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When governments go to war, the Fourth Estate goes AWOL

Most media outlets lined up behind the ‘coalition of the willing’ last time around. This time seems no different. The US Army, CC BY

A year after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a postmortem of the media coverage of the so-called “Iraq war”. The conference included academics, journalists, UN weapons inspectors and diplomats.

UC Berkeley also invited Lieutenant Colonel Rick Long, whose job it had been to prepare journalists to be embedded with American forces as they rolled into Iraq. The invasion would soon be described as “the greatest strategic disaster in US history”, by no less than retired Lieutenant General William Odom, a former senior military and intelligence official in the Carter and Reagan administrations.

But, as Long told the gathering, the strategy for managing the media had been beautifully executed:

Frankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment. Overall, we were very happy with the outcome.

When we needed them most, the Fourth Estate rolled over and let the military establishments of the belligerent countries tickle their tummies.

By “we”, I mean the thousands upon thousands of dead Iraqis, the millions of Iraqis made homeless, the dead and permanently disabled servicemen and women and the constituents of the belligerent countries who saw trillions of their hard-earned tax dollars flushed down the sewer of the military industrial complex.

Democracy depends on informed and engaged citizens

When Dwight Eisenhower coined the term “military industrial complex”, the US president and former general prescribed only one antidote to the potential misuse of its power, an “alert and knowledgeable citizenry”. But Eisenhower’s alert and knowledgeable citizenry requires a critical and independent media.

Rupert Murdoch owns up to 65% of Australia’s newspaper circulation. AAP/Jason Reed

Sadly, it is not that hard to take legions of journalists along on a military adventure. It helps that media moguls get a nice windfall when America is “at war”. Murdoch used his newspapers – he owned 175 at the time – to support the 2003 Bush-Blair-Howard Iraq invasion.

But the coverage by papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post was also so poor that both apologised to their readers for the gullible fashion in which they bought into the official narrative.

The narrative of war

Ideologies around “war” run deep, so deep that when a country is “at war” – or “a mission”, as prime minister Tony Abbott prefers to call the current exercise against Islamic State – its media get caught up in the “rally around the flag” effect.

I say “war”, in scare quotes, because what made the last “Iraq war” a “war” is not self-evident. The observable phenomena of “war” – the violation of sovereignty, the bombardment of cities, towns and remote outposts, the rolling tanks and marching armies – look exactly like a “crime of aggression”.

One is the stuff of honour and sacrifice, the other, according to the 1946 Nuremberg judgment, is:

… the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.

Embedded journalists get close to the military. US Army/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Media mouthpieces

For the military to “dominate the information environment” they have to naturalise their version of reality. They need us to believe their acts of war are warranted. They need journalists to use their words – their words for “the enemy”, their words for what makes this enemy especially “evil”, and their words for what they are doing.

They need us to believe that their killings and maimings, their destruction of property and infrastructure, their creation of new refugee camps, are legitimate because this is part of a striving towards some greater good.

They need the media to echo and reiterate the aims and goals of “the mission”, to report uncritically announcements about “the campaign” and to fill news stories with ongoing updates on “operations”.

And they need the media not to mention whose pecuniary interests are being served, never to seriously consider whether the military actions are legal, and to avoid historical facts, context or comparisons which could provide an alternative view of what is going on, and what it might lead to.

Once the official version gets momentum, it doesn’t matter if things go wrong. If some journalists report on “collateral damage”, or disquiet about “strategies” or “tactics”, this won’t shake the firm foundations on which the dominant narrative rests.

The ABC’s record on Iraq

Even the ‘un-Australian’ ABC joined the chorus line in the coverage of the initial invasion of Iraq. ABC TV/AAP

My research into the ABC coverage of the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 shows how this same old script was allowed to run its course.

