The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- The dangerous consequences of planting reporters with troops

The military forces, led by the United States of America, attacking Iraq cannot really claim too many acts which have won universal admiration and applause. Their precision-bombing killed and maimed a number of women and children; they used cluster bombs, we now learn, which violated their own rules of engagement; they destroyed the civic structures of a number of cities and towns, thus denying water (in the heat of summer) and electricity, law and order, the removal of garbage and other routine civic functions to thousands of ordinary people whose only crime was not that they were members of al Qaida or supporters of Saddam Hussain, and not that they were members of Saddam’s army, but that they were Iraqis.

They did, indeed, pull down a statue of Saddam. This was broadcast live round the world, and must have had the rednecks in the US cheering wildly. To them that must have been a major triumph, one which will no doubt get many US soldiers the Purple Heart or whatever medals they give to their bravest. They actually pulled down a statue, using a tank. In one of the Bond films (Goldeneye, I think), Pierce Brosnan uses a tank — a Russian tank, true, but a tank nonetheless — to smash through a statue of a Pegasus-like creature which then rides through the streets of St. Petersburg on top of the tank till an inconveniently placed building knocks it down. Tanks are very useful to pull down statues, as Pierce Brosnan on his own, and the intrepid American armoured unit which pulled down Saddam’s statue, have shown the world.

They also did a Hollywood-style rescue of a young, blonde and pretty US private, Jessica Lynch, but unfortunately that was exposed as a publicity stunt enacted for the benefit of the wildly cheering rednecks in America, and their counterparts in Britain. Not only was the rescue staged for the cameras, they actually came close to killing her off when the well-meaning Iraqi doctor in the hospital sent her in an ambulance, obviously clearly marked as one, to a US check point. The American troops opened fire on it — no question asked, no warning to go back, nothing. But that was understandable; the soldiers were very frightened of suicide bombers; one or two of them might actually have been killed by an evil suicide bomber, so opening fire on the ambulance was all right.

The ambulance hastily returned, and amazingly, the American troops, who must have used very sophisticated weapons which shoot zillions of rounds a second, couldn’t even hit it! Very very frightened, the soldiers must have been. But there was one thing they did which deserves admiration and praise. This was the embedding of journalists. Selected journalists were made part of military units, dressed in uniform, and they actually were present during whatever action the military took. This had never been done before, and, from the point of view of military PR, it was a brilliant thing to have done. There were the usual briefings, of course, but what could match the pictures and reports from journalists who were seeing it right as it happened'

Just consider the following. First, they could select which journalist they wanted where. (Maybe they didn’t actually select them, but it would be silly to think they wouldn’t, say, discuss possible choices, with editors and news managers.) Second, the embedded journalist would be so caught up in reporting the actual details that he wouldn’t really have the time or opportunity to comment, leave alone comment critically. In any case, critical comment was out; how could you possibly be critical of soldiers you were staying with, eating with and chatting with' Which, of course, the spin specialists in the Pentagon would have known from the start. Third, and this was the really clever bit, even the editors and television analysts whose journalists were embedded couldn’t be critical or anything but supportive — after all, their people were there, with the troops. Hostages, if you like.

Was it surprising, then, that everyone, even the Americans, began watching the BBC for what they considered the real news' Was it surprising that the BBC correspondent, Rageh Omaar, became a symbol of unbiased, on-the-spot reporting from Baghdad, not embedded with a convenient army unit' Of course, once there was a general realization of how widely his reports were being watched, there were some clumsy attempts to trash him with planted stories of how he tried to curry favour with the Iraqi authorities — attempts that stopped abruptly when those responsible for them realized that they were having no effect.

A BBC producer who was also working independently without becoming the kind of icon Rageh Omaar did is Stuart Hughes. He had to have his foot amputated after being in a landmine blast. Hughes says, “News organizations have realized how successful embedding has been — it’s a particularly good way for getting footage — but it would be a dangerous conclusion to rely solely on embedded reporters.” He is not wholly against it, and adds, cautiously, that embedding has worked, but that “its limits have not yet been tested”. He adds, “We will always need people on the ground independently forging ahead, finding the stories.”

He dismisses his own injury, saying “if someone crashes his car on his way to work you wouldn’t ask him if he’d ever drive again.” But whatever the outcome of the debate on embedding journalists elsewhere in the world, there is a lesson to be learnt from what happened in Iraq. Hopefully, we will not have another war here on the subcontinent, but if we do, even if it is a limited conflict, it needs to be realized that embedding — when the adversaries are not as ill-matched as the American-led forces and the Iraqis, but more or less equal in strength — brings with it grave risks to the journalists with fighting units, who may well be killed or taken prisoner. Worse, the reports they will send will give not just the people but also the senior commanders a picture that may well be wrong and lead to dreadful consequences.

Independent coverage will always be a risky business. Even in the one-sided Iraq conflict 13 reporters, cameramen and other media-workers lost their lives, and many more were injured, like Stuart Hughes. But it has to be the mainstay of any coverage that a news organization provides of an armed conflict. There will be some who will argue that such independent coverage may not get the cooperation they would need from the military. But this argument will not hold, for one very good reason.

Whatever they may say about independent media coverage, our Indian defence authorities will, in actual fact, give it the cooperation it seeks, if for no other reason than to eliminate the possibility of negative stories being sent back. This does not mean that reporters who feel that they are not getting the cooperation they want from the military will immediately say that we are doing badly when we are not; but they may well say that the authorities refused to confirm or deny such and such report, and that, in itself, may have an adverse effect not just on people watching or reading such reports, but eventually also on those actually engaged in the fighting. That is something military commanders will not risk. And let us not forget that the journalists who risk their lives to cover a conflict are not immediately self-serving unpatriotic people, as they have sometimes been called by angry military authorities.

It is not a question of patriotism, it is a question of what they are in the business for, and for which they are willing to risk their lives: the truth, which may sometimes be painful, but which needs to be reported as it is.

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