Himachal Tonite

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Media at War: Issues & Limitations with References to Kargil, Vietnam, and Gulf War

30 min read

Prof. Pyar Singh Thakur, Media & defense veteran

The media have always had a special relationship with war, limited war or conflict, mainly because each of these situations is considered of major news value and of utmost public importance and interest due to its security implications. Conflict is the adrenaline of the media. Journalists are trained to look for disagreements and find war irresistible. And when it happens to be ‘our war’, the involvement of the media has been assessed to be much more enthusiastic and extensive. In fact, the Vietnam War was the first to be broadcast on television, but its reach was limited to American TV sets. However, in comparison to the media coverage of Gulf war of 1990-91 and later Kargil War of 1999, the masses of the world watched global Television coverage very easily. Today, the information technology has transformed and expanded quickly and war like phenomena is reaching to the drawing rooms of the masses and now prime time news of 9 o, clock is not news as each individual of modern time has become media at time through social media and they are not dependent for political news, power and war news on prime time news of TV channels. The Kargil conflict in the summer of 1999 broke out at a time when the Indian media was far better equipped than ever before to project it on an unprecedented scale. In India’s first TV war, the camera not only moulded public opinion but was also the army’s biggest ally.The army learnt to play to the cameras and savoured in instant stardom. War will never be the same for Indians again. Television coverage of the action-packed weeks in Kargil changed the very way we perceive a battle.It started rather tentatively- stock shots of booming Bofors guns, marching soldiers and endless rounds of Press briefings.But soon the momentum of the medium took over and there were stories laced with the taste of gelignite and the raw smell of adventure of TV reporters galloping over the mountain sides communicating their thrill.Of rubbing shoulders with real soldiers almost becoming surrogate heroes and heroines themselves, for that minute forgetting that any war is bigger than the person reporting it. The country too was moved by these moving images. Besides building up the drama, TV coverage succeeded in putting a human face to the tragedies of war. Endless pictures of wounded soldiers, body bags and coffins, bereaved but brave families and tearless widows rekindled patriotism in even the most cynical viewer.What was different was that now each wounded soldier, each coffin and each widow was not a mere statistic. He or she had a name, an address, a relationship with the village, the community, the country. “It brought forth a sense of solidarity,” says Shailesh, senior editor, Zee News. “It created an awareness and led to so many people coming out to help the forces,” echoes Rajat Sharma, anchor &producer of ‘Aaj Ki Baat on Star Plus.’After 28 years of 1971 War between India and Pakistan, we’ve now had a War of Kargil in 1999, which has been by the TV, for the TV generation. Its urgency and immediacy has had the nation Bharat hooked.The viewership figures was also increased.  According to Television Audience Measurement (TAM), ratings for all TV households in nine cities of India- Delhi, Kanpur, Calcutta, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Cochin – AajTak, produced by TV Today on DD2, showed a 20 per cent growth in viewership over the past one month of May during 1999 of Kargil War.The number of viewers rose from 16, 19,659 for the week ending June 5 to 19, 52,000 for the week ending June 26 of 1999. During the same period, Star News (English) brought out by NDTV on Star Plus showed an upward swing from 1,08,000 viewers to 1,39,000 viewers, Star News (Hindi) went up from 1,15,742 to 1,22,000. Ironically, for Samachar on DD1 the viewership came down from 21, 94,471 to 20, 00,000. Under the relentless gaze of the camera, every little detail of strategy became a topic for drawing-room discussion and cocktail party arguments. Not that it was easy for the TV teams, one major constraint being the lack of a direct up linking facility from the war zone.In an age of high-speed information and portable technologies like fly-away dishes, Indian TV had to make do with primitive modes of transporting the shooting tapes. Throughout the Kargilwar, media clips on war were transported to Srinagar to New Delhi. From there, it was often the visiting VIPs and army convoys returning to Delhi, who carried them.

