Eliminating truth: the development of war propaganda
The attack on Iraq looks set to be the most censored conflict of modern times. Media coverage in mainstream media will be controlled as never before. The US is determined to eliminate independent reporting of and from Iraq and it will go to unprecedented lengths to ensure that its propaganda and spin will dominate media agendas in the UK and US and it will expend massive resources in minimising critical coverage across the world.
The US and UK governments have shown themselves adept at learning propaganda lessons from successive conflicts. In both Suez (1956) and most importantly Vietnam, the UK and US governments came to believe that propaganda and media control were key to winning wars. In the Suez debacle General Sir Charles Keightley concluded in an internal government report in 1957 that the 'over-riding lesson' was that 'world opinion is now the absolute principal of war' The role of the media in the Vietnam war was believed by many to have been a key factor in the defeat of the US and the victory of the Vietnamese. But in fact the US media only started to feature dissent after the US ruling elite became split on the war. Nevertheless America’s future war planners decided not to risk uncensored press coverage of their own conflicts. 'They determined - evidently beginning in the Reagan Administration - that reporters would never again have the opportunity to confuse the American public about the government’s war aims, whether deliberately or by accident' .
The lessons of Vietnam were put into effect in the Falklands conflict in 1982. There was close control of the 29 journalists who were allowed to accompany the military to the South Atlantic and no independent facilities for reporting. A dual system of censorship operated which ensured that journalists' copy was censored on naval vessels in the South Atlantic and then again at the Ministry of Defence in London before being released. The success of the news management in the Falklands was not lost on the US government as Lt Commander Arthur Humphries of the US Navy noted in 1983: 'In spite of a perception of choice in a democratic society, the Falklands War shows us how to make certain that government policy is not undermined by the way a war is reported… Control access to the fighting, invoke censorship, and rally aid in the form of patriotism at home and in the battle zone.' This policy was followed in the invasions of both Grenada (1984) and Panama (1989)
Humphries also noted that if there was one deficiency in the policy, it was in failing to fill the resulting information void with pictures. 'In the Falklands the British failed to appreciate that news management is more than just information security censorship. It also means providing pictures’. By the time of the Gulf War in 1991 this lesson had been well learned. In the Saudi desert journalists were isolated from the fighting and newsrooms were supplied every day with new footage of ‘precision’ bombs hitting their targets. This was the new clean war in which civilians would not be harmed as ‘smart’ technology enabled ‘surgical strikes’. This was a systematic charade. Only 7% of the ordnance was ‘smart’. The other 93% being indiscriminate weapons including weapons of mass destruction. The smart technology turned out not to be so smart and missed its target in 40% of cases according to official figures. Needless to say we didn’t see any of the footage of either the ‘dumb’ bombs or the smart bombs which missed. But even when the smart weapons hit their targets, civilians died, as in the case of the al-Amariyah bunker in Baghdad which was not a military installation but an air raid shelter. This time the US and UK are claiming that most bombs will be of the smart variety and that the technology has been improved. According to the British Ministry of Defence, ‘greater attention to precision-guided weapons means we could have a war with zero civilian casualties’. This statement was falsified on the first night of bombing when between three and five Iraqi civilians were hit by shrapnel. The emphasis on the clean war again is an attempt to divert attention from the fact that weapons of mass destruction such as depleted uranium tipped shells and ‘bunker buster’ and ‘daisy cutter’ bombs will be used. Conjuring up the smell of freshly mowed grass, the daisy cutter is actually a bomb the size of a small car which destroys everything in an area the size of a football pitch. It is said to resemble a small nuclear bomb.
In past wars including the 1991 gulf war, the pool system has been the main means of control of journalists ‘in theatre’ – a propaganda term adopted by many journalists. The pool allows the military to control the movement of journalists as well as almost everything they see. In 1991, the Pentagon tried to bully journalists not to operate outside the pool and some adopted the value system so fully that they turned in any journalists who tried to report independently. This time the Pentagon has got more sophisticated and more determined to eliminate the possibility of independent reporting. They have pressured journalists to leave Baghdad; by 18 March about half of the 300 there had left, including many of the key UK and US journalists (from US networks such as NBC and ABC, and UK press such as the Times and Telegraph) who would likely have more credibility in their own countries. The rules issued by the Pentagon were themselves part of a process of spin. They are presented as voluntary and appeared to some to offer ‘unprecedented freedom to report the facts’. But on closer inspection, a number of clauses buried in the text indicate the iron fist in the velvet glove. While the rules state that there is ‘no general review process’ of reports by the Pentagon, a later section notes that ‘if media are inadvertently exposed to sensitive information they should be briefed after exposure on what information they should avoid covering’. A security review also becomes compulsory if any sensitive information is released deliberately. In a classic passage attempting to present strict censorship rules as voluntary, the Pentagon notes that ‘agreement to security review is in exchange for this type of access must be strictly voluntary and if the reporter does not agree, the access may not be granted’.
The pool this time has a further new feature known as ‘embedding’ which entails that reporters operate in close proximity to military units. They will not be allowed to travel independently and some suggest that control of the technology of communication will be controlled by the military too. These new rules mean that journalists will don military uniform and protective clothing and, the Pentagon hopes, start to identify with the military. According to reports there are 903 journalists embedded with US and UK forces, six times the number of journalists in Baghdad. At US military headquarters in Qatar the daily briefings will be delivered from a huge press centre complete with a mocked up studio with five large TV screens to show accurate bombing runs. Topped off by tastefully deployed camouflage netting installed by a specially flown in Hollywood designer, the centre cost in the region of $250,000.
