The Importance of Media During Wartime

Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion

BOOK REVIEW  by Théo CORBUCCI  •  Published 21.03.2011  •  Updated 24.03.2011
book cover
Why and how did the American and British administrations lose the “hearts and minds” of the Arab world? Royal Navy Commander Steve Tatham presents some answers.

Title: Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion

Author(s): Steve Tatham

Editor(s): Hurst & Company

Release Date: 01.01.2006

Summary

Every armed intervention, every military conflict drags in its wake a host of journalists from around the globe. They are there to analyze the balance of forces and report, from day to day, on the situation in the field. Reporters and the military are regularly forced to brush elbows, which produces new standards and new codes that change how each side works. These standards and codes, as customary as they may be, are nevertheless evolving: contemporary media history highlights key events that have revolutionized the interactions between the media and the military. More importantly, relationships between the media and the public, and between the public and the military have also changed to varying degrees. Take, for instance, the Vietnam War[+] NoteFor Dominique Wolton, "the Vietnam War was a highly publicized war, television pictures have even played a vital role in America’s defeat.” See online Traitement de la guerre par les médias, guerre et déontologie.X [1], the episode of the mass grave in Timisoara (1989)[+] NoteSee, for example, Ignacio Ramonet, Télévision nécrophile, Le Monde Diplomatique, 03/90.X [2], the Gulf War (1990-1991)[+] Note“[With the invention of pools,] the military staff can reconcile two requirements: ensuring the journalists’ safety and controlling the information. Pools are partly a reaction to the relative freedom of press granted during the Vietnam War and partly a response to numerous criticisms on the lack of any reporter present for the early hours of the intervention in Grenada.” Arnaud Mercier, "Médias et violence durant la guerre du Golfe", Cultures & Conflits, n°09-10, 1993.X [3], or the Israeli operation Cast Lead (2008)[+] NoteSee, for example, Sébastien Pellissier, Retour d’expérience: “Plomb durci” et les opérations d’information, alliancegeostrategique.org, 10/01/10.X [4]. Recent interventions in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) are no exception to this rule. And as for any major conflict, change is driven by unexpected factors. In this case, we should study the rise of regional satellite networks, and more specifically their impact on the transmission of increasingly globalized information.

Military warfare, a battle of ideas

 Armies and governments see the information destined to the general public as a key, even a vital variable in how a military operation unfolds. Donald Rumsfeld himself said that “the battle does not take place only on the battlefield,” and that “it can only be won or lost in the court of public opinion”[+] NoteSee Donald Rumsfeld, “The Media War on Terror”. On the importance of information during wartime, see also Théo CORBUCCI, “Une guerre qui ne dit pas son nom”.X [5]. The extensive use of units specialized in PSYOPS (Psychological Operations), the introduction of news and communications services like the Coalition Press Information Center (Qatar), the Maritime Press Information Center (Bahrain) or the Press Information Center (Kuwait) during operations in Iraq are powerful examples. “What matters is not what happened. What matters is how it happens on CNN”[+] NoteSaid by an executive of an Israeli news service, this sentence sums up well how Americans see the role and influence of the media. See for example Joris Luyendijk, Des hommes comme les autres : Correspondants au Moyen-Orient, Nevicata, 2009, p. 125.X [6]. And as is often the case, the “battle of ideas” starts with the choice of words to be used. To paraphrase Terry Jones: “the first casualty of war is grammar”[+] NoteSee Terry Jones, Terry Jones's War on the War on Terror, Nation Books, 2005.X [7]. Thus, we note that the army and the government use many words that can be neutral (“collateral damage”) or positively connoted (“liberation of Iraq”). The American press and, to a lesser extent, the British press have followed this practice, unlike the regional channels. As noted by Olfa Lamloum, Al Jazeera “has also been part of the battle of words, opting to characterize the war as a ‘war against Iraq’ led by ‘the invading forces’.” In fact, “the network has excluded from its account all war terms borrowed from the military that have contaminated, sometimes unconsciously, the Western media[+] NoteOlfa Lamloun, “L’impact des chaînes satellitaires arabes”, Revue internationale et stratégique, no. 56, 2004-2005.X [8]. Standing out from the Western media, Al Jazeera has inspired many other regional television networks to follow suit, thus defeating the Western monopoly on language: now while the US media speak of “liberation forces”, LBC reports on the “occupiers”[+] Note“We decided to call it what it is: 'war on Iraq'…We did not use 'invasion' but 'war on Iraq'. The use of 'resistance' was a bit more complicated”, p. 143; “LBC referred…to US and British troops as 'invading forces' and, after the end of hostilities, as 'occupiers' ”, p. 149.X [9].
 
