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Friday, 12 October, 2001, 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK
War Views: Media stuck in the middle
What is the media's duty in war? Should it retain its independence, or should it cheerlead for its country? John Tulloch of the department of journalism and mass communication at the University of Westminster says it's an old - but stubborn - dilemma.

War may be hell for everyone, but the "war against terror" carries special torments for journalists.

It is not just the danger of sudden violent death faced by frontline reporters and camera crews.

The Truth is so precious it must be protected by a bodyguard of lies

Winston Churchill

Nor is it just the danger of news organisations being targeted by terrorists - hundreds of journalists have been murdered by terrorists around the world in the last decade.

No, the agony is over whether it is now the job of journalists to serve their readers or to simply get behind the military in the national interest.

Sometimes - perhaps even now - these two things go hand in hand. But it is not always the case - at least not in the short term.


The dilemma, in modern times, goes back at least until World War I, when British war correspondents were kitted out in army uniform, and gave glowing accounts of the shambles of the Western Front that no soldier serving in the trenches could recognise.

They did it because they believed it was vital that morale on the 'Home Front' be kept up. But the extraordinarily low credibility that British newspapers have today among ordinary readers dates to that first exercise in mass deception - as pointed out by Philip Knightley in his classic book on the war correspondent, The First Casualty.

If a journalist had found out, would he have been justified in writing the story?

It was the same story in World War II, when the Enigma code had been broken and the government thus knew in advance which British cities were about to be bombed.

Winston Churchill allegedly refused to evacuate cities like Coventry because it would have revealed to the Germans that their codes were no longer secure.

But if a journalist had found out, would he have been justified in writing the story, warning his readers to flee and in all probability saving their lives?

Churchill at the time told his cabinet, in a slightly different context: "The truth is so precious that it must be protected by a bodyguard of lies."

Cold war

Since Vietnam at least there has been a cold war between the military and the broadcasters with both sides acutely aware of the potential of TV images to terrorise the enemy and raise the morale of the folks back home.

The full force of the military and authorities has been devoted to keeping live images of conflict off the screen, except for ones that have been artfully 'managed'.

Since Vietnam there has been a cold war between the military and the broadcasters

We've revisited the same dilemma in the small wars of peace that have punctuated the post-war period since Vietnam.

In the Falklands war, journalists were at the end of a 10,000 mile communication link controlled by the British navy, lived side by side with the troops, wore uniform and were in no position to criticise anything they saw.

Television was kept out of the conflict and no TV journalists were allowed on the ships.


At home the BBC practice of describing troops as 'British' rather than 'ours' led to a ferocious tabloid backed campaign against senior journalists who were accused of 'treachery'.

The chairman and director general of the BBC were hauled in front of a meeting of MPs to explain themselves.

In the Gulf war, journalists were corralled into so-called 'media response teams' and looked after by army press minders. Journalists who attempted to pursue independent inquiries were packed off home.

When the Independent's vastly experienced Robert Fisk wrote a story alleging that a British army convoy he encountered in the desert lacked maps and clear direction, he was furiously attacked by the Ministry of Defence. Other journalists attacked his story.

Journalists who attempted to pursue independent inquiries were packed off home

The advent of the age of virtually instantaneous TV journalism and - especially the sort of cheap and flexible TV newsgathering which meant that the attack on the World Trade Center was broadcast live - has intensified these dilemmas.

During the Gulf War it seemed that CNN was an actual combatant, alternately bullied or courted by both sides in the conflict, offered "great pictures" or threatened with withdrawal of access to interviews and footage of the fighting.


It is a commonplace now to say that after the morning of 11 September "everything changed" and a new page was opened in world history.

It is certainly likely to be true of journalism.

The astonishing, appalling attack on the World Trade Center was captured live and transmitted instantly without much comment to hundreds of millions of people around the world.

This may have been the first time that a warlike act of such violence was broadcast "live" and unedited to a world audience who thus witnessed the event before the president himself was informed of the tragedy.

It is a commonplace now to say that after the morning of 11 September "everything changed"

The chilling fact is that in the current crisis the first battle of the TV war went to the terrorists - able to multiply the terrorising effect of their savagery by taking into every living room in the developed world.

The question now is whether TV will have the stamina - if starved of images of equal mesmerising, sickening power - to carry on reporting the world-wide battle against terrorism.

This is one of a series of differing opinions on the War on Terror which we shall be publishing in the coming days. You can send your view about this or other articles by using the form below.

Your comments:

Reporters must try to report the truth. Soldiers must try to mislead the enemy. These objectives are different. No one can be on both sides. As a serving soldier many years ago I would have ordered the death of any reporter who attempted to report events or speculate and thus cause my men casualties. This would have been my duty to my men.
Eion MacDonald, UK

I think that putting the country on a "war" footing is a great way to muffle the press with the "If you are not with us you are against us" mentality. By focusing on the "War on Terrorism" with a compliant press, public attention was focused outward instead of on the spectacular failure of our foreign policy and "intelligence" community.
John Sanguinetti, US

The propaganda in the US is intense. The general public is being wipped up into a frenzy of patriotic nationalism, with no room for debate or critisism. Before the attacks launched last weekend most of the primetime channels showed war films, obviously to break us into what was going to happen. I find this abuse of the media's power reprehensible and morally corrupt.
Ele Shaw, US

It is the role of the press to report all the facts - whether it be good or bad news. The day they stop doing that and start censoring the news will be the day we lose our human right to freedom of information and speech.
Mark Walpole, UK

What is truly needed is an increase in public awareness and education that will allow the public to view the media through their own filters of common sense and judgement, giving them the confidence to make their own decisions on how much of the media they will believe, and how much they will suspect of propaganda.
Tim Carding-Allen, UK

I live 10 miles from the World Trade Center ruins. As appalled, horrified and saddened by the events, (the lingering sickening smell alone reminds us New Yorkers constantly) I am more enraged by the blatant manipulation of the press. It is as painful to watch and hear the self editing, as it is to view the formally spectacular skyline where the towers have simply vanished.
Elaine Mamary, USA

In my opinion, it is not just about whether journalists are telling the truth but who is deliberately telling lies. This is the criterion that I use when evaluating the news during times of conflict.
Keith, UK

People should realise there are many reasons for adding bias to the news, or censoring it, and not all of them are selfish. The fact that we haven't heard ALL the evidence against Bin Laden is most likely to protect our spies in his organisation. This evidence is obviously so specific that only certain people would have been privy to it; if Bin Laden finds out what the evidence is, he can easily hunt out and destroy our spies in his organisation, thus removing our only good intelligence.
Jon, UK

I think the media should be VERY careful in the coming months. Surely we should all understand that when the country is on a 'war' footing, then certain judgements should be put in place as to exactly what should be published in the media. Lately, I have wondered whether, at times, some newspapers were terrorising the public as much as the terrorists themselves!
Susy, UK

I applaud the British media for generally reporting the facts fairly. Yet they have a dilemma; is it in fact true that one side is objectively better than the other? If so, should they weight their opinion and reporting to that side? Or should all views, no matter how reprehensible, be given equal weight? What is often missing is the view of moderates. As well as the unemotional reporting of facts, journalists should also allow their moral and emotional thoughts to be published. If this means criticising our own country sometimes, so be it. Yet I would far rather they criticised the enemy and attribute blame where it really lies.
Dan Talmage, UK

In an era of spin it is important that the public is able to trust the media.Any good journalist should be concerned only with telling it straight, without trying to twist or manipulate the truth.
Ben Rattenbury, UK

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