The media camera became an effective extension of the gun in Drass.Initially, sceptical of the Television crews, the Indian Army slowly warmed up to their role as force multiplier. Soon they got so carried away that they gavethem all the access they could.There were slip-ups like the time when the blazing lights of cameramen outside the Brigade Headquarters at Drassof Kargildrew the attention of the enemy/Pakistani soldiers.This had led to heavy shelling that day in which four soldiers were killed and the correspondent of a national daily was also injured.Then there was much uproar about Star News announcing the date and time of the assault on Tiger Hill, three days before it actually was to take place. Much to its chagrin, the Indian Army realised what hungry media reporters could do to file a scoop. Nonetheless, the media exposure was motivating for the Indian soldiers. The Indian soldiers were charged up by their victories that they were thrilled to have the camera around. If great sound bites came from the soldiers, the army brass too was not unprepared for the information of war. The daily Press briefings were an attempt to emulate the Jamie Shea showonKosovo. During Kargil War, the media camera is like any other weapon, it’s like the gun itself. However, unlike the Gulf War where CNN’s Peter Arnett did his P-to-C (piece to camera) with the battle in full progress and Scuds falling all around him, the only live action we had were the phoneins on Iridium phones. Neither was this a completely open coverage. No graphic details of bloody encounters and mortal combats were shown, the reporters could not have gone any closer. And unlike Baghdad, this wasn’t just a missile game but one involving hand-to-hand combats.The closest one came to the frontline was at the Tiger Hill bunkers. It gave Indian TV some of its best war footage. There were other aspects to explore too. ‘We tried to put together various dimensions of war,” says Q.W. Naqvi, executive producer at TV Today.AajTak TV Channel had news stories about the Bofors gun and soft features like the one on the plight of domestic animals left behind in deserted villages. Clearly the biggest role of TV in Kargil war was that of being the army’s ally. “The idea was to reflect the point of view of the Jawans, to keep the army’s morale high,” says NDTV Director K.V.L. Narayan Rao.Critics, however, were quick to accuse TV of turning the war into an entertaining serial. It was almost as if television was celebrating war.Argues Harish Awasthi, AIR’s DDG, news and current affairs: “TV’s visual drama takes it away from reality.” There was also talk of how the media coverage lacked depth and did not probe into the socio-political aspects of war.”There was no questioning, no voice of dissent,” says N. Bhaskar Rao of the Centre for Media Studies. By and large the perspective was from the Indian side with the enemy consigned to a faceless anonymity.Zee News did give a few news stories from the other side and now that the war is over, Star News too has crossed the border. This apart, Indian Televisions did send the enemy into a tizzy. It played a pivotal role in gaining the vantage point. In fact, the then Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had taken the state-run PTV to task for its “poor” media coverage and a cabinet committee had been set up to probe its lapses.It was another round of victory for India, thosetime during the war along with the information war between both countries India and Pakistan. The media are described as the citizens’ window to the world because whenever any situation arises, the whole nation looks up to journalists to know what is happening. This role becomes even more prominent during crises and war. In India, The Kargil war of 1999 is Nation’s first war on television, in fact, it was the first ‘live’ war of the South Asian region. The Kargil War was fought by the Indian Army with Pakistani infiltrators. The war occurred at a time when electronic media in India was just introduced. This enabled the war to be telecast live across the nation. According to senior journalist VC Natrajan “the press had access to forward areas when the war broke out. Neither the top brass of the armed forces nor the bureaucracy made any effort to hinder the media from reporting what was happening on the battlefront.” The war then turned into a news propaganda war, the press briefings given by government officials of each nation produced conflicting claims and counterclaims. The Indian government placed a temporary News Embargo (a request or requirement by a source that the information or news provided by that source not be published until a certain date or certain conditions have been met) on information from Pakistan, banning the telecast of the state-run Pakistani channel PTV and blocking access to online editions of the Dawn newspaper. While the Pakistani media criticised the move, Indian media claimed it was in the interest of national security.

Impact of the media coverage

The Indian media created awareness regarding the Kargil War among the public through their visual impact. Media aroused nationalistic fervour and created awareness regarding the hardships faced by the Indian Army. Also, the positive image created by the Indian media helped the country to gain overwhelming diplomatic recognition. It is said that it was not completely open coverage, no graphic details of bloody encounters and mortal combats were shown. But the Tiger Hill bunkers gave Indian TV some of its best war footage.

Several media houses provided facts, figures, official statements, and educative editorials. They also covered the human side of the war and built an emotional connection. However, with the progression of the war, media coverage became completely irregular, Television channels in India kept repeatedly showing endless streams of frontline troops, guns firing away at distant mountains, endless train of trucks carrying arms, ammunitions etc. Critics had also accused the TV channels of turning the war into an entertaining serial.

How was it done?

During that time of Kargil War of 1999 which operated for three months from May to July, the media had to rely on primitive methods to transport the shooting tapes. Throughout the war, media clips were transported to Srinagar and from there it was carried to Delhi by the visiting VIPs and army convoys.


There were also blunders like the blazing lights of cameramen outside the Brigade Headquarters at Drass Sector drew the attention of the enemy/Pakistani army, which led to heavy shelling in which four soldiers were killed and the correspondent of a national dailynewspaper was injured. Also, the Star News announced the date and time of the assault on Tiger Hill of Kargil, three days before it took place.


