| Arnett: Trying times
London, April 1: Twenty-four hours is a long time in war journalism, as Peter Arnett has discovered. Sacked yesterday by America’s NBC network for giving a sympathetic interview to Iraqi TV, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Arnett, a veteran of Vietnam coverage, was gleefully scooped up by Britain’s mass circulation Mirror newspaper.
What happens to Arnett is a distraction from the main business of covering the bloody conflict on the battle ground, but in reality the media war has become a crucial aspect of the British and US attempts to win “the hearts and minds” of Iraqis.
In all this, the efforts of Arnett, 68, have been distinctly unhelpful so far as the governments in Washington and London are concerned. Arnett’s point is that US soldiers are targeting Iraqi hearts but only in the anatomical sense. Within a day he has gone from hero to zero to hero.
As an NBC journalist, he must have been paid a fair whack but Fleet Street rates being even more generous than American newspaper payments, it would indeed be surprising if the Daily Mirror does not give him at least £2,000 per despatch, plus lavish expenses.
But for the New Zealand-born Arnett, money is not the sole object. He wants to be held up as the fearless reporter who wants to tell it like it is. This is excessively naive in the present climate when his responsibility, so far as Washington and London see it, is to do nothing that would provide succour and comfort to the enemy.
Arnett can claim to be the man who put CNN on the world map. During the 1991 Gulf war, his live reports from Baghdad when American bombs blitzed the city were watched all round the world. Now all this has become so mundane, so quickly, that networks and radio stations in Britain are already returning to some of their normal schedule.
Arnett’s mistake was to give an interview to Iraqi TV in which he indicated that the Americans were not having things all their own way.
What he said was: “The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance. Now they are trying to write another war plan. Clearly, the war planners misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces. In my TV commentaries I’d tell the Americans about the Iraqi forces and their willingness to fight. President Bush says he is concerned about the Iraqi people. But if Iraqi people are dying in numbers, then American policy will be challenged very strongly. Our reports about civilian casualties here, about the resistance of the Iraqi forces, are going back to the US. It helps those who oppose the war when you challenge the policy.”
NBC at first backed him, but cowed by the howls of protest in the US, sacked him.
In stepped the Mirror today, with its front page announcing its prize catch: “The reporter sacked by American TV for telling the truth about the war is joining the Daily Mirror.”
Arnett must have asked when he should begin. “How about today'” the Mirror editor would have told him.
So, Arnett’s first report is in the Mirror today. He begins: “I am still in shock and awe at being fired. There is enormous sensitivity within the US government to reports coming out from Baghdad. They don’t want credible news organisations reporting from here because it presents them with enormous problems.”
He goes on: “I reported on the original bombing for NBC and we were half a mile away from those massive explosions. Now I am really shocked that I am no longer reporting this story for the US and awed by the fact that it actually happened. That overnight my successful NBC reporting career was turned to ashes. And why'”
One assumes this question is rhetorical. He provides his own explanation: “Because I stated the obvious to Iraqi television; that the US war timetable has fallen by the wayside. I have made those comments to television stations around the world and now I’m making them again in the Daily Mirror. I’m not angry. I’m not crying. But I’m also awed by this media phenomenon.”