Covering the face of war

Transforming Media Coverage of Violent Conflicts: The New Face of War by Zohar Kampf & Tamar Liebes. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 200pp.

 

Robin Knight worked for US News & World Report magazine and for Time magazine from 1968-2003. He reported from more than 60 countries in Europe, the Middle East, Africa and North America. Highlights include covering the dissident era in the Soviet Union, the collapse of communism and the end of the cold war in Eastern Europe, famine in Africa in the 1980s, the apartheid era in South Africa and war and conflict in the Northern Ireland, Southern Africa, the Middle East and the Balkan.

 

 

In World War One cameramen working in the new medium of film began recording the reality of war. The result was a stark production called The Battle of the Somme (1916). Debate ensued in the British Establishment about whether or not it should be shown. King George V endorsed it and the Prime Minister Lloyd George urged everyone to see it. The result was a sensation.

 

About one million people saw the film in its first week and perhaps 20 million (about half the British population at the time) saw it within six weeks. Shots of dead bodies and mortally wounded men and horses were shown. In some places there were distressing scenes in cinemas as relatives claimed to see their dying men folk on the screen. But the decision to show the reality of trench warfare was totally vindicated. From 1916 on, as the British television presenter Jeremy Paxman writes in his book, Great Britain’s Great War (2013), “war was everyone’s business.”

 

That was almost one hundred years ago and ever since there has been a struggle, which shows no sign of easing today, about what should or should not be shown on screens – now in high definition and color – in times of war and conflict. In the meantime, as the authors of this overly academic study underline, there have been “drastic” changes in society and the nation state and in the way wars are fought. This is not to mention the developments in the way the media covers wars, the range of new technologies available to correspondents and editors, and in government and military attitudes to wartime reporting.

 

Though careful to write with an academic objectivity, Kampf and Liebes can only be described as prescriptive in their approach and in their concluding value judgements. They bemoan the way “subversive” personae (such as terrorist leaders) are given air time by credulous journalists. They implicitly criticise the development of global television networks with no national roots or values. They seem deeply suspicious of the “new independence” of the media and the way “ordinary” people are “foregrounded” by television war reporters. They claim viewers are given little context in contemporary conflict situations and find it difficult to distinguish between the significant and the trivial. The present coverage of war, they write, after a decade of study focusing on Israel, Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, the U.S. and U.K., challenges the sense that justice is exclusive to one side in a conflict.

 

As can be deduced from this description, Kampf and Liebes concentrate almost exclusively on television coverage of wars and conflicts. Their starting date is around 1990; anything earlier (and particularly World War II and the US-Vietnam war) is largely ignored. There is little or no analysis of print journalism and none at all about people – war correspondents, editors and owners of leading media outlets. Huge effort has gone into measuring things, quoting from other academic studies and digging up embarrassing (for the media) examples of journalistic collusion and malpractice.

 

I was not convinced and, in the end, felt that the authors ought to get out of their ivory tower a bit more. I covered a number of wars and conflicts during my career as a foreign correspondent for an American news magazine – starting with ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland in the early 1970s and going on, unfortunately, to include the Rhodesian Bush War, the Angolan civil war, the 1982 First Lebanon war and the 1994-96 Balkan/ Bosnian war.

 

All of them, without exception, were messy and mostly inconclusive right up to the very end of the conflict, if not beyond. At no point was it possible to gain the “balanced” viewpoint that the Kampf and Liebes apparently feel is necessary for a broadcast or print story. Censorship (barely mentioned in this book) was pervasive, as was control over movement and access to the principal actors involved, except on the most restrictive terms. A cat-and-mouse, lateral approach to reporting and filming was essential and became second nature.

 

Let me give an example. Stuck in Damascus for some weeks during the 1982 war in Lebanon and starved of any useful information, my best source became the maverick British defence attaché. Day after day he would collect me from my hotel and drive to a high vantage point overlooking the Bekaa valley. Draping a Union Jack flag over his car, he would take out his binoculars, open a bottle of red wine and proceed to give me a running commentary on the air battles raging around us. He also told me to get up at 3.00am in the morning to observe the shattered Syrian tank force being towed back to base. It was pure theatre, of course, but at least I was able to counter the ludicrous Syrian claims of victory from a position of strength.

 

I had been relatively safe on my hilltop– and this raises another aspect of “the new face of war” that is almost entirely neglected in this book. War correspondents now seem to be regarded as legitimate targets by combatants in the asymmetrical conflicts of the present day, where there are no front lines and no rules of any sort.

 

During the entire Second World War 54 accredited correspondents were killed in Allied ranks – the same number that died in the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s. Ever since, the death toll among war correspondents has soared, averaging 80 per year from 1996-2002, and 137 per year from 2003-08 (according to the International News Safety Institute) – this latter increase reflects the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most recently, at least eighty journalists have been kidnapped and seventy killed in the war in Syria. The slaughter and intimidation just gets worse. In August and September the American journalists James Foley and Stephen Sotloff were beheaded by Islamic jihadists. Soon after twenty journalists were reported missing in Syria by the Committee to Protect Journalists. Today every war correspondent venturing into the region faces extreme danger (see image below, from the front page of the London Times 19.5.14).
I do not want to demean this book. It is avowedly academic in its style and content, based on a major research effort stretching back years, rigidly dependent on its sources and concluding with some valid points. But it is also, in a very real sense, irrelevant. Unless some effort is made to understand the war correspondent’s challenges and to put them in context, the value of any “new” perspective on how the contemporary media operates at times of violent conflict is bound to be partial and, ultimately, to fail. Officials, censors and those involved in public relations for terrorist organizations, will doubtless welcome this book. From the perspective of a working journalist, however, it is depressing, misleading and undermining.