The Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war is to resume at the end of January, the biggest event will be the grilling of Tony Blair, which has proved to be so popular that the inquiry team is launching a ballot for members of the public wishing to attend. A statement from inquiry officials confirmed that a third of seats are being reserved for families of British soldiers who died in Iraq. Blair caused controversy by stating that he would have invaded Iraq whether Saddam had weapons of Mass destruction or not. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former communications director and chief spin-doctor, stated that Tony Blair wrote to President George W Bush in 2002, saying that "Britain would be there" to support Washington militarily in an attack on Iraq. Campbell defended the government's ‘dodgy’ dossier and denied that claims such as Iraq’s 45 minute weapons of mass destruction capability has been "sexed up". The questioning by the crème de la crème of Britain’s establishment will refer to classified government records; in the typical ‘war on terror’ spirit of transparency these will not be published.
Media coverage of the inquiry has been very critical of those who still defend the case for the invasion of Iraq. Reading the newspaper’s portrayal of opinions against the war being ‘common sense’, you could be forgiven for asking who in the press was actually in favour of the war. We need to refresh our memory and remind ourselves of how the mainstream media covered the invasion of Iraq. Looking back it is apparent that the press recorded the invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq in much the same way it is currently covering the war in Afghanistan.
Generally, the media’s performance could be seen to have legitimised the war by neglecting to question the, often dubious, arguments for the invasion. By and large, the more negative results of the war, such as the refugee crisis and general lawlessness, were underreported. Journalists were unable to detach themselves from military and government sources. Reports from journalists embedded within military units were problematic in this sense.
One criticism of media coverage of the Iraq war has been the coverage of life for civilians in Iraq. At a semantic level, civilian casualties were famously termed ‘collateral damage’. Much as torture was framed as ‘abuse’, and the term ‘foreign fighters’ was used solely to refer to resistance within Iraq and not the invading armies. The suffering of ordinary Iraqi civilians was downplayed by the media. A Lancet study into the number of Iraqi civilian deaths published in October 2004 produced shocking results. The catastrophic invasion resulted in a civilian death toll that outnumbered “the combined effects of Saddam Hussein and sanctions” due to both direct (as a result of combat) and indirect factors associated with lawlessness and lack of infrastructure. However, deaths of civilians remained largely ignored, it barely registered in media reports, and then generally only if it could be attributed to insurgents. The vast majority of footage of Iraqi civilians that made the headlines back in London, were enthusiastic responses that welcomed the occupation, they was little coverage of Iraqi’s voicing their opposition to the invasion. The media coverage of Operation Phantom Fury, that broke the siege of Fallujah in November 2004, provided an explicitly one-sided account. Beatings carried out on doctors and the attacks on ambulances by US forces were ignored. Newspaper’s explained that the offensive had shut down a major propaganda weapon for the militants, referring to Fallujah General Hospital. An objective account would have mentioned that US occupation forces refused to allow the Red Crescent access to Fallujah, or at least pointed out that attacking hospitals and using white phosphorous contravenes the Geneva Convention. However, it seems that the press rarely holds contravention of the Geneva Convention against Britain, the USA or its allies, in the same way that it does the enemies of imperialism. This practise most recently displayed during the Israeli invasion of Gaza, where atrocities committed by Israeli troops were justified by the handful of rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. While negative aspects of the war, such as the story of torture at Abu Ghraib, were broke by the mainstream media, it soon disappeared and the continuation of the practise of torturing prisoners was barely mentioned.
The central two lies that were the main justification for invading Iraq was the completely unfounded claim that Saddam Husain was linked to Al-Qaeda and the presence in Iraq of weapons of mass destructions (WMDs). Television audiences were told that Saddam Husain not only had knowledge of the terrorist attacks in America on the 11th September 2001, but that he had directly participated in aiding the perpetrators of that atrocity. The fact that Saddam Husain was considered too secular by Al-Qaeda escaped most news reports. Readers of newspapers were informed that Iraq had chemical, biological and even a programme to construct nuclear weaponry. Leading news organisations placed such great emphasis upon these two claims in the face of available information to the contrary that The New York Times and the Washington Post, two prestigious newspapers, later issued apologies to their readers for “having gotten so caught up in the inner workings of power in an administration determined to go to war that they lost focus on other values and other views”. While the US press was certainly more ‘gung ho’ in its reporting of the invasion of Iraq, the British press remained overwhelming pro-war. While the Daily Mirror newspaper and BBC were very critical of the decision by the British government to join the war. Once the war started, anti-war reporting, representative of public opinion, proved to be short lived. British news networks reproduced, rather than questioned, claims about weapons of mass destruction. The anti-war movement also began to suffer after the outbreak of combat operations, as the media fell back to a ‘back the troops’ position, press attention declined, and became increasingly unsympathetic.
Theories of the media during war include Lance Bennett’s indexing hypothesis. Bennett outlined his contention that journalists simply allow foreign policy elites to draw up the agenda, and frame stories of international issues to suit their own conclusions. This is, in part, “a result of ‘transactional’ or ‘symbiotic’ relations between journalists and officials” Another communications scholar, Daniel, C. Hallin, analysed media coverage of the Vietnam War, in order to investigate the concept of the ‘Vietnam Effect’ that television footage of the conflict contributed to the conflict’s unpopularity. Hallin found that initially media coverage had been generally favourable towards the United States intervention, later, the media become more critical of aspects of the war, but never directed confronted whether the USA should have invaded Vietnam. Hallin stated that the media’s criticism of the employment of certain tactics were confined to the ‘sphere of legitimate controversy’ and merely reflected elite dissensus back in Washington. These theories certainly correspond somewhat with the media coverage of the war in Iraq, in that it rarely left the ‘sphere of legitimate controversy’. Journalists ventured procedural criticism, discussing tactical mistakes instead of questioning the whole basis of the war at a substantive level. Despite the ‘negative’ reports and images of carnage coming out of Iraq following the invasion, the relationship between the media and the government did not change. Essentially, the press indexed media coverage to elite debate that occurred in Washington, regurgitation replaced independent investigation and there was little objective questioning of the principal motivation behind the invasion. It was reported in much the same way that German press reported the battle of Stalingrad in the Nazi era. Criticism was limited to tactical choices, debate centred on what strategy we should adopt in the occupation of Iraq rather than whether we should have invaded Iraq in the first place.
New coverage of the Chilcot inquiry conveniently fails to acknowledge the manner in which the press covered the war in Iraq. Despite the negative picture being painted of the Iraq war, we cannot forget that similar reporting, is whitewashing the same levels of devastation created by the occupation of Afghanistan. Just as coverage of the Iraq invasion failed to report the negative aspects of the occupation, contemporary coverage of the occupation of Afghanistan ignores stories such as the heroin epidemic that has accompanied the dramatic rise in the production of opium since 2001.