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"With us or against us"

Apart from this war of words, interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have highlighted a new confrontation phenomenon, the direct result of the arrival of transboundary Arab networks in the global media landscape: the idea that, in journalism, there is an us and a them. This concept – more developed in the US than in the UK, since it is in tune with often Manichean neo-conservative communications –will gradually gain acceptance in government declarations and communiqués, affecting some Western press outlets and the military troops[+] Note“The Administration's rhetoric, particularly against Al Jazeera, was often repeated by Western news organisations and as a consequence was picked up by Coalition troops in the front line,” p. 200.X [10]. For Sultan Sleiman, news editor at LBC’s Baghdad office, “the coalition forces considered all the Arab media as an enemy and dealt with them on this basis” (p.150). James Wilkinson, who orchestrated the US Army’s media campaign, concurs: “[The Arab media] are totally subjective" (p. 114). “I certainly don’t recall seeing any particular efforts by the US in trying to engage with Arab media,” says Ian Tolfts, British media relations official for the Doha Press Information Center (p. 114). By focusing so on national media like FoxNews, CNN and the most influential newspapers, the Americans[+] NoteNote that, unlike the US administration, the British have tended to engage more with Arab satellite channels and media. This could be explained by historical factors.X [11] are mainly trying to avoid domestic criticism that would question their presence in these two conflicts, as had been the case during the Vietnam War.
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Glocal media: multiplied influence?

 By avoiding to work with regional networks and going as far as accusing them of subjectivity, the Administration has de facto robbed itself of a major lever in building public opinion in the Arab world which, viathe globalization of content, also influence Western media and, therefore, to an obviously lesser extent, Western public opinion. And this is how the US and British forces have lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the Arab world: a lack of discernment or foresight, an inability to predict the emergence of such vectors of influences. Confident of being in the same monopoly situation than what prevailed during the Gulf War, when CNN was feeding news networks around the world with its pictures, the United States settled in their habits. By neglecting what they considered local media outlets – of little importance to them – the governments have actually had to face global responses, which have spread to households in Europe and North America. For instance, Al Jazeera was the first network to broadcast pictures of soldiers killed or captured in combat[+][12], quickly picked up by Skynews. Similarly, Al Jazeera has not hesitated to humanize the conflict by focusing on the impact of operations on civilians, stepping outside the “military-operational” scope that presenters would have preferred to keep closed – in short, everything the U.S. Administration wanted to avoid from “its” national media.

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Information geopolitics

François-Bernard Huyghe pretty much sums up the situation: “The real battle is in information geopolitics. And it results in two major changes: America has lost the monopoly on pictures, and there is now an Arab take on the world"[+] NoteSee online François-Bernard Huyghe, “Télévisions arabes : la bataille de l’influence”.X [13]. An Arab look on the conflict, the loss of the monopoly on the transmission of pictures and the information that goes with them, the end of the language monopoly – added together, these three factors have sealed the defeat of the operations on the media field. Not to forget the new “us and them” distinction, journalistically speaking, although this can also be understood in a quasi-civilizational way. As stated by Jihad Ali-Ballout, then-spokesman for Al Jazeera’s Quatari station, the Western world “must deal with us in the same way as you treat CNN and the BBC”[+] Notep. 202. Jihad Ali-Ballout now works for Al Jazeera’s competitor Al Arabiya.X [14], especially given the loss of influence of those networks with regional public opinions[+] Note“It is apparent that the BBC and CNN, on which many relied for all their news, have lost power in the region,” p. 209.X [15].

