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The Hollywoodisation of war: The media handling of the Iraq war

Alan Knight

Is this war going to make history by being the first to end before its cause is found?

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Geoff Meade, SKY TV (Meade 2003)

The media war over Iraq began with an ominous warning. US President, George W. Bush told journalists to leave Baghdad, because he could not guarantee their safety. 1 Events in Iraq had reached the “final days of decision”, he said. Saddam Hussein and his sons, like a gang of Hollywood rustlers, were given forty eight hours to get out of town.

Three days later the invasion of Iraq began.

This article considers the propaganda techniques deployed by both sides in the 2003 Iraq war as they sought to manipulate global coverage of events. It draws extensively on internet sources, in part because the fragmented reports from the field became in the end less important than the globalised whole which consisted of text, audio and television converging on the world wide web.


The first point of the code of conduct for International Federation of Journalists states “Respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth is the first duty of the journalist.” (IFJ Conduct of Journalists) Yet truth does not always ha ve quick victories in modern warfare where the battle for global opinion may be as intense as the contest of military technology.

Free speech comes at a cost. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported as Baghdad fell, that nine journalists had been killed during the Iraq invasion. i Some died in the heat of battle. Others may have been intentionally hit. Tareq Ayyoub, a Jordanian journalist with the Qatar-based satellite network Al-Jazeera, was killed when a U.S. missile struck the station’s Baghdad headquarters. His editor- in-chief, Ibrahim Hilal, said that the U.S. military had been previously advised of the bombed office’s co-ordinates. Witnesses saw the plane fly low over the building twice before the attack began. Jose Couso, a cameraman for the Spanish television station Telecinco, and Taras Protsyuk, from Reuters, died after a U.S. tank fired a shell at Baghdad’s Palestine Hotel; the source of international press reports from Iraq.

(Committee to protect Journalists, 2003)

Individual journalists are greatly disadvantaged in the struggle to find information, which may be in the public interest. They can be hemmed and hindered by vacillating employers, defamation and contempt laws, and hedged by opaque bureaucracies,In Western democracies meanwhile, journalists must contend with clever and pervasive manipulation by public relations operations, which try to turn major public events into infotainment. Six years ago I co-wrote a book about the Hong Kong handover, which examined how the British constructed a live television spectacle, which frequently overwhelmed issues resulting from turning an embryonic democracy to a totalitarian state. (Knight/Nakano, 1999) Viewers might have found the Iraqi war coverage bore a striking resemblance to live entertainment, with close ups of our team in action, running scores, retired players giving informed sideline commentaries, and even tank cam. But is war as entertainment, a result of unethical and partisan journalists reporting, or should it be seen as a result of wider manipulations, which recognise and exploit the weaknesses of journalism methodologies?

Both the Coalition and the Iraqis sought to influence and control reporting of the conflict.

Simple Messages

The Bush administration recognised the need for its own world-wide propaganda2 with the establishment of the Office of Global Communications (OGC). (Bush: 2003) Described as "public diplomacy," the Washington Post reported the OGC attempted to address the question President Bush posed in his speech to Congress the week after the terrorist attacks: "Why do they hate us?" (Washington Post 30.7.2002) The OGC was to advise US government agencies on reaching foreign audie nces with simple pro-US messages:

With State Department Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs remaining at the frontlines of international communications, Global Communications coordinates the work of many agencies and Americans to convey a few simple but powerful messages. These will be aimed to prevent misunderstanding and conflict, build support for and among United States coalition partners, and better inform international audiences. (OGC 2003)

In doing so, the OGC recognised the ability of globalised television networks and news agencies to rapidly juxtapose apparently divergent statements by US spokespeople located across different continents. Conventional journalism routinely seeks such contradictions, as a way of exposing untruths. To negate this journalism methodology, the OGC advised US officials to deliver similar, OGC scripted sound bites to questioning journalists.

To meet journalists’ demand for regular updates, delivering content for current stories, the OGC distributed a daily “facts sheet”, The Global Messenger, and co-ordinated “rapid response to allegations and rumors [sic] in the war on terror”.

This study examined thirty-nine “Iraqi Freedom” global messages placed on the web by the OGC in March and April 2003. This period spanned the most intense period of the fighting, including March 20 when the bombing of Bagdhad began and April 9 when American troops entered the capital in force.

