John Simpson on the Iraq war: ‘The statues falling always seemed too good to be true’

Photo op? The toppling of Saddam’s statue may have been stage-managed - PATRICK BAZ
Photo op? The toppling of Saddam’s statue may have been stage-managed – PATRICK BAZ

Twenty years ago today, Coalition forces began airstrikes in Iraq, marking the beginning of the second Iraq war. Waiting on the border, astonished troops of the US 7th Cavalry learned the war had begun not from their superiors, but from CNN’s Walter Rodgers. “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. Accompanying an invasion force of 160,000 troops were around 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 (1990–1), access and reporting were heavily restricted; the same was true of the Falklands War in 1982. Julian Barnes, a television critic during the latter conflict, said it was the worst-reported since the Crimean War, writing in the Guardian that “reports were censored, delayed, occasionally lost, and at best sent back by the swiftest carrier-turtle the Royal Navy could find.”

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. Though the soldier wasn’t seriously injured, 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 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.”

Terry Lloyd filming his last report before he was killed on day three of the conflict - Enterprise News
Terry Lloyd filming his last report before he was killed on day three of the conflict – Enterprise News

This was tragically 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. Unembedded journalists, deprived of the protection of troops around them, and in more danger of being misidentified as enemy combatants, were extremely vulnerable. As Simpson was to discover. On April 6, he was travelling with a small American special forces convoy when a US plane inadvertently attacked it.

“This 1000lb 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 an audio report by phone.

“I can’t remember who they were interviewing [on BBC News 24] at the time, someone like the Lib Dem defence spokesman, and they said “Can you wait?” And I barked down the line, “Look, there’s a lot of people dead here, it’s just happened, and I really think you ought to take me straight away.” They asked the poor Lib Dem guy ‘Do you mind waiting?’ and then I just started talking.” A little later, he filed another live report, this time with pictures of the grim devastation.

The vignette 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 12–24 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 Firdos Square, involved stage-management by American troops. Debate continues about how spontaneous the demonstration in Firdos 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 protestors. 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 close[ly] for comfort.”

In 1991, during the first Gulf War, the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote three essays about the conflict, later published together as The Gulf War Did Not Take Place. He argued that events in the Gulf were merely a simulation of war, because the outcome was predetermined by the imbalance of armed forces, and the information fed back to the public was carefully manipulated through the military’s control of the media. Twenty-two years later, the toppling of Saddam’s statue, shown around the world and heralded as the moment the Iraqi people threw off their shackles, was a stage-managed ending to an inevitable and predetermined coalition victory: a perfect crystallisation of Baudrillard’s assertion, in the second iteration of war in Iraq.

Simpson has covered conflicts for more than 30 years. He has seen technology alter the nature of war reporting – but 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’d 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 30.5bn 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 footage of the mythical “Ghost of Kyiv” shooting down Russian jets.

ITN cameraman Daniel Demoustier after an attack near southern Iraq in 2003 - REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
ITN cameraman Daniel Demoustier after an attack near southern Iraq in 2003 – REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

“There are endless stories coming from individual soldiers’ experiences,” Simpson says, “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… 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, otherwise you’re going to inevitably get a particular aspect of the view rather than the totality of it.”

Today, there are 6.92 bn smartphone users in the world (86 per cent of the global population) – almost double the number in 2016. (In 2003, there were practically none: the iPhone was four years off.) This means that there are potentially 7 billion citizen journalists out there, and news-gatherers can ill-afford to ignore them. But this resource is so vulnerable to falsification and misuse. Before the 2003 invasion, a number of journalists in America were put through boot camp by the military, to adequately prepare them for the challenge of being embedded with army units. It may well be that in the future, war correspondents are required to attend training of a different sort – concentrating not on improving their fitness, but on their ability to spot a fake social-media post from a real one.

The 2003 Iraq invasion saw an entirely new, intimate and immediate sort of war reporting. Only 20 years later, that new approach has already been overtaken by technology. But in a world of fake news, simulated videos, propaganda and personal opinions, it reminds us that it’s vitally important to have someone in a position to bring the whole story together in a coherent and truthful manner. In a world where anyone with a smartphone can be a journalist, we need war correspondents more than ever.

Published by anthonyhayble


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