| Prince Charles meets family members of servicemen fighting in the Gulf at Connaught Barracks in Dover on Friday. (AFP)
London, March 21: Reporting from the front line by Fleet Street journalists “embedded” with British units now fighting in Iraq is deeply and understandably sympathetic to the skill, bravery and professionalism of “our boys”, it is apparent from today’s newspapers.
The combined effect of the tone and content from the despatches is likely to reduce, if not eliminate, the hostility that the majority of the British have felt towards a war not sanctioned by the United Nations.
Yesterday, in a recorded speech, Tony Blair sought to unite a troubled nation by appealing to British sentiment over the involvement of “our boys”.
For the first time, the Prime Minister acknowledged that getting rid of Saddam Hussein was the primary purpose of the war.
Announcing that “British servicemen and women are engaged from air, land and sea”, he said: “Their mission: to remove Saddam Hussein from power and disarm Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD). I know this course of action has produced deep divisions of opinion in our country. But I also know the British people will now be united in sending our armed forces our thoughts and prayers.”
In previous statements, Blair had stated that the British aim was not specifically “regime change” but stripping Iraq of its “WMD” but if the side effect was the toppling of Saddam, so much the better.
It has always been the case in previous wars, such as Afghanistan, the 1991 Gulf conflict and Falklands, that the British people were solidly behind their soldiers. However, this time, many critics are making the point that it is possible and permissible for the British to be supportive of the soldiers but critical of the government for pitching them into battle.
Today’s Daily Mirror, the mass circulation and usually Labour-supporting tabloid, argues that it is not unpatriotic to adopt such a stance.
Its editorial, “Troops are heroes, the war’s insane”, says “it is not in our view acceptable to use the troops as an excuse for the country to ‘unite’ behind this war. The country does not feel united at all. Most of us feel worried sick about what is happening in our name”. The Mirror goes on: “It is true that we all support our forces. It is not their decision to be there and we know that many of them and their families share our concerns on this conflict. We feel sad and angry that they are there at all.”
The Mirror’s editor, Piers Morgan, drew the loudest cheers from the studio audience last night when he appeared on the BBC flagship programme, Question Time.
However, his policy could see readers drifting away from the Mirror and towards its main rival, The Sun, which supports the war with characteristic aggression. But the tables could be turned if the war drags on or hits unforeseen hitches.
One unexpected development, for example, is the new phenomenon of thousands of schoolchildren bunking off from classes to take part in anti-war protests. Some helped to bring traffic in Parliament Square outside the Palace of Westminster to a standstill last night.
For British reporters at the front, who depend on the British (or American) army for food, shelter and their very survival, a close relationship inevitably develops with the soldiers looking after them. In any case, it is easy to respect the British army, which is probably the best in the world.
British journalists would not dream of betraying its hospitality any more than, say, Indian reporters who were attached to “our jawans” in Kargil. The circumstances allow many young reporters to make their name by rising to the occasion and filing colourful copy but perhaps objectivity is inevitably compromised.
Today’s Sun has a front page headline: “Battle for Basra”.
“UK Marines and Paras lead attack”, says the report from George Pascoe-Watson, the paper’s deputy political editor, in Qatar. “Ten thousand British stormed into action last to seize the key oil city of Basra in southern Iraq.” Basra might well fall but at the time of writing, it hadn’t. Page 2 and 3 of The Sun had the headline: “News that will have Saddam trembling in his bunker....” This was: “The Brits are coming.” It added: “10,000 of Our Boys bear down on Basra”.
The expression, “Our Boys”, is beloved of The Sun, Britain’s biggest selling tabloid, as in: “Our boys launched a formidable aerial and amphibious assault to capture a position dubbed Red Beach — and became the first Allied troops to secure a position inside Iraq.”
Anyone reading The Sun may get the impression that the war is being fought by the Brits, with a little help from their junior partners, the Americans.
The Daily Express paints a similar picture on page one: “Our Boys Open Fire”.
Page 3 carries a despatch from David Sharrock with the Royal Marines, “Military might unleashed in land and sea assault”, which begins: “On a moonless evening, Royal Marine commandos stormed into southern Iraq to secure a vital foothold for the advance on Baghdad.”
It has to be remembered that copy has to be churned out speedily, in minutes sometimes, and then massaged by rewrite sub-editors back in London.
All papers are conscious that Iraqi civilian casualties could be used by Saddam’s regime in the propaganda war. Thus, the report from Ross Benson, in Baghdad, for the Daily Mail verged on what he might consider in the cold light of day to be almost callous: “A handful of civilians were taken to hospital yesterday suffering from shrapnel wounds. Their wounds were not serious, but in war, truth is always mutilated by propaganda and the Iraqi regime instantly put the injured people on public display.”
The Mirror, in contrast, carries two pictures of the Iraqi injured in hospital. The report, Baghdad burns, by Anton Antonowicz, has a more human account of those hurt. His report ends with a reference to “Anwar’s 36-year-old sister Ahlam. She was the worst case. Bad shrapnel cuts to her abdomen. Another whimper of the early days of this war. The whimper of a mother of three lying in a hospital bed wondering why the hell it had to be her.”
In the end, readers read what they want to believe.