Focus: Lights, Camera, War Reporters and Their Crews Are Staking out Positions for Gulf War II. the Ratings Battle Has Only Just Begun
Raymond Whitaker/Paul McCann, The Independent (London, England)
THE NEXT Gulf conflict has already begun - not in the skies over Baghdad, but on the roof of a hotel in Kuwait City. Television news teams preparing for the possible confrontation with Saddam Hussein have been battling for vantage points on the top of the Sheraton, both to feed their pictures to the Indian Ocean satellite and to place their correspondents against the most picturesque backdrop. Lines of tape divide the BBC's territory from that of CNN, ABC from CBS.
"CNN didn't like the position they had, so they built a platform on their space," said a BBC man. "That got in the way of Newsforce (a freelance TV facilities company), so they built upwards as well. If Newsforce put a canopy on their structure, it's going to block us."
The baggage carousels at Kuwait airport are filled with electronic equipment as the TV baronies build up their forces, but they will have to go a long way to catch up with the hydra-headed BBC. Lord Gilbert, the latest British minister to visit Kuwait, was bemused when every question at his press conference seemed to come from some arm of the BBC - Radio 4, News 24, World Service television, World Service radio. "Surely you can't be from the BBC as well," he said to a man in Arab robes. "I am, actually," the man replied apologetically. "Arabic Service." At that point the BBC contingent did not include Radio 5 Live, but now they are here as well. In another Birtist touch, the Beeb is in competition with Newsforce to sell television facilities to anyone that wants them. The technology of reporting, however, has moved on since Kuwait last saw such an influx of journalists, during the Gulf war seven years ago. With power supplies and the telephone network smashed, the only way of communicating with the outside world then was by satellite phones the size and weight of a tin trunk filled with bricks. Now everyone has a mobile telephone on their belt that can link with anywhere in the world, and the satphones brought as emergency back-up weigh no more than a laptop computer. The "brand name" for this war - Desert Thunder - has already been chosen. The equipment to deliver it to the living-rooms of the world is in place. The only problem for the swelling army of correspondents is that there is little to report so far. A press centre was set up nearly a week ago at the Sheraton, which is why everyone wants their satellite dishes on the roof, but American military information officers did not arrive until much later, and then provoked a near-riot with their restrictive ground rules and inability (or unwillingness) to give any information. "Welcome to the Desert Blunder press room," read a notice stuck to the board by a disgruntled reporter. It was soon removed. THE LATEST cause of enmity between military and media is the enthusiasm of the 400 reporters currently in Kuwait to watch 6,000 fresh Marines arrive in the kingdom this week. This works out at one reporter for every 15 soldiers, and the military wants to avoid the frankly ridiculous scenes that accompanied Marine landings in Somalia. Then troops crawled ashore in night camouflage while being filmed by rows of cameramen with high- powered lights. The reason for this frenzied mobilisation is obvious. War makes compulsive viewing and to the winner in the coverage battle goes a substantial prize. CNN made a global name for itself with its reports from Baghdad last time around. Its advertising revenues increased by 28 per cent during the war and the reporter Peter Arnett became a global pin-up as a "Scud Stud" - despite questions about the deal he did with the Iraqis that allowed him to stay and use their military communication systems to get his pictures out. This time CNN has two satellite trucks in Baghdad and 70 people dotted around the Middle East. It estimates its coverage will cost $1m (pounds 610,000) a week. But for CNN this will be no rerun of the last war. Even Sky News has eight staff and a satellite truck in Baghdad. …