Senior journalist BarkhaDutt gained prominence after her frontline war reporting on the Kargil war. She also did a live commentary during the ‘secret’ Tiger Hill operation.Many argued that her live telecast during the counter terror operations was completely irresponsible as it only seemed to help the terrorists and their handlers/Over Ground Workers in Jammu & Kashmir. She is accused to have caused casualties on the Indian side as she gave away military locations in her broadcast. A book titled ‘Kargil:TurningtheTide’ written by Lt. Gen. MohinderPuri (Indian Army General at that time of Kargil War) talked about BarkhaDutt’s reporting in Kargil War. He mentioned that after the war, he invited BarkhaDutt to his office and admired her for the professionalism she showed while reporting in the war. He then politely told her that she might have unintentionally shared Army’s plan with enemy/Pakistani army by saying that ‘our next target is Tiger Hill.’ This, however, does not prove that Barkha’s reporting caused casualties on the Indian side.Thus, Kargil turned out to be India’s first war in the age of Television, when the fire and fury of each battle or artillery duel was carried into every office, home and hearth. It was the first war in which media correspondents went to the battlefront in significant numbers, and the media interfaced with the Army as the war was fought right before their eyes and cameras. Also, just as Kargil was the media’s first experience of a real war in too much hilly areas of 14000 to 18000 feet height where natural environment condition was another hardships for the Indian soldiers to fight against the enemy sat on the peaks of the Kargil, though along a limited front, it was also our military’s first real experience of dealing with an intrepid corps of young generation, mobile war correspondents, armed with satellite phones and Television cameras, filing from the spot.Such close interface between the media and the military in Kargil war has made it contextually imperative to understand what the basic issues are, and the limitations thereby, when the media is at war.

My intention to pen down upon media war studies is to carry out the issues and limitations during wars be the wars took place in India, USA, UK& Russia and other States. The reasons behind war studies are three-fold. First, no such study worth mentioning has been done in India. Second, among others, these two countries have had the most varied and rich experience in war reportage. Third, the issues and limitations highlighted in these studies are by and large applicable to all war situations, including Kargil War.

War Sells:

In fact, the role of media is very closely connected to the issues of war. Why?An important reason is that both mass warfare and mass media owe their modern forms to a fertile period of invention towards the end of the nineteenth century. In some cases, the technology which has enabled civilians to learn of, or even see, events in a war zone has derived, more or less directly, from military research. The history of battle, Paul Virilio suggests, is primarily the history of radically changing fields of perception.  Modern warfare, in which destruction has become more distanced, relies on the accurate location of targets, human or otherwise. The term ‘shooting war’ is aptly suggestive of both soldiers’ and photojournalists’ professions, as the camera owes its sighting mechanisms to those developed for artillery. Likewise, many means of transmission by which news from war zones reaches those at home evolved from the technologies originally pioneered to allow soldiers to communicate with one other (telegraphy and radio broadcasting), or secretly to ascertain their enemy’s military capabilities.Another reason, as one British observer commented after the First World War, is that “war not only creates a supply of news but a demand for it. So deep-rooted is the fascination in war and all things appertaining to it that a paper has only to be able to put up on its placard ‘A Great Battle’ for its sales to mount up.’ During the Gulf War of 1990, twenty of America’s twenty-five largest circulation newspapers enjoyed circulation gains, while Cable News Network (CNN) experienced a ten-fold increase of its audience.The degree to which a ‘war sells’ of course depends on whose war it is, and the degree to which civilian media ‘consumers’ feel involved therein. But this sense of shared participation is more likely to hold true for ‘our wars’ than ‘other people’s’ wars’ unless they involve ‘us’ too, somehow-may not grip the attention of distant media, which often presume a lack of interest on their audience’s part in remote conflict. The author Evelyn Waugh says, ‘The British public has no interest in a war, which drags on indecisively.” A few sharp victories, some conspicuous acts of personal bravery on the patriot side, and a colourful entry into the capital. That is the beast policy for the war. The Gulf War provided dramatic action by the side with the suggestively named ‘Patriot’ missiles, not to mention a colourful entry into Kuwait city, spearheaded by journalists in advance of the UN Coalition’s advancing forces.

