War and the Media

21 02 2007

This book is a collection of articles by journalists and academicians analysing the role of the media in conflict situations. This review was published in 2005.

War and the Media: Reporting Conflict 24/7, Daya Kishan Thussu, Des Freedman (eds.), Vistaar Publications, New Delhi, 2003, pp. xiii+266. (ISBN: 81-7829-333-1(India-PB)).

Sometime in November 2005 reports emerged that US President George W. Bush had contemplated bombing the headquarters of the Arab TV channel Al-Jazeera. Reportedly, the leader of the free world wanted to take this precipitate action to stop the broadcasting of reports which ‘inflamed’ the Arab world against the US/UK occupation of Iraq and ‘gave further impetus’ to terrorism. Whatever the reasons, thankfully this criminal and foolish act was not carried out.

Despite this ‘news item’ getting washed away by the daily tide of breaking news, it will remain a stark reminder to the central role the media plays, and is perceived to play, in modern warfare.

The media, or press, as it was known before the advent of audio-visual news, has always been an important part of modern warfare. It has partnered nationalism in raising support for wars and helped resistance movements sustain morale. But it is now a common refrain among the chatterati to complain of the growing complicity of the media, specially the mainstream variety, with State power and political bias. But those who think they have discovered a new partiality in the role of the media are perhaps being a bit too naïve in imputing originality to the original sin.

But the media has witnessed large-scale transformations in the past decade and more, both in its internal structure as well as in its role in society at large. And nowhere has this transformation been more visible than in the reporting of war. Therefore, the present book under review is an important read, not only for those interested in the business of the media, but for citizens concerned about what this transformation means for the future of this important pillar of liberal democracies.

The book itself has contributions both from journalists who have experience in reporting on war as well as from academicians and intellectuals who have analysed these efforts from a distance. The contributors’ range is also laudable for the ideological and political spaces which these cover. From known Marxist critics like Aijaz Ahmad to BBC World anchor Nik Gowing to CNN reporter Kieran Baker, the book has contributions which span the entire range of opinion on the different aspects of media reporting on war. It also has an interesting article by Yvonne Ridley, former chief reporter of the British paper Sunday Express, who was captured by the Taliban while reporting the war in Afghanistan in September 2001.

Much of the arguments put forward in analysing the role of the media in reporting war are well known and have been part of public debates over the last decade. The transformation of war into a video game simulacra, the coagulation of the media and military-industrial empires through the workings of international capital, the growth of sensationalism riding on the pressures of inherent in the 24X7 model of news delivery and the parallel strains of explosion of media content with the implosion of diversity in opinions are all covered with reasonable ability.

Reading this book towards the end of 2005 the book does feel somewhat dated. Despite the abiding relevance of the issues covered, Iraq and its coverage has been a watershed in media affairs. The dialectics of technology, corporate control and democratisation of the medium has unravelled itself in and through the coverage of the Iraq war.

Let us take just one example. The first few years of the present century have seen some of the largest media consolidations with the control of a majority of the global media outlets resting with half-a-dozen men. This has implied immense power in the hands of those who are able to leverage this concentration of media ownership. But parallel to this, and largely fuelled by the same market impulses which have driven media consolidation, has been the explosion of the internet. The ease with which news, often radically alternative to the one dished out by the main media, can be put on a public domain and be accessed globally has removed the ground under the feet of traditional media sources. While it is as yet a nascent trend, and the actual power of the mainstream media controlled by corporate houses continues, it is also quite evident that this is an unstoppable trend which will forever alter the way news is produced and received and accepted.

Despite its slight datedness, this is a book which should be read by all those who are interested in furthering their understanding of the structure and role of the media in our societies.

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