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Tuesday, 23 October, 2001, 23:30 GMT 00:30 UK
Phillip Knightley on war reporting
Philip Knightley
Phillip Knightley is an author and journalist who wrote the classic book on War reporting, "The First Casualty." He joined us for a live forum and answered a selection of your questions.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

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Both the British and the US government have put pressure on broadcasters not to show taped messages from Bin Laden.

They are concerned that the messages contain propaganda, which may encourage Muslim youths to volunteer for service with the Taleban.

There is also a fear that the tapes have secret coded messages ordering further attacks on the West.

Tony Blair's director of communications, Alistair Campbell, has also told journalists to be sceptical of reports of civilian casualties from the Taleban.


Highlights of the interview:


Newshost:

The first question comes from Mark Warburton in the UK and Martin Adams in London who ask: Do you think that in fact we are being told the truth about what's happening in this conflict?


Phillip Knightley:

I certainly think that we are not. I can think of no war that I have studied where less information is available. There is a lot of material out there - there are lots of television shots of rockets being fired from ships at sea, there are Special Forces parachuting into Afghanistan - but nothing from what's happening on the ground. Just sheer military information is so scarce that we are being forced to rely on - as we have in many, many a war - official statements from the Ministry of Defence or from the Pentagon. We're back to the situation that existed before the first civilian war correspondent came on the scene - we are relying on the generals to tell us what's happening.


Newshost:

Do you think that information from military sources is necessarily flawed or partial?


Phillip Knightley:

I think it is partial, it is not necessarily flawed. The military has a manual called Managing the Media at Wartime and one of the exhortations in that is never tell a lie unless you're certain the lie won't be discovered until the war is over. So you can't necessarily trust what they are telling you but also they don't tell you everything. In the most recent briefing about the Special Forces raid into Afghanistan, the general being questioned by the press at the Pentagon refused to say how many Taleban were killed, if any and refused even to discuss American casualties.


Newshost:

Mark Warburton raises a particular point. He asks: In the light of the fact that some of the information provided by the US military during the Gulf War was shown to be wrong, how much faith do you have that the US information is accurate in this conflict?


Phillip Knightley:

I have very little faith and as I noticed too that the in the Gulf War there was a lot of propaganda being put about by Madison Avenue public relations companies who had been hired by various parties to the war to put the best possible spin on their story. One of them was to do with the famous atrocity story of Iraqi forces tearing Kuwaiti babies out of their incubators so they could send the incubators back to Baghdad - it turned out to be a totally invented story but nobody realised that until after the war was over. I find it difficult to believe anything that I am being told about this war.


Newshost:

You have a theory about conflicts and the way they are reported - there are a series of stages through which the reporting goes. The atrocity story is, I think you would say, stage four - what precedes that?


Phillip Knightley:

There is stage one, where the government prepares the country and its people for war because armies fight as the people think - every government in order to wage war successfully has to get its citizen behind it. So stage one is saying - look we've tried everything possible to resolve this in a peaceful manner, we've failed and we are now on the brink of war. So that already gears people for the next phase, stage two, which comes with - who are we going to fight - we'll our enemy is Saddam Hussein, our enemy is Osama Bin Laden - he is a terrible man, he is like Hitler, he's a barbarian, he's uncivilised - this is a war of civilisation against the barbarians. So already people are beginning to think - well if we are going to have to kill these people, we're doing the right thing because they're terrible people.

Then having demonised the enemy leader, you then demonise the people because everybody realises that in war, some people who are not military people are going to be killed. You demonise them by saying - well they are drug dealers, they are cruel, they hate women and you generally paint a nasty picture of those people who are going to be your enemies - so when you eventually read that a lot of them are being killed by a bomb that went astray, you don't feel too guilty about it. Then the atrocity stories arrive when the ground forces go in and it's discovered that terrible atrocities have been committed by the enemy.


Newshost:

You are very sceptical about what we are being told about this conflict. How far do you think though the nature of the conflict itself dictates the lack of information? I am thinking of two things: one is that is being fought in a remote country - by remote control almost - with bombings and so on. This was the first occasion, at the weekend, that we've seen ground troops deployed. The other particular characteristic about it is that it started in a terrorist act - it's a response to a really horrific terrorist act. Do you think that dictates the nature of the war and also the nature of the way the war is reported?