In Losing Arab Hearts and Minds, Steve Tatham reinforces the extreme importance of the media during wartime, while giving free rein to personal reflection and critical thinking, preferring to harvest and provide facts rather than imposing his own reasoning. Given the complexity of the topic, the author also opts for an educational approach rather than an approach of scientific or theoretical abstraction. This book will feel quite redundant and light on concepts for the seasoned reader, but it can provide a good initiation on the subject. In addition, Tatham avoids the pitfalls in which we might have expected him to fall: though a military in the Royal Navy, he does not exonerate the army of its failures and does not justify its strategy. Quite the contrary, he makes a scathing critique, without adorning the pristine dress of the Prince’s advisor. Governments and news services should be able to draw the necessary conclusions from this book, if they have not done so already.
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References

Books:
  • Umberto ECO, "Quelques réflexions sur la guerre et le paix", À reculons, comme un écrevisse, LGF, 2008.
  • Mamoun FANDY, (Un)Civil war of words: Media and Politics in the Arab World, Praeger Security International, 2007.
  • Hugh MILES, Al-Jazira, la chaîne qui défie l'Occident, Buchet/Chastel, 2005.
  • Josh RUSHING, Mission Al Jazeera, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Articles:
Illustrations:
  • matsimpsk/flickr.com et slipsthelead/flickr.com
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  • 1. For Dominique Wolton, "the Vietnam War was a highly publicized war, television pictures have even played a vital role in America’s defeat.” See online Traitement de la guerre par les médias, guerre et déontologie.
  • 2. See, for example, Ignacio Ramonet, Télévision nécrophile, Le Monde Diplomatique, 03/90.
  • 3. “[With the invention of pools,] the military staff can reconcile two requirements: ensuring the journalists’ safety and controlling the information. Pools are partly a reaction to the relative freedom of press granted during the Vietnam War and partly a response to numerous criticisms on the lack of any reporter present for the early hours of the intervention in Grenada.” Arnaud Mercier, "Médias et violence durant la guerre du Golfe", Cultures & Conflits, n°09-10, 1993.
  • 4. See, for example, Sébastien Pellissier, Retour d’expérience: “Plomb durci” et les opérations d’information, alliancegeostrategique.org, 10/01/10.
  • 5. See Donald Rumsfeld, “The Media War on Terror”. On the importance of information during wartime, see also Théo CORBUCCI, “Une guerre qui ne dit pas son nom”.
  • 6. Said by an executive of an Israeli news service, this sentence sums up well how Americans see the role and influence of the media. See for example Joris Luyendijk, Des hommes comme les autres : Correspondants au Moyen-Orient, Nevicata, 2009, p. 125.
  • 7. See Terry Jones, Terry Jones's War on the War on Terror, Nation Books, 2005.
  • 8. Olfa Lamloun, “L’impact des chaînes satellitaires arabes”, Revue internationale et stratégique, no. 56, 2004-2005.
  • 9. “We decided to call it what it is: 'war on Iraq'…We did not use 'invasion' but 'war on Iraq'. The use of 'resistance' was a bit more complicated”, p. 143; “LBC referred…to US and British troops as 'invading forces' and, after the end of hostilities, as 'occupiers' ”, p. 149.
  • 10. “The Administration's rhetoric, particularly against Al Jazeera, was often repeated by Western news organisations and as a consequence was picked up by Coalition troops in the front line,” p. 200.
  • 11. Note that, unlike the US administration, the British have tended to engage more with Arab satellite channels and media. This could be explained by historical factors.
  • 12. Steve Tatham deals extensively with this issue and the controversy that followed. See p. 130 onward.
  • 13. See online François-Bernard Huyghe, “Télévisions arabes : la bataille de l’influence”.
  • 14. p. 202. Jihad Ali-Ballout now works for Al Jazeera’s competitor Al Arabiya.
  • 15. “It is apparent that the BBC and CNN, on which many relied for all their news, have lost power in the region,” p. 209.

Book title: Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion
Author(s): Steve Tatham
Editor(s): Hurst & Company
Release Date: 01/01/2006
N° ISBN: 978-1850658115
Number of pages: 239 pages
Suggested price: 24 €

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