Patrick Cockburn On War Reporting

Patrick Cockburn, veteran Middle East correspondent for The Independent, just published a piece in the London Review of Books which has lots of valuable things to say about reporting on wars.  Read it in full here.

Here are some of the most interesting parts:

In all wars there is a difference between reported news and what really happened, but during these four campaigns the outside world has been left with misconceptions even about the identity of the victors and the defeated. In 2001 reports of the Afghan war gave the impression that the Taliban had been beaten decisively even though there had been very little fighting. In 2003 there was a belief in the West that Saddam Hussein’s forces had been crushed when in fact the Iraqi army, including the units of the elite Special Republican Guard, had simply disbanded and gone home. In Libya in 2011 the rebel militiamen, so often shown on television firing truck-mounted heavy machine-guns in the general direction of the enemy, had only a limited role in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, which was mostly brought about by Nato air strikes. In Syria in 2011 and 2012 foreign leaders and journalists repeatedly and vainly predicted the imminent defeat of Bashar al-Assad…

It wasn’t that reporters were factually incorrect in their descriptions of what they had seen. But the very term ‘war reporter’, though not often used by journalists themselves, helps explain what went wrong. Leaving aside its macho overtones, it gives the misleading impression that war can be adequately described by focusing on military combat. But irregular or guerrilla wars are always intensely political, and none more so than the strange stop-go conflicts that followed from 9/11. This doesn’t mean that what happened on the battlefield was insignificant, but that it requires interpretation…

The drama of battle inevitably dominates the news, but oversimplifies it by disclosing only part of what is happening. These oversimplifications were more than usually gross and deceptive in Afghanistan and Iraq, when they dovetailed with political propaganda that demonised the Taliban and later Saddam as evil incarnate, casting the conflict – particularly easy in the US in the hysterical atmosphere after 9/11 – as a black and white struggle between good and evil

Conviction that a toxic government is the root of all evil is the public position of most oppositions, but it’s damaging to trust one’s own propaganda. The Iraqi opposition genuinely believed that Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic problems stemmed from Saddam and that once he was gone all would be well. The opposition in Libya and Syria believed that the regimes of Gaddafi and Assad were so demonstrably bad that it was counter-revolutionary to question whether what came after them would be much better. Foreign reporters have by and large shared these opinions.

Public appearances by Western leaders with smiling children or cheering soldiers are invariably contrived to show them to television viewers in a sympathetic light. Why shouldn’t Arab rebels have the same public relations skills? The problem was the way war reporters so quickly accepted and publicised opposition atrocity stories…

The essential ingredients of a good atrocity story are that it should be shocking and not immediately refutable…Reporters may have their suspicions but they can seldom disprove such tales straightaway. They also know that news editors don’t welcome being told that a colourful news story, which their competitors will unquestionably run, is probably false. It’s easy to put the blame on the ‘fog of war’ and it’s true that fighting involves confusing and fast-moving events, reports of which can’t be checked. Everybody in a war has a more than usually strong motive for misrepresenting their achievements and failures, and it’s usually difficult to disprove their claims…

‘My newspaper doesn’t do what it calls “bang-bang” journalism,’ one correspondent said grandly, explaining why none of his colleagues was covering the fighting in Syria first-hand. But the ‘bang-bang’ matters: war may not be explicable without the politics, but the politics can’t be understood without the war.  

And here is an extremely important point about the harms social media has done in some of the Arab Spring countries:

The most sinister change in the way war is perceived springs from what two years ago seemed to be a wholly positive development. Satellite television and the use of information supplied by YouTube, bloggers and social media were portrayed as liberating innovations. The monopoly on information imposed by police states from Syria to Egypt and Bahrain to Tunisia had been broken. But as the course of the uprising in Syria has shown, satellite television and the internet also spread propaganda and hate. Fraudulent atrocity stories have an effect on a war: a Libyan militiaman who believes that the government soldiers he is fighting are under orders to rape his wife and daughters isn’t going to take many prisoners.


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