Perspective: Are We Ready for More?; It Started with Vietnam, Got More Intensive in the Falklands and Reached New Heights in the Gulf. Now Any Conflict with Iraq Could See the Media Occupying Front-Line Positions Alongside Elite Troops. Paul Groves and Steve Gorman Ask If We Are Ready for Such Coverage

Article excerpt

Byline: Paul Groves and Steve Gorman

The colour footage of carpet bombing, napalm attacks and the grainy photographs of civilian casualties of the Vietnam war set a benchmark for future conflicts.

The role of the media in war has continued to develop. The brutal reality of war was brought into American living rooms during the 1960s and arguably created the public backlash against the conflict that has seen the US attempting to sweep Vietnam under the carpet ever since.

In the 1980s it was the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland Islands that kick-started another television revolution. Coverage of Britain's successful campaign to recapture the far-flung outcrop brought a new realism to such reporting.

Images of that conflict still longer in the memory, such as casualties from a British vessel hit by enemy aircraft rowing themselves ashore or troops yomping across a barren wasteland and right into Port Stanley to liberate the islands. Also, Brian Hanrahan's 'I counted them all out and I counted them all in' line remains one of the quotes of the decade, if not the century.

The media then went into overdrive during the Gulf War and we saw the final few seconds of missiles racing towards the ground before obliterating Iraqi targets as we sat drinking our cups of tea at home.

Coverage of the US-led war on terrorism in Afghanistan was on a similar level. But the difficulty of the terrain and refusal to co-operate by US-led forces made it almost impossible to provide front-line reporting, despite John Simpson's liberation of Kabul on behalf of the BBC.

However, any conflict with Iraq will see a whole new dimension brought to war reporting.

Television viewers accustomed to watching war played out through high-altitude footage of 'smart bombs' might see something very different if the United States invades Iraq - live combat troops in action.

After tightly curbing media access to military operations in Grenada, the 1991 Gulf War and again in Afghanistan, the Pentagon plans to let journalists accompany front-line soldiers should US-led armed forces move in to topple Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The US Defense Department has even provided 'boot camp' training to prepare journalists for the rigours and hazards of working in a war zone where exposure to biological or chemical weapons is a possibility.

Broadcast news crews and their audiences also will benefit from improved communications gear, including satellite uplinks, that is smaller and more portable than 12 years ago.

American television networks are generally enthusiastic about plans to 'embed' American and foreign journalists with the US military's air, sea and land units, saying it marks a big step forward in relations between the Pentagon and the news media.

Mindful that the public remains deeply sceptical about going to war, Pentagon officials have said it is in their interests to provide Western news media access to combat zones to counteract the potential for Iraqi disinformation that could be distributed by Arab news outlets.

The Defense Department insists that journalists will be free to report on all aspects of the war, including civilian casualties and 'friendly fire' incidents, without subjecting their stories to prior review or editing by military censors.

'It's a sea change of attitude in granting us access, and it's a bold step, and I think they're serious about it,' said Robin Sproul, the Washington bureau chief for ABC News. 'It should show the public a view of war that they haven't really seen before.'

But are we ready for such coverage? Psychologist Simon Hammersley believes the average television viewer can make the distinction between fact and fiction without a second thought.

However, he is concerned at the increasingly graphic depiction of certain issues and stories in the media and the long-term impact this could have on viewers. …