15 May 2007

Who will give the true picture?

The negativity of the British media in its reporting of our activities in Iraq continues to be a serious problem, not helped by the fact that it is bolstered by our very own Members of Parliament. We take another look at this issue.

It was not so very long ago that we wrote a piece entitled What if we won and nobody noticed, followed in short order by a piece called Ignore the good news, all pointing to the manifest negativity in the media reporting of the events in Iraq.

These are now joined by a detailed piece on the same theme in American Thinker, written by Gerd Schroeder, currently a Major in the US Army. In writing his piece – which includes a fascinating analysis of the treatment of the power shortages in Iraq, he starts with these comments:

The US mainstream media are failing to provide the public the context it needs to accurately understand both the successes of our progress in Iraq. They do this either purposely or through incompetence and/or lack of intellect. I know many members of the media, and none of them lack intellect or are incompetent.
The tragedy is, as we have indicated in our own pieces, that what applies in the US applies equally to the UK. And, for an egregious example of media negativity, you need only look in The Sunday Times last weekend.

In that edition, there was a reference to the recent post by Michael Yon in which he described a professionally executed counter-ambush by the British Army, successfully taking out insurgent bomb layers.

In his own piece, Yon started with an observation that any perception that British forces had it easy in Basra was wrong. "In the nearly three weeks I've been here," he wrote, "I've seen more mortar and rocket attacks than during my cumulative time in Iraq." He the concluded with the words, "During one recent mission eight roadside bombs exploded and vehicles trailing us were struck, with tragic consequences. For the first time I witnessed our British brothers experience the loss of comrades in combat."

When it came to the Sunday Times, however, there was no mention at all of the British success. All we saw was the top and tail, conveying an unremittingly negative picture.

Thus is was yesterday that our parliamentarians took up the general issue of the British presence in Basra, during defence questions. Liam Fox, the Tory opposition spokesman started off with a question on the Mahdi army and the status of Moqtada al-Sadr, its leader. That elicited a response for defence secretary Des Browne, outlining the problems and, of particular relevance here, this statement:

In the south of Iraq, where we have forces deployed, a competition is going on - including, among others, the militia of the Mahdi army - for influence. That fact that we stand between them and the effect that they could have on the people of that part of Iraq, especially the city of Basra, causes them to attack us so frequently. That is why we treat them as we do, and we have had significant successes over the past month or so in dealing with them in that community…
The crucial phrase here is: "we have had significant successes over the past month or so", as indeed readers of this blog (but not the MSM) will be aware. But that slid past Edward Leigh, Tory chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and of the right-wing Cornerstone group. Success, he would not have. "Everyone knows…", he said:

…that the incoming Prime Minister will ensure that all British troops have left by the time of the next general election. Whatever else is said, let us be honest about one thing: this is a political decision. Why do we persist in an illusion? Whether we get out in a month's time, a year's time or two years' time, there will be a mess after we leave. The only difference will be that more British troops will die. That is the reality on the ground. We are now the target - the magnet - for terrorists, particularly those from Iran. Why will the Secretary of State not be honest with the House and say that we have acted honourably, we have done our bit, and we should now withdraw?
Then we got Richard Younger-Ross, the Lib-Dem MP for Teignbridge, who then tasked the defence secretary with this question:

For 18 months, military commanders have been advising that the mere presence of British troops is provoking violence. How much provocation do our troops have to give before the Secretary of State will bring them home?
Des Browne put him straight, but need not have bothered. "Military commanders have been advising nothing of the sort," he said.

…what is happening in southern Iraq is a competition between the militia for political or economic advantage. In Basra city and its immediate surroundings, we are what stands between the militia and the damage that they would do to the people of Basra city. We attract the preponderance of the attacks because we stand between them and their objectives, but we hold that position until the Iraqi security forces, particularly the army, are able to take over from us. Increasingly, during the transition in Basra city, they have proved able to do that. We are not the cause of the problem; the militia are the cause of the problem. We just happen to be the people who stand between them and their intentions.
Yet, that, if anything, is as fair a summary as you can get of the current situation, and when it comes to successes, we not learn that, over the weekend, while these hypercritical MPs were tucked up safely in their constituencies, British troops were out and about in Basra scoring what the MoD website calls "a double success", mounting a series of raids which brought the discovery of a significant number of weapons and bomb-making equipment.

The one thing you can be sure of though, these MPs who profess to be so supportive of our troops will neither be aware of this, nor really care. Such news does not fit their "narrative".

Neither are they likely to grieve over the news that a Danish soldier was killed the following day and five other Danes and an Iraqi interpreter were injured in a gunbattle and roadside bomb attack on their armoured personnel carrier. Were they too "the magnet for terrorists"?

Strangely, it is the much-maligned Reuters which provides the answer to that. In a long report, which is worth reading in full, it warns that Basra could erupt into all-out war between rival Shi'ite groups seeking control of its vast oil wealth as British forces prepare to draw down. Furthermore, the power struggle between factions of the Shi'ite majority, it says, threatens to affect oil exports accounting for virtually all of Iraq's income.

That and much more – effectively supporting Des Browne’s summary – says that the British presence in Basra is vital, protecting the very economic well-being of Iraq. And, only today, The Telegraph records that Iraqi president Jalal Talabani told Tony Blair during a recent meeting that, "British troops are welcome in Iraq. They should stay".

This really does need to be reflected in the media and by our elected representatives. According to Gerd Schroeder, an information campaign is what is needed. Accurate, meaningful information that spans the full spectrum of subjects, including good news as well as bad, he writes, is critical to getting a true picture of the war.

Writing from the American perspective, his view is that if the information is slanted too far one way as it is now, the consequence will not just be defeat of the US, but could lead to mass murder and instability throughout the Middle East, Africa and the world at large. "That does not mean that it will happen," he adds, but an American defeat would have a chilling effect on our allies and embolden our enemies."

Interestingly, Schroeder dismisses the idea of focusing only on good news reporting. That would inevitably lead to laziness and complacency, obscure mistakes and inhibit the correction of mistakes. Thus, he concludes:

It is a balance that will not be reached via unbiased reporting. It is reached by the left and right pulling against each other to reach equilibrium. The moderates accomplish nothing; they sit and watch. We need the left to motivate the right to make progress as much as the left needs us to motivate them in the same way. The problem lies not with the media's left of center standing. The problem lies with the lack of effort on the part of the right of center people to counter the left. This is how balance is found. The right needs to cowboy up and counter the media.
And here we have our own unique problem. Mr Edward Leigh, who spoke so volubly in Parliament against the continued presence of British troops, is a leading right-winger.

Who then is going to give the "true picture" of the war?

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See also The Augean Stables.