Media Military Relations:

Both journalists and soldiers take a certain professional pride in seeing themselves as locked in a mutually antagonistic relationship, each bound by irreconcilable working practices and codes of honour. The essence of successful warfare is secrecy; the essence of successful journalism is publicity,” says the preface to the British Ministry of Defence (MoD’s) instructions to Task Force (TF) bound correspondents during the Falklands war. Both limited and total wars offer numerous examples of tension between military and media personnel, often arising from the military belief that journalists are overwhelmingly governed by their tell-tale compulsion and can accordingly harm war effort. From a military perspective, such innate irresponsibility is likely to be heightened in a ‘limited war’, as it is often imagined that a journalist covering a limited conflict finds it easier to sustain a peacetime stance of detachment. In total war, the palpable consequences of defeat make the costs of waging such a war including erosion of media freedom more palatable.Despite the cherished myths of two professions locked in combat, the routine spats between military and media often resemble a ritualised and symbolic display of shadow boxing. For instance, in Vietnam, the Falklands and the Gulf War, the military and media (vexations with minders and pooling arrangements aside) often appeared to get on remarkably well, despite outward dissimilarities and repeated gripes. Thrown together, they often seem to develop what Kaplan (a military briefer in Vietnam) described as ‘an intense love-hating mutuality and dependency’.Grudgingly or enthusiastically, the military in many 20th century wars have come to recognise potentially positive applications of media power in wartime. Media can forge bonds between the home front and the fighting front increasing civilian commitment to the war, while raising the morale of combatants. A feature of many of 20th century wars has been their greater involvement of civilians, whether as spectators, victims or active participants; and a feature of most 20th century States/nationshas been greater concern with their own popular legitimacy. Thus governments, mindful of their own popularity, generally seek to harness mass media in wartime to persuade citizens of a war’s justness and the enemy’s implacability. The Soviet regimes of the 1980s, for example, were so concerned to stem any haemorrhaging of popular support for the war in Afghanistan that they insisted the dead were returned to the USSR in sealed zinc coffins, encased against any possible media intrusion. Media thus serve as the vital conduit between those fighting and those more distantly participating in-or vicariously experiencing-war. But the flow of news and images which filters through media channels is likely to be as strictly regulated by the state as conditions permit. News and images become strategic commodities in wartime.

TV News Images: Entertain or Enlighten?

For different reasons, the media are equally important to civilians: as sources from which information, interpretations and images of war are acquired, either a supplement to, or substitute for, first-hand experience. For many citizens, television is likely to have been the major provider of news (though those who watch television news may also read press reports and log on to Internet news services). Whether television, for all its millions of viewers and its technological capacity to deliver images almost simultaneously with the events filmed, is capable of providing genuinely informative news remains much debated, as does the medium’s capacity for doing more than offering a ‘cruel mime of immediacy’ when screening others’ suffering. Television news is often lambasted for being sensational, driven by entertainment considerations, and led by images to the detriment of analysis and context. Rather than aiding our understanding of what war is ‘really like’, television arguably diminishes its reality. As American cultural critic, Michael Arlen, observed of US networks’ coverage of Vietnam war, television made events ‘less real-diminished in part by the physical size of the television screen, which, for all the industry’s advances, still shows a picture of men three inches tall shooting at other men three inches tall.’Despite, and partially because of, its inadequacies as a vehicle for understanding, television has undoubtedly been perceived by policy makers and the military as the most influential medium, however. Television’s power is generally attributed to a combination of sheer audience size, visual impact and immediacy. But precisely what influence television (or other mass media) has on the audience-how far, and in what ways, media shape rather than reflect public opinion-remains the subject of much academic discussion.Some, for example, prefer to see the media’s main function as one of ‘agenda-setting’. Bernard Cohen’s formulation that the press ‘may not be successful in telling its readers what to think, but is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about’ has been widely echoed. Others suggest a modification: that the real, a priori, agenda setting is in fact done by the media’s primary sources. Consequently political elites, fond of representing themselves as led by powerful mass media, actually tend to play a determining role in the communication process, as routine initiators of news stories and often as primary ‘definers’ or ‘framers’ of those stories.

A different tradition of media scholarship, influenced by post-structural theory, has focused not on the pivotal role of elite sources but on reversing the traditional conception of media ‘consumers’ as essentially passive. Rather than inhering in a newspaper column or television programme, meaning is constructed and extracted by the individual. Audiences (in so far as audiences do coalesce into homogenous ‘audiences’) are thus not passively absorbent sponges, but active ‘negotiators’ of meaning in media ‘texts’.

