westerners surfing the Internet. Without it, that image would have been very unlikely to be distributed at all. Such images can be hugely important. A picture of 9 year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc fleeing a US napalm drop in Vietnam bare of all clothing had a massive influence on the public's perception of that war and many believe it alone was a huge factor in turning that precious US public opinion around.

War blogs are a rapidly growing phenomenon and provide mass-distributed human views of conflict never before seen. CNN last week ordered one of its war correspondents Kevin Sitesto to stop writing his warblog. In his last entry he wrote "This experience has really made me rethink my rather orthodox views of reaching folks via mass media. Blogging is an incredible tool, with amazing potential."

An Iraqi in Baghdad who calls himself Salam Paxis still records his thoughts and his site is a must see: Click here to read Where Is Raed?

There are also two new directories listing war blogs:
War Blogging
War Blogs ....War Blogs also has headlines from the British, American, and Middle Eastern media.

The beauty of blogs is that to build a good picture, one is forced to read a wide variety of different sites. And it is variation which allows a much more complete and faithful representation of reality. This is where the serious blog becomes a seriously useful tool.

An in depth alternative analysis of the news can be found at the most excellent Media Lens.

Anti-war site list.

Pro-war site list.

Please take a look at these and other sites and open yourself up to as full a range of sources as possible. Read a variety of newspapers; watch all the news channels you can; do not stick your needle to the same radio frequency. This goes for everyone, whatever position you hold dear. This morning I listened to a radio phone-in that was generally pro war. I disagreed with much of what was said, but it helped me get to understand why people supported this war. Whilst doing this I was reading the anti-war Daily Mirror, a tabloid newspaper that stands out as a welcome lone voice. The Allies are not anti-Muslim as some would have you believe - many of the same policy makers were responsible for the military action in the former Yugoslavia that took place without UN backing but which freed Muslims from oppression. However on the other side of the coin, this foreign policy seems to be part of a longer trend that caused the problems it proclaims it now wants to solve, and the justifications given for this war appear hypocritical and dubious to a very many people for many different reasons. This issue is an extremely complex and confusing one. Listening to all the different voices may be more difficult and stressful than just listening to one. But it stops us from adopting entrenched and possibly polarised positions. If this world is going to become a more peaceful and understanding one, we must all learn to listen to each other however difficult that may be.

No comments: