Friday, June 06, 2003

The camera always lies

Last night, proof positive that amidst the dreck ('How Clean Is Your House?', 'Dinner Party Inspectors' ad infinitum ad nauseam) there are still programmes of real substance on Channel 4. I'd not seen any of their 'The War We Never Saw' series before catching 'The True Face Of War', and I'm now regretting it. The programme was a fascinating, brutally frank and frequently horrific insight into the realities of the Iraq war denied to the ordinary viewer and the manipulation of events by government, military and media.

Some of the so-called 'embedded reporters', including ITN's Romilly Weeks, revealed the extent to which their coverage was shaped by the 'media minders' assigned the task of watching over them, and dependence upon the military for food and supplies made dissent from the official line much more difficult. Yes, Blair's spin doctors were at work even in the field, and sometimes engaged not in superficial gloss or even fabrication but in wholescale censorship: Weeks had a report showing Iraqi dissatisfaction at their "liberation" by British and American forces embargoed, and then found herself excluded from official briefings like some kind of naughty schoolgirl. Independent reporters (or 'unilaterals') were distrusted and physically assaulted, and ITN's Terry Lloyd was killed, caught up in the crossfire.

Western news networks consistently condemned Aljazeera for showing images of the injured and dead, while lapping up the British and American government's "fluffy" news items about Private Jessica Lynch and the bomb-finding dog. The grotesque reality went unrepresented on our screens, most broadcasters churning out patrician platitudes about owing a moral responsibility to their viewers not to show anything that might offend or distress - but, as Jon Snow put it, if we go to war our children should be able to see what exactly it involves. Warfare is never precise, mathematical, neat, efficient, bloodless. BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson spoke of the "friendly fire" incident that left 10 people dead, one man dying clutching his own intestines in his arms. Some of the footage shown last night was appalling - exploded heads, charred bodies, hands and feet strewn across roads. This grim reality was denied to us by government and media. The hysterical outcry over the treatment of Allied prisoners-of-war, paraded on Iraqi TV, was nothing short of disgusting in its hypocrisy: the Ministry of Defence were perfectly happy for footage of similar treatment of Iraqis by British and American troops to be shown on our screens - although these prisoners were only filmed with hoods over their heads, supposedly "to preserve their dignity".

What really hit home was the way in which corporate language has bled into other forms of discourse - 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' became a crusading slogan which the American government and news broadcasters used to "sell" a particular idea of the war (as a "liberation") to the American people, the same tactic that Nike uses to sell trainers or McDonalds to sell fast food, or any other corporation for that matter. And the sad fact is that, on the whole, the American people were buying.

Then there were suggestions that the whole toppling of Saddam's statue was carefully stage-managed. I hadn't realised that the Americans had claimed the stars-and-stripes flag initially placed on the statue's head was symbolic as it had been salvaged from the Pentagon on September 11th. This, of course, begs two questions. Firstly, do they seriously expect people to believe that this flag just happened to be in the tank at the scene? Credit us with some intelligence, you morons. And secondly, what, exactly, has Iraq got to do with the September 11th attacks? Precisely nothing. Of course, the idea of the statue being toppled as marking the climactic conclusion of the war was pure Hollywood - the international community and the world's media may very well have lost interest, but street skirmishes are still ongoing

Amidst all the horror and hypocrisy, perhaps the only most positive observation was that, thanks to satellite, cable and digital TV and the internet, ordinary people now have easier and less constrained access to a range of alternative perspectives, and so the public perception of events is much harder to manipulate and control. Freedom of information and expression survived the conflict, even though it was often only evident on the web.

This programme was essential viewing.

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