Fog of War:

If, as Senator Hiram Johnson remarked in 1928 about war that truth is the first casualty, the reason is as likely to be state obstruction and obfuscation as the inherent difficulties, dilemmas and dangers of war poses for media reporters. States frequently expect high degree of compliance from their media in wartime, usually rationalised on grounds of operational security and the protection of militarily sensitive information demanded by the war effort. By identifying the ends for which war is waged is indivisible from the national interest, states have also made considerable use of patriotism as a mechanism for disciplining mass media. Criticism of war and its ends and means consequently becomes an act of treachery.As Arthur Ponsonby pointed out presciently, “War is fought in this fog of falsehood, a great deal of it uncovered and accepted as truth. The fog arises from fear and is fed by panic.  No wonder, many atrocity stories about the enemy’s barbarity have shown remarkable resilience in at least generic form, if not precise details from the First World War to the present day. Mass media are often willing participants, if not always initiators of this process of demonization. Perhaps more surprisingly, sections of the media also sometimes prove eager to discipline dissidents’ voices within their own profession. Condemnation of those traitors’ attempting to dispel the ‘fog of falsehood’ is not enacted by the State/nation alone, but often by rival media who shoulder up squarely with government and military, branding as unpatriotic any outlet which sets broader limits on the expression of critical, or merely sceptical, viewpoints. John Simpson, for example, noted with dismay during the Gulf War that many of his colleagues demanded a curb on free reporting. In wartime, media sometimes appears to be at war with each other as with the State/nation, or with the enemy.Battlefield conditions also make it difficult for journalists to dispel the ‘fog of war’. The war correspondent must piece together often confused reports from a wide geographical area, though he or she is confined to a particular location. With regard to the Gulf War, BBC reporter John Simpson likened his position to that of the football spectator seated near one of the goal mouths: “Whenever the play was down at my end, I had a superb view of it. But when it moved to the far end of the pitch, I only knew what was happening, when I heard the crowd roar. Having assembled a story, reporters must then find a means of transmitting their copy from the battlefield back to their base, which is often easier said than done. Television journalists with the British Task Force, sailing to the Falklands islands in 1982, had to be winched by helicopters on to ships equipped with satellite telephone system which would enable them to send ‘voice pieces’ (but not pictures) to London.

News Agenda Not Self-Selecting:

Long before our current age of celebrity journalism, war reporters have liked to portray themselves as exceptional individuals operating in exceptional circumstances as they are called “soldiers without the means of self-defence, who court danger in order to bring back news from hell”. But we should beware journalistic mythography. War correspondents belong to larger news organisations which discipline their work, sometimes in such routinized and subliminal ways that individuals may be largely unaware of the forces constraining them, and determining not only which news stories are covered but how they are framed.Likewise, news organisations do not float detached from their society’s political, cultural and economic structures. The ‘news values’ that determine what passes muster as news in different polities are the product of these broad invisible’ influences, as well as more specific, institutionalised practices. Although news-people often claim otherwise, ‘news values’ do not inhere in news stories; the news agenda is therefore not self-selecting.News editors sometimes suggest that their job is rather like judging a beauty pageant as potential stories parade their easily evaluated assets under the trained gaze of the judge, waiting to be plucked from the crowd of contestants and elevated to a place in the Press columns or broadcast bulletin.But, like notions of beauty, newsworthiness is also in the eyes of the beholder, not an inherent property, and where the eye beholds either one is shaped by cultural norms as much as by idiosyncratic, individual preferences. In other words, news editors set out with engrained (but often unacknowledged) assumptions about what makes a ‘good news story’,  and indeed about what constitutes a ‘news story in the first place.Media reporters, with a very few exceptions, do not blithely set out on their initiative for a combat zone, risking all to hold their journalistic mirror to the atrocities of war. Rather, news organisations determine which wars constitute news, who will cover them and for how long, though not necessarily always as a result of conscious decision making. Particularly for Television companies, where the costs of news gathering are greatest, priorities are partly rooted in commercial considerations. In the current age of increasingly cheap and miniaturised communications technology, covering foreign news (which war often is) still remains the most expensive form of news, and news itself is one of the most costly forms of programming.Moreover, coverage of wars in which the media’s own State/nation is involved is likely to depend, in large part, on domestic elite sources within government and the military. In the most heavily Televised war to date, that in the Gulf, much news relayed by the US networks and Press was gathered from the regular newsbeats the ‘golden triangle’ of Pentagon, White House and State Department-rather than the frontline in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Indeed, the presence of journalists at a site of conflict may well result from their States/nations having led them there in the first place.Regarding themselves often as mere ‘mirrors’ to reality, journalists deny what invariably distorts their reflections. They belong to socio-economic classes and ethnic groups; they are male or female; they have certain predispositions or views, and they breathe a particular ‘cultural air’, which as Richard Hoggart put it, infuses the whole ideological atmosphere of any given society, telling its members ‘that some things can be said and others had best not to be said.’ Accordingly, news can never be value-free, from nobody’s point of view, in the way its ‘manufacturers’ like to claim. Indeed, the very attempt to separate ‘news’ from ‘comment’ mystifies the epistemological impossibility of pristine, value-free facts, and obscures the underlying assumptions and preferences which news content will unavoidably contain.