Most consisted of eight to ten paragraphs contained on a single page. The messages were constructed with simple if emotive language, and delivered in script style with few quotations. They were intended to directly represent the unified voice of the US government. The material was systematically created around tendentious themes, aimed at securing support for the coalition war effort. The conflict was intentionally reduced to a contest between good and evil.

Coalition forces were characterised as freedom loving, working hard to avoid civilian casualties and seeking to protect religious diversity:

… the world has seen the nature of the young men and women who fight on behalf of our coalition. They are showing kindness and respect to the Iraqi people and are going to extraordinary lengths to spare the lives of the innocent. Our forces are delivering food and water to grateful Iraqi citizens. (Global Messenger 31.3 2003)

The Iraqi military were meanwhile depicted as brutal, tyrannical, corrupt, unethical and deploying “weapons of mass murder”:

The contrast could not be greater between the honorable [sic] cond uct of our liberating force and the criminal acts of the enemy. The world has also seen first hand the cruel nature of a dying regime. In areas still under its control, Saddam's regime continues its rule by terror. Prisoners of war have been brutalized and executed. Iraqis who refuse to fight for the regime are being murdered. Some in the Iraqi military have pretended to surrender, then opened fire on coalition forces that showed them mercy. (Global Messenger 31.3 2003)

Some messages were written in first person, designed to directly address Iraqis who were promised freedom. “We're coming with a mighty force to end the reign of your oppressors. We are coming to bring you food and medicine and a better life, and we will not relent until your country is free,” one message said as coalition forces closed in on Baghdad. (G.M. 2.4.03)

While none of the messages expressed other than fulsome support for the coalition’s invasion, one message did concede that support for the US was not universal among the Iraqi civilian population. Demonstrations against the coalition occupation were however given a positive spin:

In any totalitarian system, there will be a small portion of the population that profits from the power of the dictatorship, while some others may be ordinary citizens who are understandably uncomfortable with the presence of any foreign forces on their soil. A few weeks ago, there were no protests in Iraq. Now, Iraqis are speaking out, expressing opinions, discussing and debating the future of their country. They can do so because of the courage and determination of the Coalition forces. (G.M. 22.4.03)

The OGC represented the Iraqi resistance as “from remnants of Saddam’s death squads and foreign fighters”. It meanwhile accused the Iraqi regime of enga ging in propaganda aimed at unfairly influencing world media. The OGC coordinated themes and events to support President Bush's drive for Congressional and U.N. support for the war on the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein. It created the document, Apparatus of Lies: Saddam's Disinformation and Propaganda, 1990-2003. This paper claimed that false messages and images created by the Iraqis, reverberated around the world media:

An important priority of Saddam's deception apparatus is to manipulate the televised images the world sees. This is accomplished by controlling the movements of foreign journalists, monitoring and censoring news transmissions, disseminating old or fake footage, and carefully staging events or scenes. The regime's most cynical strategy is to actually cause severe civilian hardship or even deaths and then exploit the Iraqi people’s suffering by placing the blame on UN-imposed sanctions or other nations. (OGC 2003)

The OGC cited eleven “Main Tools of Iraqi Disinformation” :

• Staged suffering and grief

• Co-location of military assets and

• Restricting journalists’ movements

• False claims or disclosures

• False man- in-the-street interviews

• Self- inflicted damage

• On-the-record lies

• Covert dissemination of false stories

• Censorship

• Bogus, edited, or old footage and images

• Fabricated documents

The International Federation of Journalists condemned both sides in the Iraq invasion for "crimes of war" against journalists, which must be punished. "It is cruelly ironic that after the Iraqi regime plays cat-and-mouse with Al Jazeera, first banning them, then allowing them to stay, it appears they have been attacked by American forces," said Aidan White, the IFJ’s General Secretary. The IFJ said that this attack was a shocking mirror of the destruction of the Kabul offices of Al Jazeera by American forces during the war in Afghanistan. "It is impossible not to detect a sinister pattern of targeting," said White. (IFJ Media Release 8.04.2003)

Doha “Live”

