The ability to overlook horrors committed by the west and its allies is a major job requirement for mainstream journalists. A Nexis database search showed that between 1990 and 1999 the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek and Time used the word “genocide” 132 times to describe the actions of Iraq against the Kurds. Over the same period, the word was used 14 times to describe the actions of Turkey against the Kurds. We all know what Iraq did to the Kurds at Halabja and elsewhere, but how many people know about the 50,000 Kurdish dead and the three million Kurdish refugees, victims of Turkish military assault? Who knows that 80 per cent of the arms were supplied by the US, including M-60 tanks, F-16 fighter-bombers, Cobra gunships and Blackhawk “slick” helicopters? As Turkish commandos slip now across the border into northern Iraq, the BBC’s John Simpson comments: “Of course, the Kurds are very nervous about the whole thing.” If an enemy and not a Nato ally had been involved, we might perhaps have been given a little information on the detail behind the jitters.
Hiding the horrors committed by the “good guys” becomes harder during wars. On 21 March, the whole world watched as 320 cruise missiles erupted in the heart of Baghdad, an impoverished city of five million people. “In over 30 years of covering these stories, I have never seen anything of this magnitude,” said the CNN veteran Wolf Blitzer. The intensity of the bombardment was genuinely shocking – there was the same sense of ordinary life being overwhelmed by hellish violence as there was on 11 September. Yet the BBC anchor Maxine Mawhinney felt able to declare the following day: “It’s difficult to verify who’s been hit, if anyone.” Taking a look inside a hospital was one option to explore. When the BBC’s Hywel Jones managed it, he commented on one small, wailing boy with head injuries: “It’s impossible to verify how he received his injuries.” Perhaps he walked into a door! In fact, doctors with the International Red Cross were quickly able to verify that patients’ injuries had been sustained from blasts and shrapnel – the Iraqi regime claimed three deaths and 207 hospitalised civilian casualties.
If the reality of the horror can’t be challenged, it can at least be kept out of sight. Steve Anderson, controller of ITV News, responded to complaints that the horrors of war are being sanitised: “I have seen some of the images on al-Jazeera television. I would never put them on screen.” The head of BBC News, Richard Sambrook, feels the same way.
The images in question were indeed horrific – a young Iraqi boy with the top of his skull blown off with only torn flaps of scalp remaining. Too much for the British public to bear, we are told. Instead, we are trained to admire the Jeremy Clarkson side of war: the muscular curves of Tornado bombers, the cruise missiles ripping at the sky. “This is seriously hard-core machinery going in,” drooled one BBC “military expert”.
At the extreme, debate is simply censored. Sir Ray Tindle, chairman and editor-in-chief of Tindle Newspapers, owner of 130 weekly titles, relayed orders to editors on the eve of war: “When British troops come under fire . . . I ask you to ensure that nothing appears in the columns of your newspapers which attacks the decision to conduct the war.” Tindle’s papers will be “liberated” at the same time as Iraq: immediately a “ceasefire” is agreed, he advises, “any withheld letters or reports may be published”. Then, if Baghdad lies in ruins, and the deserts are drenched in blood, we shall be free to discuss whether somebody should have tried to stop it.
David Edwards and David Cromwell, editors of MediaLens (www.medialens.org)