Torin Douglas: Good journalism is set to suffer from war rhetoric

The print media have thus far been relatively restrained in its coverage of the US-Afghan stand-off. They might be well-advised not to stir things up, says Torin Douglas

Did you see the headlines? “Don’t mess with Dubya!” stormed the New York Post. “Brit jets join Bush’s blitz”, yelled The Sun. “RAF roar back on the attack”, screamed the Daily Mail. “80 planes blitz control posts” thundered The Times. No, these didn’t appear this week – or at least they hadn’t at the time of writing (though the word “blitz” is starting to creep in) – and they don’t refer to Afghanistan or any other putative hiding place of Osama bin Laden. Lest we forget, these headlines date back all of seven months, to a time when Public Enemy Number One referred to someone else.

Let The Sun explain. “We bomb Baghdad”, ran its triumphant headline on February 17. And inside: “RAF heroes join blitz on Saddam”. The Daily Mail was similarly gung-ho, booming “British jets blitz Saddam”, adding in smaller type: “RAF Tornados join American raid on Baghdad”. And, under a photograph of the President: “Bush wants untamed Saddam put in his cage.”

The US tabloids were equally vocal, with New York’s Daily News proving even more succinct than the Post: “Dubya zaps Iraq”. The broadsheets were naturally more restrained. “US and British jets strike air-defense centers in Iraq” was the splash in the New York Times, while The (London) Times couldn’t resist the alliteration of “Bush and Blair bomb Baghdad”.

So when The Sunday Times asked last weekend – as others have in recent days – “Why do they hate America?”, the answer wasn’t difficult. Indeed, in February, newspapers outside the US and UK were lining up against the “blitz on Baghdad”. The Sydney Morning Herald reported: “Reaction to the United States and British air strikes, the first so close to the capital for two years, ranged from dismay to hostility, even among some nations that took part in the Gulf War a decade ago at the urging of the former president George Bush. Russia and China have led a growing chorus of international concern over the raids, seen as threatening Middle East stability.”

The International Herald Tribune quoted the Russian army’s head of foreign relations as saying: “This is a barbarous, anti-humane act towards the populations of other countries. There was no military reason for carrying out the strikes.” Le Monde said: “Mr Bush should understand that the policy of bombardment and sanctions hurts no one more than the Iraqi people.”

The official Iraqi newspaper Al-Qadissiya called Mr Bush “the son of a viper” and “the new dwarf” and promised vengeance: “The savage crime will not pass unpunished and without decisive retaliation.”

The reason I recall the coverage so clearly is that I’d been asked to produce an analysis of “the language of journalism”, and I took reports of the Baghdad raids as my main source material. As the world prepares for retaliation over the attacks on the US, newspapers will play a crucial role in countries’ perceptions of the coming events and their peoples’ reaction to them.

The mood in the past two weeks has been more restrained than might have been expected, with papers soberly preparing their readers for large-scale conflict. Even the Daily Mail’s famous attack on the BBC’s “anti-American” Question Time – headlined “How the BBC shamed Britain” – was just that, a headline. Anyone who studied the whole double-page spread will have been struck by how balanced it was. It included a large article by Phillip Knightley, headed “Disturbing as it may be, the sad truth is that many people throughout the world DO hate America and what she stands for.” It was an object lesson in how emotive headlines can set the tone of entire pages, regardless of what is underneath.

But once the military response begins we are likely to see more of those “Dubya zaps…” and “RAF heroes join blitz” headlines, designed to stiffen the sinews and steel the nation’s resolve. Already there has been heavy crossfire between rival papers and columnists over the expression of “anti-American” views on Question Time and in

papers like the Guardian (dubbed the Daily Terrorist by Andrew Neil).

As Brian MacArthur of The Times observed: “The vituperation heaped on Guardian columnists in the past week has been more violent than during any crisis, including the Falklands and the Gulf War, since 1956.” That was when the Observer and the (then Manchester) Guardian led the opposition over Suez. Nowhere has the debate been fiercer than in The Times’ own pages, where Michael Gove stormed that “evil has found its apologists in our midst… overwhelmingly in the Guardian” only to see his views decried as “bloodthirsty silliness” by fellow-columnists Matthew Parris and Simon Jenkins.

This debate will get more heated now that we face the possibility of surrendering some civil liberties, including the possible introduction of identity cards for the first time since the Fifties. In those circumstances, the question of how far newspapers should be allowed to question the Government’s policies in time of war will be raised once again – to be met, no doubt, with the rejoinder that such freedom of expression is what we will be fighting for.

And all this in the knowledge that, commercially, newspapers – like all media – will suffer badly from the coming conflict. Though millions of extra copies were sold in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks, and the UK papers demonstrated their superiority over those in America – with a stunning use of pictures and the breadth and depth of their writing and analysis – that was the silver lining.

We have yet to see the full extent of the cloud.

Torin Douglas is media correspondent for BBC News

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