Winning a television war

Does invasive television win wars? Or does the rendering of the truth in all its grime and gore fly in the face of the ‘official’ truth? Sally Brooks investigates…

It seems that the Second Gulf War is swiftly becoming the undoing of Tony Blair, but where did he go wrong?
After the Falklands conflict, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s position in the opinion polls rocketed – in fact, she probably won her second term of office because of her military victory.

Before the Falklands conflict she was, in the words of John O’Farrell in his book ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, “about as popular as a swarm of killer bees and she would soon be history. Nothing, we thought, was going to transform her popularity overnight – at least nothing short of her single-handedly winning a war. And that wasn’t about to happen, was it?”

Tony Blair seems to have got it all back to front.

He has been riding high on the opinion polls more or less since he gained office – largely due to no real constructive opposition.

It seems that whatever the recent Gulf conflict achieved, it has only done Blair more harm than good in the wake of the ‘sexed-up’ dossier case and the sensational suicide of Dr. David Kelly, a senior adviser to the British Ministry of Defence.

There is a large difference between the Falklands conflict and the recent Gulf conflict, and that is television.

Think of television images of the Falklands conflict.

If you are thinking of Goose Green after the liberation, you are bang on target. Because that was one of the few television images of the war that was shown to the public.

Goose Green was a crucial strategic objective the British troops won against an overwhelming Argentine force paving the way for the capture of the Falklands capital, Port Stanley.

The battle for Goose Green, won even after four battleships were ships were sunk by the Argentine air force, also saw Colonel H Jones go down in a counterattack on enemy gunfire. Jones led the Second Parachute Regiment, which took Goose Green.

Thatcher wanted ‘good news’ and that is what she got.

In the words of Michael Nicholson, “the impression we got was that she expected us to report ‘the good news war.’”

The government had total control over media access to the South Atlantic mainly on account of its distance from the UK.

Initially, there were to be no reporters going out to the Falklands with the Royal Navy who would have preferred to produce their own news.

This was greeted with violent lobbying from the nation’s press and Thatcher was forced to allow a mere 29 journalists to go.

But what about photographers? Well, there were even fewer of them.

News programmes showed battle pictures drawn by war artists – the likes of which hadn’t been seen for several decades.

Harry Hodgson, who was BBC Radio News Editor at the time, believed this was a calculated decision because the government were afraid “there might be a Vietnam syndrome and people would be unable to cope with pictures of the British dead and dying.”

‘Bad news’ stories were buried or delayed while victories were emphasised on Margaret Thatcher’s orders.

For example in the first few days of the campaign, two helicopters full of troops crashed on the way to the South Atlantic.

There were no fatalities, but it was decided that this fact would be kept from the British public and only came out later by mistake.

The picture of the sinking British ship ‘The Antelope’ (just before Goose Green) had no priority placed on it, while pictures of troops drinking tea with liberated islanders were heavily emphasised.

So are the fears of Vietnam waning?

It has been acknowledged rightly or wrongly by many politicians that television lost the Vietnam War for the United States.

Thatcher took this fact to heart in her dealings with the press during the Falklands conflict.

The recent Gulf conflict has given more televised footage of combat than ever before.

‘Watching the war’ became a full-time hobby for many as television networks vied for the best images and stories.

The true reality of war, or so it seemed, was relayed into our living rooms several hours a day for each day of the conflict.

The number of journalists in the Gulf dwarfed the handful sent out to the Falklands.

Does this mean that we got at more of the truth?

And is this why Tony Blair is suffering?

Perhaps if he had allowed only 30 journalists out to the Gulf he could have massaged the news into something more in his favour.

But in this day and age no government would entertain the idea of limiting journalist numbers to a region.

Journalists are more openly critical of the government’s handling of conflicts, and reports tend to be less jingoistic than they were in 1982.

With no clear and obvious solutions to the situation in Iraq, and with troops still losing their lives, opposition to the war continues.

Comparisons to Vietnam are unavoidable.

Perhaps if Thatcher had been Prime Minister in this war in 2003, she may have lost what little credibility she had left in this climate of investigative and critical journalism.

Or maybe, just maybe, Prime Minister Blair believes in the truth even if it means showing us that war hurts and politicians make mistakes sometimes.

Maybe it is simply a question of integrity. And maybe this is Vietnam all over again.

It seems a television war is very difficult to win.