Several hundred war correspondents saw out the campaign in the relative safety of Qatar, where the US Central Command (CENTCOM) established its headquarters. The portable CDHQ complex was self-contained and included everything required fo r sustained military operations. The portable military base had its own power distribution, office automation, computer networks, and communications connectivity-all housed within a comfortable, biological and chemical hardened work environment. (Raytheon, 3.02.2003)

Correspondent, Michael Massing, claimed that many of his fellow journalists were culturally and intellectually isolated in Qatar, getting most of their information from “TV, the Internet and their colleagues in the field”:

Part of the difficulty was that the reporters knew very little about the Middle East. Most had come to Doha from bureaus far afield – Washington, Mexico City, Rome, Brussels, Nairobi, Bangkok, Hong Kong. They were unfamiliar with Aran history, the roots of Arabic fundamentalism, the changes in the regional balance of power since September 11. Particularly serious was their lack of knowledge of Arabic. They could not speak with Arabic speakers directly, read Arabic newspapers, or watch Arabic news channels. (Massing 2003)

Hundreds of kilometres from the action, these CDHQ based journalists attended daily briefings staged by crisp and articulate American and British commanders. Sustained critical questioning was almost impossible in the competitive yet strictly controlled news conferences created to sustain an illusion of openness. The conferences were held within a military base with access restricted to accredited (security cleared) journalists. The presenter would appear with a prepared script on a stage designed to accentuate authority. Journalists competed with each other to ask questions. The presenter was able to terminate the process at any time. Australian Broadcasting Corporation Reporter, Johnathan Harley, said later that fact checking under these circumstances was impossible. Reporters became players on a stage set for global television:

Well it was a Hollywood-designed set. The US Forces spent a spectacular half-a- million dollars on what was supposed to be this grand presentation room and briefing room, with flat plasma screens and the whole kit and caboodle. But I must say I wondered where the money went, because it was fairly unimpressive, and even less impressive was the supply of information, and even the appearance of key figures. We heard at the top of the program there from General Tommy Franks, the Coalition Commander, who on his first press conference, I might add, not till the third day after combat operations began, promised that his podium would be one of truth and not propaganda. But unfortunately, we never heard from him, because he only made three appearances. Through the whole course of the month of main combat operations, the Commander of the Coalition only bothered to come to talk to the media on three separate occasions, and that was only in the first couple of weeks. We hardly heard from him in the latter half of the war. (Harley 2003).

Meanwhile, the process of embedding journalists with coalition military units gave journalists unprecedented if qualified access to the frontline. This however, may have been intended to produce the action sequences in the unfolding narratives the networks wove around the Doha briefing supplied plot.


CENTCOM’s Public Affairs Guidance on Embedding Media recognised that media coverage of the war would “shape public perception of the national security environment now and in the years ahead”. (Public Affairs Guidance, 2003) More than five hundred journalists who lived, worked and travelled with selected units, were promised minimum restrictions and maximum access to combat information. 3

Our ultimate strategic success in bringing peace and security to this region will come in our long-term commitment to supporting our democratic ideals. We need to tell the factual story—good or bad—before others seed the media with disinformation and distortions, as they most certainly will continue to do. Our people in the field need to tell our story—only commanders can ensure the media get to the story alongside the troops. We must organize for and facilitate access of national and international media to our forces, including those forces engaged in ground operations, with the goal of doing so right from the start. To accomplish this, we will embed media with our units. (Centcom 2003).

The embedding process generated hundreds of visually exciting yet disparate keyhole views of the war. Stitching these vignettes to create credible analyses took time, which was in short supply in a blitzkrieg. Embedded journalists were required to rely on military transport; a critical restriction in rapidly moving desert war. News organisations rejected claims that this reliance on the military would encourage familiarity and establish a confluence of interests. The Arizona Republic’s editorial wrote that embedded reporters were neither in bed with the military nor were they anti Bush:

The 24/7 coverage makes each skirmish appear equal in importance. Viewers get bombarded with conflicting reports. They lose context. (DeUriarte, Richard, 3.04.2003)