In a little-noticed interview on Irish radio, veteran BBC war correspondent Kate Adie has argued that the Pentagon is ‘entirely hostile to the free spread of information’. ‘I am enormously pessimistic of the chance for decent on the spot reporting’, she said. But the threat to independent journalism is potentially more severe. Adie reported being told by a ‘senior officer’ in the Pentagon that if broadcasters’ satellite uplink signals were detected by the military they would be ‘targeted down’ even if there were journalists there. ‘Who cares…they’ve been warned’ said the officer.
War does strange things to both military and media. The Director of Corporate Communications for the British Army Brigadier Matthes Sykes has a reported enthusiasm for conflict. He ‘is most animated when talking of his spells in the field, indeed he admits that is where his heart belongs.’ Journalists too suffer from the malaise of getting too involved. According to widely respected Middle East reporter Robert Fisk many are back to ‘their old trick of playing toy soldiers’. The former Daily Telegraph editor Max Hastings admits he got too close in the Falklands war: ‘I was accused of getting too involved with the troops – I have to plead guilty to that.’ In Iraq now he worries for younger colleagues: ‘TV stations and newspapers tend to get overexcited in wars… It’s a case of boys with toys, but the hardest thing to remember is that this is ultimately all about lives’. On the first day of the attack, Iraqi missiles fired into Kuwait were unequivocally reported on the main BBC bulletins as consisting of Scud missiles, even though this had not been confirmed and doubt was cast on the hypothesis by minority audience BBC programmes. BBC News 24, the globally available service continually repeated the propaganda. Just after midnight (GMT) on the morning of the 21st March, BBC reporter Ben Brown repeatedly used the word ‘Scud’ without any qualification. As many news outlets pointed out, the use of Scuds would be a material breach of UN resolution 1441. But, in fact, the missiles were not Scuds, as was confirmed the next day. But by then the damage was done and the correction did not gain the prominence of the original reports.
This is all a familiar pattern from previous wars where the BBC bulletins seen by the mass UK audience follow a distinctly propagandist pro-war agenda. As war approached in the UK the government attempted to eliminate dissent by arguing that past differences must be put aside to support ‘our’ troops. Dissent had already been under pressure from at least the beginning of February when the Director of News at the BBC, Richard Sambrook, issued a confidential memo to senior BBC management (see http://www.medialens.org/articles/iraq/dm_dissent.html ). Quickly leaked by angry BBC staff, the memo showed that even before the biggest ever demonstrations in British history the BBC was attempting to marginalise the broadcasting of anti-war voices. Too much dissent was being broadcast, it claimed, which 'forces our presenters to put the Bush/Blair position to callers -- sometimes making us appear to be siding with govt. Not true in all cases.' A tacit admission, if ever there was one, that much BBC output is shaped to support war. As war started the first signs of patriotic censorship appeared. The owner of more than 100 weekly newspapers, Sir Ray Tindle, wrote to the editors of all his papers asking them ‘to ensure that nothing appears… which attacks the decision to conduct the war’. Drawing immediate protests from free media campaigners, this example is sure to be the first of many infringements of independent reporting.
The hackneyed phrase maintains that truth is the first casualty of war, but this does not suggest nearly clearly enough that it is a casualty because the US and UK governments are making a concerted attempt to destroy it.
 Cited in T. Shaw (1996) Eden, Suez and the Mass Media, London: I. B. Tauris: 196.
 John McArthur, (1992) Second Front, Berkeley: University of California Press: 138.
 Lt Commander Arthur Humphries, Naval War College Review, May-June 1983, cited in McArthur, 1992: 138.
 cited in McArthur, ibid: 140.
 Kellner, D. (1992) The Persian Gulf TV War, Boulder CO: Westview: 163.
 'Fury at no dead "lie"', Daily Mirror, 21 March 2003: 9.
 Ciar Byrne 'Media mull Iraq evacuation' The Guardian, Tuesday March 18, 2003 http://media.guardian.co.uk/broadcast/story/0,7493,916727,00.html
 Patrick Barrett, 'US reporters condemn Pentagon press controls' The Guardian, Thursday February 27, 2003 http://media.guardian.co.uk/presspublishing/story/0,7495,903552,00.html
 The Sunday Show, RTE1 Radio, 9.3.03. http://www.GuluFuture.com/news/kate_adie030310.htm
 Ian Hall 'BRIGADIER MATTHEW SYKES, THE ARMY - ARMY COMMS CHIEF FIT FOR PR CHALLENGES' PR Week December 6, 2002, Pg. 24
 Robert Fisk, 'The war of misinformation has begun' Independent, 16 March 2003.
 Ciar Byrne 'Media mull Iraq evacuation' The Guardian, Tuesday March 18, 2003 http://media.guardian.co.uk/presspublishing/story/0,7495,916728,00.html
 BBC2's Newsnight cast doubt on the story, the BBC1 main evening bulletin did not (20 March 2003).
 For example: 'The priority of the day was to shoot the incoming scuds out of the sky… we’ve come running down to this shelter which the British Army calls their ‘scud bunker.’… One Scud missile landed within yards of an American military camp… British and American commanders are hoping tonight is that as their ground forces push forward they will drive Iraqi troops further back so that they won’t be able to launch any more of these scud attacks but I have to tell you in the last few minutes there has been another scud alert. We’ve had to go down to the shelter yet again so it doesn’t seem that for the moment the scud attacks are over.' BBC News 24 00.12 hours 21 March 2003.
 Gina Coles, 'It's too late for debate - Now we must all support our Local heroes at war', Ivybridge and South Brent Gazette, 21 March 2003: 1.