Phillip Knightley:

Of course it does. This is a war on two fronts now. There is the home front - the fight against terrorism that apparently still continues in the United States. Although whether the anthrax attacks are due to Osama Bin Laden or not, I don't know. But there is a terrorist war going on in the United States and it is being covered by - for want of a better word - what I describe as an urban war correspondent who is covering that war at home. Then there is this war in this remote difficult territory of Afghanistan which even with the bravest war correspondents in the world, is proving very difficult to get anybody on the ground to tell us what's happening.


Newshost:

Do you think though the fact that it began with an event which was genuinely shocking and horrifying in a way that many belligerent acts which lead to war, are not genuinely horrifying and shocking to the general public. Do you think that has thrown out of kilter the reaction of the media in the US and the UK?


Phillip Knightley:

Yes, I think it has. I suppose you could say that Pearl Harbour was a terrible event but most of the people who were killed were the military and people think - well that's a soldier's job to go and die for his country. What happened on September 11th was something totally different and you can well understand the American reaction - they wanted vengeance, they wanted justice and they couldn't have it immediately because the military commander who had actually carried out this terrible event was already dead.


Newshost:

Do you think that cry for vengeance was taken up by and reflected by the media and that that affected the media's objectivity?


Phillip Knightley:

Yes it did. It was taken up by the media because people said - I'm an American, I work for an American paper and whoever has done this has done this to my people - which has made them more amenable in the United States to appeals by the administration who report in a particular manner - not to give the enemy the oxygen of publicity.


Newshost:

Tony, England asks: Do you think there is a good chance that things are not going as well as the US and the UK governments would have us believe?


Phillip Knightley:

I think that is quite likely but you can't expect the military spokesman to tell you that - you have to judge that for yourself. The very fact that it has gone on as long as it has when we were promised quick surgical strikes and a reasonably early decision, certainly in the first stage of the war, makes me think that things are not going as well as they planned.


Newshost:

Peter Pollard, Germany asks: In times of conflict where the security and safety of a nation and it's people are put at high risk, do journalists and reporters have time to consider the safety issues of the information that they alone can make so easily "public"?


Phillip Knightley:

I think most quality journalists are well aware that information could be averted to the enemy and would cost lives and no war correspondent wants to put the life of a soldier at risk - he doesn't want to put anybody's life at risk. So I think they are well aware of that sort of thing and if they are not it is quickly picked up on the home front by either the editor or the government will draw the editor's attention to it.


Newshost:

Do you think some journalist are going too far in using this as an excuse for putting a rather patriotic gloss on the way they are reporting things and not perhaps telling us everything?


Phillip Knightley:

That is a factor - yes. In wars of national survival that sort of approach is understandable - this is my country, I want to live here, I don't want it changed radically, I don't want to be under Hitler, I don't want to be under any dictator. So it is perhaps my duty in a war of national survival to help the country win. But in a war that's not one of national survival and things are being done in our name - without, I may say, a vote in Parliament on the matter - then I think we have a right to know what's being done in our name.


Newshost:

Nikias Tsonatos, US asks: How difficult is it to balance between safety and truth about our operations in Afghanistan? As we undertake a "top secret" operation, can we show our actions without inadvertently telling the opposition what we're going to do next?


Phillip Knightley:

Very difficult, that is why the military has imposed such tight control on reporting. No Special Forces, who usually are meant to operate in secret and inspire terror in the enemy, want a war correspondent hanging over their shoulder, reporting their every move. One can understand the military's viewpoint. In the Second World War at a meeting of the censors in Washington, considering the question - what should we tell people about the war - said, well let's tell them nothing until the war's over and then tell them who won. That is the ideal as far as the military is concerned and so we have got to find some sort of compromise.


Newshost:

Michael Sharpston, USA asks: I am aware that the BBC sent messages to the French Resistance in broadcasts but is it credible that Osama Bin Laden would send hidden messages via Western TV when he has no control over the way they are timed, edited or used?