Embedding exploited television journalism practices, by allowing TV reporters to introduce themselves into the action, so they might be seen in the familiar role of news actors reporting from where the action was perceived to be taking place. In a recommendation which recognised television’s preference for good pictures over journalists’ analysis, Centcom’s guidelines encouraged reporters to attach “lipstick” cameras to their helmets; so that the audience might see the war through the eyes of a grunt or squaddy. In this instance, the perspectives of reporters who still might see the stories as their own could become irrelevant, as the audience entered the immediate reality of the soldier. ABC Correspondent, Geoff Thompson, who reported from an embedded front line, admitted to having a narrow view of the warfare:

Well what I tried to do is only really report what I saw first-hand. I had come context coming to me, listening to BBC World and what-have-you on the radio, but I really tried to just focus my reporting on what I saw and could confirm myself. And in a sense that was liberating because I wasn’t in the spin machine as such, and I wasn’t being spun stuff on the ground, because what people often don’t realise is that a lot of these – I was with the Marines, and it’s true of all, I think, US Forces, is that even at the relatively senior command level in the field, they don’t know anything. They’re not told anything. All they’re told is that they have to go and attack this position, or blow this thing up, they actually don’t know what the big picture is. So I just reported the advance that I was a part of, and that way, avoided a lot of the need to balance what they were telling me, because I knew it was fact because I was seeing it. So that’s the way I dealt with it. (Thompson 2003).

The military reserved its right to control “sensitive” information.ii Freelance journalists, who might have more opportunities to seek bigger pictures were discouraged. The International Federation of Journalists protested against "unacceptable discrimination" and restrictions being imposed on journalists covering the war in Iraq when they were not travelling with army units of the United States or Britain. Reports from journalists in Southern Iraq said that media staff who were not part of the "embedded" group of reporters travelling under the official protection of the military were being forcibly removed. (IFJ Media Release, 3.04.2003) ITN Journalist, Terry Lloyd died near Basra in southern Iraq when “the ITN team came under fire, apparently from Coalition forces”. (ITN 2003) The jeep in which they had been travelling had been clearly marked “TV”.

Reporting from Bagdhad

Journalists who chose to stay in Baghdad during the invasion were subjected to crude controls by the Baathist regime. Reporters without Borders reported that foreign journalists were subjected to of the obligatory presence of Iraqi official minders, of deliberate translation errors, e-mail surveillance and the theft of money, film and equipment by Iraqi frontier guards and soldiers. Those who sought to leave the Palestine Hotel to see what was going on beyond the organised bus tours were liable to arrest, imprisonment or expulsion. Christoph Maria Froeder, a German Investigative journalist was set upon by a crowd of angry Iraqi civilians. Iraqi information ministry officials then twice seized his equipment, videotapes and press cards. (Reporters without Borders, 9.04.2003)

This harassment of foreign journalists, whilst unacceptable, was mild compared to the torture and imprisonment previously inflicted by Baathists on domestic Iraqi journalists and critics. Even the Journalists Union acted as an arm of a state particularly intolerant of criticism. Saddam’s son, Uday Hussein was in 1992 “unanimously” elected as head of a union, used by the regime to issue editorial instructions:

At the end of the 1970s, the methods used to control and intimidate journalists became extremely violent. Judicial harassment, arrests, threats, prolonged detentions and incidents of torture and executions increased dramatically. From 1980 to 1988, the war with Iran served as a pretext for a complete take-over of the Iraqi media by the state. In 1986, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) passed an Order (number 840) signed by Saddam Hussein himself, that imposes adeath penalty on any person who insults or criticises the President, his entourage, the Ba'ath Party, the RCC, or even the government. (“The Iraqi Media”, Reporters without Borders, 2003)

Reporters without Borders’ Index of Press Freedoms rated Iraq as number 130 in a field of 139, in 2003. Iraq was not perceived as media friendly by most the journalists drawn there as war drew closer. The Sydney Morning Herald’s correspondent, Paul McGeough said the relationships between the foreign press and the Iraqi Information Ministry, was both vexed and tense:

… The Americans ran, if you like, a more sophisticated spin machine... The Iraqis ran a pretty backblocks operation. There was no sophistication to it. In fact it was a system that was run on intimidation and threat. I mean the constant threats to our visas, the amount of effort and energy that went in to just maintaining our visas which they would renew on a 10-day basis, which meant you would come out of one renewal process and go straight into the next, and all the time implicit in that was that ‘Your visa is at risk and we have a say over whether you stay here or not.’ On another level, the use of satellite phones, they would only let us use satellite phones from the government’s press centre, which the Pentagon had identified as a target to be bombed. (McGeough 2003)

