The Gulf of Incomprehension

By Shipman, Tim | The Spectator, March 29, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Gulf of Incomprehension


Shipman, Tim, The Spectator


US Central Command, Doha, Qatar

The first clue that this would be a media war unlike any other came when dramatic pictures of fighting around Umm Qasr were beamed live from the battlefield into millions of homes last Sunday. Sky's Mark Bowden provided a graphic running commentary of fierce firefights with Saddam Hussein's irregular forces. Still fluttering in an air-conditioned draught at allied headquarters in Qatar was a US press release proudly announcing that the port had fallen. It was dated 4 p.m. the day before.

By my reckoning we have been told that Umm Qasr has come under coalition control on at least three occasions since then. Similarly, the 51st Iraqi division has surrendered and popped up to fight again. The pictures from more than 400 reporters embedded with allied units are a radical new departure for the coverage of war. But one thing hasn't changed. Military spin doctors are battling to put the best possible gloss on a conflict that could still go politically pear-shaped.

Which is where the Boys on the Base come in. I am one of 11 British press reporters spending all my waking hours at Camp As Saliyah outside the Qatari capital Doha -- home of US Central Command, General Tommy Franks and the international spin operation determined to sell the war to a sceptical public back home.

Where the embeds - 'inbreds' or 'sweaties' to us - can see only one confused corner of the battle space, we - the armchair generals - are supposed to provide the overview. While they are risking life and limb on the front line, the closest any of us has come to contact with the enemy was when one broadcaster twisted a testicle in a daring raid on a hotel gym and found his most treasured assets in the hands of an Iraqi doctor.

There is much that remains below the parapet, unseen by either of us. The relationship between the media and the military in this war is best described as the unspeakable in pursuit of the incomprehensible. The inevitable frictions between two groups of people who need each other and resent the fact are doubled by the jargon that turns bombing into `kinetic warfare' and the 'servicing' of targets. Sitting at ground zero of the media-management war you don't have to share John Pilger's view of the conflict to recognise the pertinence of his comment, `If journalism is the first draft of history, then history as well as truth is the first victim.'

Britain's senior Gulf commander Air Marshal Brian Burridge - or Brun Burrjjj, as his name appears on phonetic translations of General Franks's press briefings - says that he welcomes having a `cadre of reporters' at headquarters. The airman academic, who is happiest opining on the finer details of `effects-based warfare', is well 'serviced' with soundbites by Simon Wren, the former chief press officer at the Ministry of Defence. A close confidant of Alastair Campbell and veteran of the Afghan media war, Wren has become Whitehall's chief fireman ever since he was parachuted into the Transport department to clear up the collateral damage left by the Byers-Sixsmith affair.

The message is rigidly controlled. The media handlers in Qatar are in constant contact with Campbell, White House strategists and Victoria Clarke, the press chief at the Pentagon. Every morning they agree what information will be put out in London, Washington, Kuwait, and what the Boys on the Base can be told. The information we do get appears largely accurate, but much obfuscation is hidden behind the need for Op. Sec.: Operational Security.

Two hours before the shock-and-awe bombing campaign began we were told that the whole concept was nonsense. Senior sources guided us in the right direction when the land offensive began, but as the marines crossed the border British uniformed staff were still parroting the line, 'I can neither confirm nor deny anything.' It seemed cruel at that point to ask them what day it was, lest it forced them into a crisis of conscience. …

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