Phillip Knightley:

I don't think it is credible. I think that was a ludicrous allegation. In the Second World War there was no e-mail - here anything that Osama Bin Laden puts out on a video is e-mailed over the world within minutes. So I don't think that was a credible reason. I think the main reason that the Government didn't want a precedent established that any tape made by Osama Bin Laden was about to be spread all over the networks was that they were worried that they had no control over what he was likely to say - who knew what he was going to say next or what he was going to do next. So what if he had produced a video of terrible injuries and deaths of Afghan children caused by a stray bomb - it was not the sort of thing we need at this moment.


Newshost:

Surash Khan, Pakistan If you are putting a ban on the Taleban or Osama Bin Laden's propaganda, shouldn't you put a similar ban on the propaganda coming from the USA's and the West?


Phillip Knightley:

I think the best thing to do is not to have any ban at all on either. Media editors are fairly responsible people and I think they know what they can and cannot broadcast. In general I think the rule should be broadcast everything you can. In a war like this, where we know so little and where information is so valuable, then I think providing you give Osama Bin Laden' propaganda a little health warning - saying this comes from the Taleban and we don't know whether it's true or not. But I think people should know what he is saying - I think that is perfectly acceptable.


Newshost:

Michael, UK asks: How can Britain and the US ask Al-Jazeera TV to give up their right to freedom of speech, when Britain and the US argue that denial of freedom of speech in Afghanistan is one of the evils that the Taleban is inflicting upon its own people?


Phillip Knightley:

Of course, it is hypocrisy to try and censor if we are in favour of free speech and the democratic right of freedom of expression guaranteed under the United States constitution then we should stick to it as closely as we can for everybody.


Newshost:

There is always a terrible difficulty - how far should a tolerant society tolerate intolerance - people who advocate shutting down free speech and lots of other human rights?


Phillip Knightley:

Yes that's true but similarly we have got to strike a balance - that's is what a democratic society is all about.


Newshost:

John Hedges, Ireland asks: If they accede to the demands of the intelligence services and the government, does the media not effectively become just another arm of the war machine, however justifiable that war may be perceived?


Phillip Knightley:

It does indeed. I don't think there is anything wrong with the military asking - if you happen to learn that we are about to send Special Forces into Afghanistan tonight, please don't publish it because you might endanger that mission - I think that's a reasonable request. I think any responsible editor would give it serious consider. However, if, after that mission has been completed, it turns out it was a terrible mistake and there are enormous casualties, then I think the media has every right to publish that.


Newshost:

John Bennetts, England asks: As war so often means taking sides, whether directly or not, do you think fair or equality of reporting is possible, considering the potential for government intervention?


Phillip Knightley:

Again it is a very difficult question to answer. I have to go back to what I mentioned earlier about wars of national survival when I think it is perfectly justifiable that you take the side of the country in which you live and exist. But I think you can make a choice of conscience in other wars. I think that if you are making a choice of conscience and there is a significant minority in your country that is against the war or against the bombing or against some part of the campaign - like stopping the bombing for humanitarian reasons, even if it is only for a brief spell, then I think you have every right to expect that the media of your country reflects those views.


Newshost:

Faisal Ali, Pakistan asks: The objective of President Bush is to bring Osama Bin Laden to justice. If that's the case, how can you convince me that these attacks on Afghanistan, which have killed hundreds of innocent civilians including children, will bring any justice to those who have already died including the victims of the September 11th attacks and to those who are forced to leave Afghanistan?

From the e-mails we have had, they suggest that the biggest propaganda battle that the US and the UK have to fight is not with their own citizens so much as with public opinion in much of the Muslim world and that's a propaganda battle that they don't seem to be winning do they?
Phillip Knightley:

That's true. I think that the viewpoint that your questioner expressed is a common one throughout the Muslim world and I don't think the world in which we live is ever going to be quite the same again. As a writer I was reading the other day put it, if for many years you have refused to look outwards towards the rest of the world then that other world will come to you and it did. It came to the United States in a terrible, horrific manner on September 11th. But I don't think American foreign policy is every going to be the same again. We have already seen Bush making certain concessions - paying his back United Nations dues, a softer tone in the recent round of trade talks, a recognition that there has got to be some settlement sooner or later in the Middle East. Our world changed on September 11th and it's never going to be quite the same again.

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