It seemed that Iraqi media handlers were accustomed to journalists who were required to print whatever officials said. The lack of sophistication in Iraqi propaganda could be seen in the press relations pursued by the regime’s chief spokesman, Mohammed Saeed al- Sahhaf, the Iraqi Information Minister. Quoting “authoritative sources”, he told incredulous foreign journalists attending his news conferences that the Americans were being crushed even as their tanks rolled into Baghdad.

Mr Sahhaf's daily press briefings in Baghdad during the war, at which his statements were increasingly at odds with reality, made him a figure of fun in the West. He was dubbed "Saddam's optimist" and "Comical Ali" by media commentators, before disappearing as American forces entered central Baghdad. But he gained a wide following for his way with words; a website devoted to him crashed on launch when it was overloaded by thousands of people per second trying to log on. Even George W Bush admitted to being something of a fan, telling the US television station NBC that Mr Sahhaf was"great". (BBC News 26.6.2003)

Yet in the United States, there seemed little tolerance for reporters who consorted too closely with the “enemy”. The Pulitzer Prize winning Peter Arnett was sacked by the American NBC network and National Geographic magazine for speaking his mind on Iraqi national television. Arnett incorrectly predicted the US machine would bog down outside Baghdad. While Washington may have been prosecuting operation “Iraqi Freedom” the National Geographic Society did not appear to think this extended to freedom of speech. “The Society did not authorise or have any prior knowledge of Arnett’s television interview with Iraqi television,” it said in a statement, “and had we been consulted, would not have allowed it.” (MSNBC News, 31.3.2003)

In contrast, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox network news was accused by CNN founder, Ted Turner of being so partisan in its broadcasts that it actually campaigned for an invasion of Iraq. “He [Murdoch] promoted the war because it's good for his newspapers and good for his television and because he's a warmonger,” Turner told the San Francisco Commonwealth Club. (Turner 2003)

Meanwhile, the BBC’s Director General, Greg Dyke claimed that U.S. broadcasters' coverage of the Iraq war was so unquestioningly patriotic and lacking in impartiality that it threatened the credibility of America's electronic media. Mr Dyke said he was shocked by how unquestioning the broadcast news media was during this war”. He accused Fox News of “cheerleading” for the war. “If Iraq proved anything, it was that the BBC cannot afford to mix patriotism and journalism,”” he said. (ABC News 25.4.2003)

Even before the Iraq war began, veteran American CBS’s iconic news presenter, Dan Rather, claimed that he, like many other American journalists had been cowed by the “hyper-patriotism” which followed the September 11 terrorist attacks. Rather confessed during a BBC interview, that patriotism had held him back from asking tough questions. He said that he found himself telling himself, 'I know the right question, but you know what? This is not exactly the right time to ask it’ Rather described the syndrome as the intellectual equivalent of neck- lacing:

The belief runs so strong in both the political and military leadership of the current war effort that those who control the images will control public opinion. They realise what an entertainment-oriented society ours has become. Therefore one way of looking at it is quite natural, they would say to themselves: 'Hey, we've had the Hollywoodisation of the news, we have had the Hollywoodisation of almost everything else in society, why not the Hollywoodisation of the war? (Rather BBC 2002)


The sheer quantity and diversity of international coverage of the Iraq war almost defied conventional content analyses of work by individual reporters. A more comprehensive, international research project might follow created stories or digitally enhanced images from creator to consumer, to examine the penetration of propaganda into mainstream media.

However, a number of media handling practices have already become apparent.

Regular news conferences provided a steady diet of sanitized pictures and approved texts, establishing themes around which stories might be structured in sympathetic media. Accredited journalists were cosseted, while independent ones met with varying levels of interference, depending on the sophistication of the PR handlers.

The embedding process, a new technique presented as enhancing open coverage, helped make individual reporters’ views irrelevant, as military PRs recognised what every commercial television journalist already knew; pictures were more important than words.

