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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 12 March, 2003, 08:18 GMT
War reporting enters 21st Century

By Nick Higham
BBC media correspondent

Who now remembers Arthur Kent, the "Scud Stud"? Kent was a ridiculously handsome US television correspondent in Saudi Arabia who set female hearts aflutter across America during the first Gulf War.

He fought the good fight amid the satellite dishes and TV lights and technicians' gaffer tape on the roof of a hotel, under the constant threat of attack from Iraqi Scud missiles.

Kent became famous because the 1991 Gulf War was the first to be fought in the era of 24-hour television news.

Arthur Kent
Arthur Kent: NBC's "face" of the 1991 war

Even when there was nothing to say, even when they knew nothing, the correspondents so expensively deployed across the Middle East were on the air, sounding authoritative, or scared.

Sometimes - as when the staff of CNN's Jerusalem bureau broadcast live in their gas masks during a suspected chemical weapons attack - the coverage acquired the characteristics of grim farce.

In its early stages the war was fought entirely from the air by bombers and cruise missiles. Allied headquarters released videogame-like pictures of "smart bombs" destroying military installations.

No-one knew what impact the air assault was having in Iraq because to begin with all Western journalists had left the country, bar a three-man team from CNN and a reporter from the Spanish newspaper El Mundo.

Few knew about him because CNN's Peter Arnett would not let the Spaniard use his satellite phone.

Arnett's reward was to be vilified in some quarters for lack of patriotism in remaining in the enemy capital - especially when he reported that a factory bombed by the allies as a plant making chemical weapons was in fact a baby milk factory.

More is less

The first Gulf War was more extensively covered by the media than any previous conflict.

Iraqi tank on fire, 1991
Few Western news outlets reflected the scale of Iraqi losses in 1991

Yet at the end it was clear that in some crucial respects the media had failed in their job.

The huge scale of Iraqi military losses went largely unreported - there were plenty of pictures of tanks and artillery letting fly, very little coverage of the bloody mess of dead and dying that resulted at the other end.

With the exception of the pictures from al-Amariyah - where some 300 people were killed when allied aircraft struck what they claimed to be an Iraqi military bunker - the war appeared curiously bloodless and evidently less upsetting to public opinion.

That changed when we saw pictures of the devastation wreaked on a convoy of Iraqi occupiers fleeing north from Kuwait up the road to Basra.

There was no shortage of morale-boosting coverage of our boys preparing to go to war, aimed at the folks back home.

But at the end of the exercise we were almost as ignorant as we were at the start - and as we still are - about what ordinary Iraqis truly think.

Fact or fiction

As always, reporters and editors grappled with the difficulties of disentangling facts from fiction, truth from lies, propaganda from honest assertion.

How far should they believe Baghdad, Washington or London? How far was journalistic scepticism justified when fellow citizens were risking their lives in battle?

This time round the news media have to cope with new challenges - including the threat, felt to be even more acute than in 1991, of chemical or biological attack.

CNN map
Reporters were often far from the action in the last Gulf War

Such threats are being taken especially seriously by the military, which has sent all British war correspondents on Ministry of Defence-certificated courses.

Some news organisations like the BBC have sent their staff on additional courses of their own, while the Pentagon and MoD have offered journalists inoculations against smallpox and anthrax.

Editors are also fretting about how safe it is to leave staff in Baghdad.

The Iraqis say foreign journalists must operate out of the Ministry of Information - but the British and Americans have said all Iraqi Government buildings are potential targets for allied bombs.

The Iraqis might try to use Western journalists as human shields - but pulling out of Baghdad would make it impossible to report the effects of any bombing or to verify allied claims.

And then there is the question of international journalists not attached to allied forces - "unilaterals" as they were called in the first Gulf War, "free radicals" as one editor calls them now.

If and when Iraqi military opposition collapses the free radicals will be poised to offer vivid reportage on the aftermath of the fighting.

In the firing line

There are suggestions that anyone operating satellite phones or satellite dishes unauthorised by the military could become a target.

Allied aircraft, it is said, cannot distinguish between the transmissions from a television satellite dish and an anti-aircraft missile radar.

This promises to be the most widely reported war in history

Both the Pentagon and the MoD deny issuing formal warnings. But it is certain that the military would prefer not to have any unaccompanied reporters roaming the battlefield.

With the help of technological innovation used by the media, this may prove impossible to prevent.

Back in 1991, we already had readily transportable satellite dishes, satellite phones, portable - if not exactly lightweight - video gear and 24-hour television channels like CNN and Sky News.

In the years since the number of news channels has grown, the kit has got smaller and lighter, and digital stills cameras, laptop computers and video editing have made journalists more mobile.

But only the arrival of the videophone, capable of sending rather jerky pictures from the front line without the need for a satellite dish, promises editors and viewers a type of coverage not available last time round.

Will editors seize the opportunity it offers and put live pictures of actual conflict on our screens?

Somehow I doubt it, for the risks of transmitting unedited and unmediated pictures of people at the moment of death or terrible injury would be too great.

If and when military action begins and the immaculate faces of 2003's "Scud Studs" come to the fore, only one thing is certain - this promises to be the most widely reported war in history.




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