The Media’s Battle Cry

With kind permission the following article which appeared on Medialens, a British Media watch dog, on October 4, 2001, has been reposted here. It is an article by Richard Keeble, who reminds us that polls should be understood with a lot of caution. It further points out that the media can contribute to supporting certain views such as backing bombing, which affects the diversity of opinions in the press as a result. You can see the original article at battle_cry.html

The Media's Battle Cry
From: Press Gazette, October 4, 2001
Richard Keeble

Beware opinion polls. Too often they are interpreted simply to reinforce dominant attitudes. Too often crucial questions are ignored. For instance, throughout the five-month run-up to the US attacks on Iraq in January 1991, the vast majority of polls were based on the inevitability of conflict and rarely asked people to ponder the possibilities of a peaceful solution.

Three surveys published on the current international crisis follow the same pattern. On 18 September, the Guardian published poll results suggesting 66 per cent backed military strikes against terrorist groups responsible for the US outrages. Some 59 per cent supported taking a military strike against countries harbouring terrorists. But then take note: only 49 per cent (a minority) backed action if it meant "that the US and Nato (including the UK) got into war". This was clearly the most relevant finding, yet the reporter buried it in his copy.

Two days later, the Daily Telegraph published findings from a much more detailed survey. "70 per cent support military action" was the front page splash. But out of the eight question categories none encouraged people to ponder any of the many diplomatic, legal, peaceful strategies for resolving the crisis. Similarly, the six question categories in the Observer's 23 September poll ignored possible peaceful solutions. Only two in 10 women would support massive air strikes - but this detail also was buried.. Nothing was asked about the international community's response to the mass starvation in Afghanistan.

At times of international crisis the media's responsibility should be to calm tensions and promote dialogue and understanding. Yet Fleet Street's knee-jerk reaction is so often to back bombing. Immediately after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on 2 August 1990 virtually the whole of Fleet Street went on a war footing - calling for "surgical" strikes against the new-found monster, Saddam Hussein. Later the Desert Storm assaults were backed by every national newspaper (though the Guardian was sceptical throughout) and by the vast majority of commentators.

This pro-war consensus broke down during the 1990s with newspapers such as the Independent on Sunday, Express, Guardian and Observer raising serious questions about a series of US-led strikes against Iraq.

Then with the Kosovo crisis of 1999 the militarist consensus re-emerged with virtually all the editorials backing air strikes and even calling immediately after hostilities began for a ground assault against the new monster, Milosevic. Not even the generals dared adopt this strategy of Fleet Street's armchair strategists. There was just one exception to the pro-war consensus, the Independent on Sunday - and its editor, Kim Fletcher, was sacked just days after the strikes were halted. But significantly newspapers' columns were opened up to debate - and out of 99 prominent columnists 33 spoke against the US-led attacks.

In the current crisis columnists have provided a similarly interesting range of views. Yet significantly editorials have tended to reflect the mood of the political and military elite mixing calls for restraint (as the UK/US forces were being deployed), justice and respect for moderate Moslems with appeals for military action. The Times, Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times have proved particularly hawkish. As early as 13 September, The Times editorial writers, safe in their Wapping bunker, were urging the US military to "strike back hard".

For the Daily Telegraph of 15 September, "Dealing with the perpetrators of Tuesday's horrendous crimes may entail the deployment of ground troops on the other side of the world and the taking of casualties." It even warned of attacks on Pakistan and Syria "if they didn't hand over suspects for questioning". On September 16, the Sunday Times thundered "This is world war" and suggested the coming conflict "must be fought with air power, with soldiers in remote and hostile lands, with diplomacy, threats and economic muscle". On the same day the Sunday Telegraph commented chillingly: "In the weeks and months ahead, it may prove necessary to confront countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya with weapons as well as threats - there is scope for a dauntingly huge conflict."

The Daily Express could find no original angle: On 15 September it suggested "It is time for careful thought before the free world delivers its inevitable retribution." while three days later it said: "We must kill the monster of terrorism." On 17 September, the Mail spoke of the "ferocity necessary to deal a significant blow to international terrorism". According to the Financial Times of 22 September, President Bush had had a "good week" as his administration prepared "commando raids against Mr bin Laden's networks in northern Afghanistan and the Taliban regime that harbours them".

Editorials in the Guardian, Observer and Independent on Sunday have raised serious and important questions about the military option, with the Independent and the Independent on Sunday most strongly opposed. Yet a commitment to military action was rarely entirely ditched. By 22 September the Guardian was urging the overthrow of the Taliban regime by locally-based rebels supported by US/UK firepower. And an editorial in the Observer on 23 September backed a necessary "decisive response" but warned any attacks would be seen by many in the Middle East and Asia as an attack on Islam itself.

Throughout Fleet Street, even in these sceptical papers, news coverage has prioritised the military response. The Observer of 16 September, under a headline "How the US will wage war against unseen enemy" suggested these options: cruise missile strikes, special forces' raids, US agents tracking down and assassinating those involved one by one and ground war. In the Sun of the following day, Nick Parker reported: "America will unleash its awesome revenge on the warlords of world terrorism within days starting with a devastating blitz on the lair of Osama bin Laden."

The Star of 21 September similarly found the sight of US/UK forces "awesome". Under the headline "Go get 'em fellas", it reports: "The United States and Britain will flex their military might against the Taliban with an array of firepower." On 23 September, under the logo "America at War: How to Win", the Sunday Mirror's "exclusive" stressed the role of satallite intelligence, logistical support, special forces, air strikes and snatch squads.

All this language echoes the militaryspeak of the Gulf conflict coverage. Then the media, military and political elite, in glorifying the allies' firepower, sought to represent Iraq as the barbaric yet credible enemy of the "civilised world". Saddam Hussein's army was constantly referred to as 1m-strong, the fourth largest army in the world and "battle-hardened". But hidden behind all the rhetoric of heroic warfare was the slaughter of tens of thousands of battle-weary Iraqi conscripts. During the Kosovo crisis, Milosevic was manufactured into a "global monster" to create the illusion of warfare but again US jets attacked from the safety of the skies nothing more than defenceless "targets". No "allied" soldier died though hundreds of Yugoslavs perished: hospitals, schools, factories, mosques were destroyed, millions were traumatised or left jobless and facing poverty.

Now as US/UK forces surround the famine-stricken, war-ravaged Afghanistan in a totally disproportionate display of military might perhaps they are best described not so much as "awesome" but as "frighteningly out-of-control" - with Fleet Street all too often spurring them on to action.

Dr Richard Keeble, senior lecturer in journalism at City University, is the author of "Ethics for Journalists" (Routledge).

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