In this war, as in the first Gulf war, television remained the major medium of information. Yet the electronic media’s technology driven desire for action and immediacy was a key weakness its ability to interrogate interna tional events. Spin controllers were aware that the international news spotlight would linger on Iraq for only a short time, before it moved on to new crises. If viewers could be distracted by created and controlled events staged during the period of intense global scrutiny, they might just later neglect to read the newspapers back pages where truths about the war should eventually unfold.

1“For their own safety, all foreign nationals, including journalists and inspectors, should unreliable communications, bribes, and threats. CNN’s Chief News Executive Eason Jordon wrote that CNN suppressed stories of Iraqi tortures, assassinations and even the abductions of their own Iraqi staff; because to do so would have jeopardised Iraqi lives. (Jordon, 2003)

2Propaganda : The systematic propagation of information or ideas by an interested party, especially in a tendentious way in order to encourage or instil a particular attitude or response. Oxford Dictionary. Vol 12. Oxford Press, Oxford. 1991. p632.



Dr Alan Knight is Chair of Journalism and Media Studies at Central Queensland University and President of CQU’s Academic Board. Together with Dr Yoshiko Nakano, he authored Reporting Hong Kong: How the foreign press covered the handover (London: Curzon Press, 1999). He also authored Reporting the Orient : Australian correspondents in Cambodia (Chicago: Xlibris 2001). Dr Knight is a former journalist, employed by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Australian Associated Press and Radio Television Hong Kong. He was appointed an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Asian Studies at Hong Kong University in 1994. His specialist areas of research include foreign correspondence, international news, radical media and eJournalism. Website:

i Terry Lloyd, ITV News Paul Moran, ABC Kaveh Golestan, BBC Michael Kelly, Atlantic Monthly, Washington Post, Christian Liebig, Focus, Julio Anguita Parrado, El Mundo, Tareq Ayyoub, Al-Jazeera, José Couso, Telecinco, Taras Protsyuk, Reuters ii The following categories of information are not releasable since their publication or broadcast could jeopardize operations and endanger lives.

4.g.1. Specific number of troops in units below corps/mef level.

4.g.2. Specific number of aircraft in units at or below the air expeditionary wing level.

4.g.3. Specific numbers regarding other equipment or critical supplies (e.g. artillery, tanks,

Landing craft, radars, trucks, water, etc.).

4.g.4. Specific numbers of ships in units below the carrier battle group level.

4.g.5. Names of military installations or specific geographic locations of military units in the Centcom area of responsibility, unless specifically released by the Department of Defense or authorized by the Centcom commander. News and imagery products that identify or include identifiable features of these locations are not authorized for release.

4.g.6. Information regarding future operations.

4.g.7. Information regarding force protection measures at military installations or encampments (except those which are visible or readily apparent).

4.g.8. Photography showing level of security at military installations or encampments.

4.g.9. Rules of engagement.

4.g.10. Information on intelligence collection activities compromising tactics, techniques or procedures.

4.g.11. Extra precautions in reporting will be required at the commencement of hostilities to maximize operational surprise. Live broadcasts from airfields, on the ground or afloat, by embedded media are prohibited until the safe return of the initial strike package or until authorized by the unit commander.

4.g.12. During an operation, specific information on friendly force troop movements, tactical deployments, and dispositions that would jeopardize operational security or lives. Information on on-going engagements will not be released unless authorized for release by on-scene commander.

4.g.13. Information on special operations units, unique operations methodology or tactics, for example, air operations, angles of attack, and speeds; naval tactical or evasive maneuvers, etc. General terms such as "low" or "fast" may be used.

4.g.14. Information on effectiveness of enemy electronic warfare.

4.g.15. Information identifying postponed or cancelled operations.

4.g.16. Information on missing or downed aircraft or missing vessels while search and rescue and recovery operations are being planned or underway.

4.g.17. Information on effectiveness of enemy camouflage, cover, deception, targeting, direct and indirect fire, intelligence collection, or security measures.

4.g.18. No photographs or other visual media showing an enemy prisoner of war or detainee's recognizable face, nametag or other identifying feature or item may be taken.

.g.19. Still or video imagery of custody operations or interviews with persons under custody.

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