I examined the ABC’s nightly news bulletin and its flagship current affairs program during the initial period of the Coalition invasion of Iraq (March 20 to April 2, 2003), when the “Iraq war” dominated the news. The ABC put five correspondents in Washington, but had none in Baghdad and none at the UN in New York. In this period, not one news item on the ABC was solely devoted to covering Iraqi civilian deaths – but there were four separate stories on the killing of a cameraman working for the ABC.

The ABC’s embedded reporter dramatised the experience of one troop of marines, with vignettes of individual marines and banal recounts of their reactions to daily events. By levelling his vision squarely on one small group of American soldiers, his reports lacked the wider context of the unfolding invasion.

He reported, wrongly, that Iraq had fired scud missiles. If his source was the Australian Defence Force, he missed the correction they issued the following day.

From the Coalition media centre in Qatar, the ABC’s correspondent told viewers that Australia’s mission had “a code name all of its own” and that Australia would have a “frontline role”. He recounted the comings and goings of HMAS Anzac and the FA-18 Hornets, and gave details of events and places so far away from his personal gaze that he could have been in Timbuktu. He reported that the bombing of 1000 Iraqi soldiers was a case of the Coalition “heading off fighting”.

The ABC duly regurgitated Australian Defence Force briefings. Three days into “the war”, the ABC news anchor, in a tone suitable for announcing a world cup victory, reported that Australian forces had “engaged the enemy”.

The ABC used Defence Department footage of Aussie soldiers boarding a civilian Iraqi boat with a cargo of dates. They did not acknowledge the provenance of the footage, or that it had nothing to do with the content of the story. Instead, they reported the view of Defence Force Chief Peter Cosgrove that our diggers had just prevented “mayhem in the Gulf”.

Australian forces were “fighting on the frontline”. The “elite armed forces of Australia” were “intercepting Iraqi ballistic missile sites (sic)”. Our navy divers, ABC viewers were told, were doing the hard yards to clear a port for the delivery of Australian humanitarian aid. In fact, the aid was a boatload of stranded AWB wheat that the government had stepped in and taken off AWB’s hands.

The invasion of Iraq was reported by the ABC as Coalition troops “crossing the Kuwaiti border”.

We got the “rules of engagement” story – the one that trumpets the ADF pilot for aborting a “mission” for fear of killing civilians. Here, it is being recycled for Iraq War mark III, so eerily familiar that plagiarism software would detect the similarities.

On the 7.30 Report, Kerry O’Brien interviewed a panel of Australia’s “best military minds”. In my study of the questions O'Brien put to his panel, I could not avoid the conclusion that the 7.30 Report was, in this period, a megaphone for the official narrative. And in this way, it helped legitimise the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

These military experts made wild predictions: Saddam was dead, the “war” would soon be over, the Coalition would be able to take charge of Baghdad because their tanks had “a very good frontal arc”. They had free rein to roll out their pseudo-scientific military twaddle about the campaign’s “centre of gravity”, “the modern battlefield” and the war’s “psychological phase”. These “experts” showed not even a glimmer of understanding what was to come.

The ABC journalists who strayed from the script – Linda Mottram and John Shovelan – endured official complaints by then-communications minister Richard Alston. Their words were raked over by a bevy of review panels.

Outside the chorus line

Of all the gigs that journalists do, reporting on “war” is the toughest. Not because of the dangers – though these must not to be underestimated. But when reporting “war”, journalists face off against the world’s most powerful vested interests and compete with society’s deepest cultural mythologies.

At its best, the Fourth Estate uncovered the My Lai massacre, the Abu Ghraib scandal and the incestuous relations in the Bush era of retired military officers, the US Defence Department and the “defence” industry.

In this incarnation, the Fourth Estate frightened even Napoleon. In his words:

Four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.

But the military’s “reality” is powerful, insidious and covert. It is seductive.

To be truly independent, you can’t just criticise it, you have to stand right outside it. You have to find your own words, and you to have know some history. Then your language will sound “ideological” – like Fisk or Pilger – because you’ll no longer be humming the military tune.

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