Media and Audience:

What about the relationship between media and its audience in limited war? Do civilians really demand maximum disclosure of their media in times of limited war? Worryingly, for those who believe that limited war should not preclude as much Press freedom as is consistent with security, research into the Falklands and Gulf conflicts suggest that many Americans and Britons do not cherish their right to know, or at any rate regard winning a war as a higher order good than media freedom.The report of the Defence Committee’s inquiry into the media handling of Britain’s MOD, says, “Many principles, supposedly regarded as sacred and absolute within the media, are applied in a less rigid and categorical way by the public as a whole when it is judging its government’s conduct of war. In our judgement the public is, in general, quite ready to tolerate being misled to some extent if the enemy is misled, thereby contributing to the success of the campaign.”Philip M. Taylor notes that post-Gulf War audience research has presented the new challenge: ‘the public’s apparent desire not to know beyond the sketchiest details what is going on while it is going on.’ Audience research in both the US and UK indicated that both publics ‘seem prepared to suspend their right to know, provided they believe the war to be just and the anticipated gains worth the price of the deaths of a certain number of professional soldiers’.Thus abrogation of the right to know is only a temporary exigency of war, with a majority holding that damaging information should be published after the event. But civilians also rationalise their desire not to know-and particularly not to see distressing images of war’s casualties-on the grounds that everyone knows that soldiers, and sometimes civilians, die in war, and they therefore do not need graphic visual confirmation. Imagination can fill the gap left by legitimate screening out on grounds of taste and tone of what is both unduly distressing and unnecessary. According to a study only 57 per cent thought it right for the BBC to have shown the shrouded bodies of the Al-Amiriya victims (during the Gulf War), a finding corroborated by the Leeds team who uncovered considerable support for BBC self-censorship of this footage, 23 per cent believing it wrong for Television to cover this story at all. Public acquiescence in the contracting boundaries set on the say able and showable in limited war lends encouragement to cautious broadcasters who believe that an imaginative viewer can extrapolate the bigger picture from sanitised footage without his or her sensibilities being unduly offended. Brian Barron of the BBC, for example, defended the Corporation’s decision not to show mass Iraqi casualties on the ‘Highway of Death’ on the grounds that ‘It was pretty obvious when you have shown one or two corpses under blankets with their rifles on top of them, what’s happened. If you see too much of it, it becomes a casual image on the screen.’ Experience since Vietnam suggests that, far from the public appetite for news ever increasing, elements of the American and British media-and their publics are less willing for dissent to be aired, or potentially damaging images of suffering to be screened, even in wars where comparatively little is directly at stake for that public.

Our War, Their War:

