The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
‘The statues falling in Iraq always seemed too good to be true’
In 2003, the relationship between media and military changed forever, as the BBC’s John Simpson recalls to
Twenty years ago today, Coalition forces began air strikes in Iraq, marking the beginning of the second Iraq war. Waiting on the border, astonished troops of the US 7th Cavalry learnt that the war had begun not from their superiors, but from Walter Rodgers on news channel CNN. “CNN viewers in the United States and around the world,” Rodgers proudly told his viewers, “actually knew about the attack on Baghdad… before any of the soldiers here in the field.”
So began the most televised war in history to date. An invasion force of 160,000 troops was accompanied by about 700 embedded reporters – journalists assigned to travel with specific military units during conflict. The level of co-operation between military and media was unprecedented. In the first Iraq war (1990-91), access and reporting were heavily restricted; the same was true of the Falklands war in 1982. In 2003, things were different. Viewers back home were able to watch events unfold with astonishing immediacy. Early in the conflict, an embedded Sky News crew filmed a nocturnal British assault on Iraqi positions. Troops entered a building, killed the Iraqi soldiers, and exited. One British soldier was set on fire just feet from the reporter, who kept broadcasting. The reality of battle was being conveyed in the most visceral manner.
The BBC had more journalists in Iraq than any other British organisation, with 16 embedded reporters plus more in Baghdad. But John Simpson, the BBC’s world affairs editor, declined the opportunity to embed, choosing to operate independently in northern Iraq. “I have a real dislike of reporting on the activities of the people on whom I’m dependent for protection, transport, food and satellite contact,” he tells me.
“I don’t criticise embedded colleagues of mine, because they
Photo op? The toppling of Saddam’s statue may have been stage-managed
provided some of the best coverage of the war. It’s just that I personally am not terribly happy about having that dependence on the people I’m supposed to be reporting on. So I wandered out into the middle of it, as many other journalists did. The price that was paid was quite a high one, in terms of casualties and deaths.”
This was illustrated on the third day of the conflict, when two unembedded ITN vehicles were caught in US-Iraqi crossfire. Reporter Terry Lloyd and interpreter Hussein Osman were killed, while French cameraman Frédéric Nérac was declared missing, presumed dead.
Simpson discovered the dangers himself. On April 6, he was travelling with a small American special forces convoy when a US plane inadvertently attacked it. “This 1,000lb bomb had dropped – we paced it out afterwards – 14 paces from where I was standing. I couldn’t believe I was still alive.” His translator, Kamaran Abdurazaq Muhamed, who was standing beside him, was killed, along with 17 others. In the immediate aftermath, with blood
running from his ear, and shrapnel in his face and legs, Simpson filed a live audio report by phone. A little later, he filed another live report, this time with pictures of the grim devastation.
The story is not just testimony to Simpson’s professionalism, but an indication of how TV reporting had changed. In the Falklands war, there were no TV pictures shown on British television for 54 of the 74 days the conflict lasted. In the first Iraq war, it had been possible to file an audio report by phone, but pictures were recorded on videotape and sent by car to Jordan, resulting in a 12- to 24-hour delay. Now, cameras could transmit images directly from the desert battlefield.
Furthermore, there were live news channels waiting to report as soon as footage became available. In 1991, the only 24-hour news channel was the fledgling Sky News, transmitting to a small number of homes and dismissed as largely irrelevant. By 2003, Sky News, BBC News 24 and ITV News were all broadcasting non-stop to the majority of British homes. The war saw their viewing figures go through the roof: ITV News by 400 per cent, BBC News 24 by 500 per cent and Sky News by 820 per cent.
But were audiences getting the full picture? While few journalists complained about being censored, they were at the mercy of the military, who had control of where they went and what they saw. The American military’s media briefings were opaque and secretive. Meanwhile, unembedded journalists were treated with suspicion bordering on hostility. On April 3 2003, the International Federation of Journalists protested against “unacceptable discrimination” and restrictions being imposed on those journalists not travelling with Coalition units. Reports from southern Iraq said that media staff who were not embedded were being forcibly removed.
Even the defining moment of the invasion, the toppling of Saddam’s statue in Baghdad’s Firdos Square on April 9, involved stage-management by US troops. Debate continues about how spontaneous the demonstration in the square really was, and whose idea it was to topple the statue, but the noose that was placed around Saddam’s neck was an American rope, placed there by American soldiers, along with an American flag (subsequently removed and replaced with an Iraqi one). Meanwhile, broadcasters chose to use close-up shots to imply that the square was rammed with protesters. The BBC’s Paul Wood, who reported on the toppling of the statue, said a year later that “the wide shot from those on the roof of the Palestine Hotel, 150 metres away, seemed to show [Firdos] Square almost empty.”
Simpson didn’t arrive in Baghdad until the following day, but believes there was a degree of choreography involved. “Everywhere I went in Iraq during those days, people were pulling down statues – it wasn’t something that was set up by the Americans to show a false picture. But there was always that sense in which it seemed to be a bit too good to be true, that sequence… It fitted the American playbook just a little bit too closely for comfort.”
Simpson has covered conflicts for more than 30 years and has seen technology alter the nature of war reporting, but he argues that the problems of understanding the overall picture remain. “If you go all the way back to the Crimea and William Howard Russell [one of the first great war reporters], he had seen the entire Battle of Balaclava  and he talked to those involved. That night, he began a 30,000-word report and got loads of things wrong, or misunderstood things. That misunderstanding, that lack of an overall view, is always going to happen in any war.”
Today, getting such an “overall view” is further hampered by the advent of social media. The Arab Spring uprisings and the Syrian civil war were all over Facebook and Twitter. And the invasion of Ukraine has been called “the first TikTok war”. In the first three weeks of that conflict alone, videos on TikTok tagged #Ukraine surpassed 30.5billion views. Content poured in from civilians on the ground and troops at the front line – but much of it was inaccurate, with videos of unrelated explosions posted as if from Ukraine, and video-game footage passed off as real, such as film of the mythical “Ghost of Kyiv” shooting down Russian jets.
“There are endless stories coming from individual soldiers’ experiences and, because they appear on your phone, there’s a tendency to believe that they represent the totality of it, instead of one small local picture,” says Simpson. “Technology has given us the opportunity to see things as they’re happening, but it’s still that same old business that you actually need some context to place around it.”
Before the 2003 invasion, a number of journalists in America were put through boot camp by the military to prepare them for the challenges of being embedded. Twenty years on, it may be that they are soon required to attend training of a different sort – concentrating on their ability to spot a fake social-media post from a real one. Today, in a world where anyone with a smartphone can be a journalist, we need war correspondents more than ever.
Compare the Falklands war – for 54 of its 74 days, no TV pictures of it were shown in Britain