The British correspondent Max Hastings during the Falklands conflict famously remarked, “When one’s nation is at war, reporting becomes an extension of the war effort. Objectivity only comes back into fashion when the black-out comes down”. Not infrequently, journalists and photographers return from war with the confession that they ceased to be mere observers and became participants. As M. Herr memorably averred, “I went to cover the war and the war covered me.” During the Falklands conflict, the then BBC chairman was adamant that “the BBC is not, and could not be, neutral as between our country and an aggressor. Our interviewers and newsreaders are not sitting on some kind of lofty Olympian fence, mediating between two equally culpable contestants.’The BBC would thus be ‘truthful’ and avoid blatant identification with ‘our boys’, but it would not be exactly impartial either.” Likewise, some American print journalists were the harshest critic of CNN’s reporting from Iraq, and of what they perceived as unacceptable ‘neutralism’ in television coverage. Experience of limited and total war alike might suggest that Gitlin and Hallin are closer to the mark with their generalisation that media in wartime have habitually acted as patriots and cheerleaders for the military.Throughout the 20th century, media have often conceived of their role as celebrants of ‘war culture’ where war falls into Hallin’s ‘sphere of consensus’.It has been thirty years since Vietnam happened, and there have been some fine essays written recently on what its consequences have been for the military’s attitude to the media. Philip Knightley who wrote a book calls one of them ‘the First Casualties’ about war and the media. After the censored media coverage of the First and Second World Wars, Vietnam was covered without censorship being imposed by the US military. The resultant reporting lost the US the war, says Knightley. In retrospect the military was bitter: it had allowed the reporters to go where it chose, and had helped them in every way, but that meant they reported the truth as they saw it.Then came the Falklands which was a very different war. It was waged on a group of islands 8000 miles away from Britain. The correspondents of the invading country could not get there unless the ministry of defence took them. The latter was not taking any foreigners and only those British correspondents that it approved of. This handpicked bunch had to sign forms agreeing to accept censorship at source. The net result, says Knightley, is that war was reported exactly as the military wanted it to be.The military in the first world was learning that you should handle the press by denying access and then acquiesce when they were ready to do a deal. Thereafter the approach has been used in Grenada, Panama and during the Gulf War.Tom Nusbaumer who is a Vietnam veteran and now writes on war and peace as an independent journalist says when the Gulf war began, 1,500 journalists were taken along and then reduced to electronic and print cheerleaders for the home team. The media management at Kosovo outdid that record: he calls it the most refined model for journalistic death. There were 2700 people from the media accompanying the NATO forces when they entered the province at the end of the bombing campaign. There were daily briefings, military meetings, press conferences and endless arranged interviews all of which did not add up to news, but the journalists were kept too busy to notice. Much later, the stories they had missed, began to sink in.But whether or not war fully alerts journalists to their own constitutive role in shaping social reality, it certainly often confronts reporters with stark choices about where their moral responsibility lies. While most reporters have little difficulty (in many cases) in answering their state’s appeal for loyalty, as responsible citizens of their country at war, some grapple with altogether more personal dilemmas of involvement and attachment: perhaps most acutely in ‘other’s people’s wars’. Do they answer the desperate calls for help of war’s victims? Is it enough to record suffering and refuse to intervene? Is photography, as Susan Sontag insists, essentially an act of non-intervention? Can the journalist satisfactorily fall back on the ‘mirror’ analogy by responding to the sufferer that circulating verbal or visual portraits of their plight is the best form of journalistic assistance possible, and the only one professionally sanctioned? Certainly not all journalists have found that response adequate, whether their infringement of ‘objectivity’ has taken the form of impassioned pleas for outside intervention, or private acts of rescue.

Globalisation of Media:

Media organisations have been subject to processes of globalisation. Even nationally-based television companies increasingly rely on international agencies, or regional exchanges, to provide them with satellite ‘feeds’ of foreign news stories which their own crews are not ‘on the ground’ to cover. In that sense, the ‘global newsroom’ is a reality. But of perhaps yet greater significance has been the emergence since the 1980s of global media corporations with extensive transnational and cross-media interests. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, for example, now not only controls newspapers in America, Australia and Britain, but also the satellite broadcaster Bsky B (and its offshoots in Asia), Hollywood’s Twentieth century Fox Studio, and publishing giant Harper Collins, amongst other interests. Clearly, such powerful and de-territorialised communications empires lie beyond the scope of regulation by any one government.Tellingly, the agenda-setting power of international media is often labelled the ‘CNN effect’, which is testimony to the totemic status accorded to Ted Turner’s Atlanta-based network. After all, the emergence of satellite and cable ‘rolling news’ channels has made news a constantly available commodity, no longer rationed to 22 minute or half-hour slots at pre-determined intervals during the day’s Television schedule. Some commentators believe that CNN and its imitators have supplanted conventional diplomatic channels for policy-makers. President Bush seemed to prove the point when he claimed to learn more from CNN than from the CIA. The upshot is a compression of policy-maker’s response times during crises. Where before decision-makers usually had occasion for leisurely consideration of diplomatic dispatches and intelligence estimates, they are now compelled to respond instantly to fast-breaking foreign stories. Thanks to global media, the hitherto closed world of diplomacy has been exposed to the full blast of international indignation in times of crisis, and the resultant pressure on policy-makers to ‘do something’.However, a number of journalists, M. Bell amongst them, have reached fairly modest estimation of their actual influence. This ‘revisionism’ about the ramifications of ‘real time’ has been pioneered by NikGowing (formerly diplomatic editor of ITN, and currently with BBC World), whose conclusions are largely based on personal interviews with policy makers. In short, his position is that television’s impact is limited. In general, policy is not swayed by images: only when policy is unclear are politicians liable to be pressurised into making ‘pseudo responses’ to media-manufactured crises. Real time pictures compress response times in a crisis. They put pressure on choice and priorities and crisis management. They skew responses. They shape the policy agenda but do not dictate responses. They highlight policy dilemmas but do not resolve them.Similarly, Bell concurs that only, when governments lack purpose do television images ‘have a jolting effect.’ Some commentators have proposed that the television industry has not just been subject to globalising forces but is itself an agent of globalisation. “What we are seeing”, says Ted Turner, ‘is not just the globalisation of Television but also, through Television, the globalisation of the globe. How else to explain Kenyans, who lined up six-deep in front of electronics stores to watch footage of a war they had no soldiers fighting in?’ The CNN head is not alone in believing that through global media, people are gradually becoming detached from national allegiances and identities rooted in their particular locales, instead regarding themselves more as members of Marshall Mcluhan’s celebrated ‘Global Village’. Increasingly, a sense of community springs from empathy and not merely from geography; Television is helping to transform the world into a ‘single imagined community’ where shared humanity replaces nationality as the primary point of identification. But then there are very real limits to the globalisation of the media. Firstly, neither the Internet nor satellite Television plays a part in the lives of many ordinary citizens in much of the developing world. A huge swathe of the globe has as yet been bypassed not just by CNN but by the communications revolution itself. As Parker points out, ‘despite the global technological availability of the telephone, radio, airplane and automobile, well over half the planet’s population enjoys no routine access to them’.Their consumption requires money, and the globalisation of capital has done nothing to eliminate global inequalities in the distribution of wealth. An estimated 1.2 billion television sets in the world, even allowing for multiple users of many sets, still leaves a large number of television-less homes and communities. The global ‘information imbalance’ described by the developing world, via the UNESCO in the 1970s, has certainly not disappeared. As Hamid Mowlana reminds us, “what is global is not universal…global communication does not mean universal communication.” Secondly, contrary to optimistic expectations, electronic news gathering has not reduced the cost of news production. Keeping up with rapidly changing technology has raised costs, even if recording and editing equipment requires fewer operators and is more mobile. Covering foreign wars still does not lend itself to minimalism. In reporting the wars in former Yugoslavia, Martin Bell cautions that the minimum television crew still numbers seven. This is a far remove from the vision touted of a near-future in which the single ‘backpacking’ journalist, toting video-recorder and mobile dish, will wander around the most inhospitable war zones.Lastly, as for rolling news, a number of journalists complain that having to be constantly ‘on-call’ eliminated the time required for thorough news-gathering, for the amassing of information from different sources, and for weighing and evaluating evidence. Martin Bell thus concluded from his experience in Bosnia (where he daily reported for television and radio for the BBC) that: ‘More means worse. The multiplication of deadlines takes us away from the real world, and drives us back into our offices and edit rooms. It is safer there, and we may find reasons to stay.’ This view has been echoed across the Atlantic by ABC’s Ted Koppel: “putting someone on the air while an event is unfolding is clearly a technological tour de force, but it is an impediment, not an aid, to good journalism. Pressure of rolling news deadlines is likely to increase levels of ‘puppetry’ in journalism”. A phenomenon, much in evidence during the Gulf War, was that the lines of many star foreign correspondents were fed by earpiece from the HQ in Atlanta, New York or London, based on incoming agency reports.These then are some of the limitations of the modern day media. Beneficiaries of the communications revolution undoubtedly enjoy access to technology which has indeed collapsed time and space, but the quality of information that flows instantaneously around the connected world is open to question. Foreign correspondent Edward Girardet is not alone in suggesting that: ‘Despite having far greater access to an overwhelming surfeit of information than ever before, the public (and policy makers for that matter) may not really have a more enlightened command of the humanitarian State of affairs in Angola, Afghanistan, or even the Bronx’.

Keeping these limitations and issues in view, it needs to be mentioned that the study of war and the media is replete with paradoxes: of media simultaneously drawing some aspects of conflict into focus while keeping others resolutely out of frame; of having served equally to distance civilians from war as to transform them into its eyewitness spectators. More frequently, perhaps, endless media recycling of wars past have served over the century to encourage participation in a field of human endeavour which, as John Mueller reminds, ‘unlike breathing, eating, or sex is not something that is somehow required by the human condition.’ Mass media do less to mirror the world as it is than to shape a world as it should not be; a world where war too readily appears an inevitable outgrowth of human nature and still, after a long century of conflict, an appropriate form of dispute resolution. How media platforms should interpret their reactions and opinions? How media should adhere to the morality and responsibilities during war for the security of the nation and democracy. The responses of these questions are necessary.







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