Professor Dr Gregory McLaughlin is a sociologist, an associate of the Glasgow Media Group at the University of Glasgow, researcher and writer. This year, his first book, The War Correspondent, got its second edition released with Pluto Press, showing that times can change but the issue of ideology subjecting the media and the audience around the world stays intact.
Prior to the publication of the first edition of your book The War Correspondent in 2002, the US Army held interventions in Kosovo, (1999), and the most significant in Afghanistan in 2001 as a response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks that lasted until 2014. Were these two events an inspiration for your first book?
Not really. The first edition includes a critical look at the media response to NATO public relations and propaganda during the Kosovo intervention but it went to press shortly after the 9/11 attacks in 2001. The second edition includes a new chapter that sets the scene in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and examines the ‘war on terror’ as an interpretative framework for reporting international conflict from Afghanistan and Iraq up to the present day.
I suppose the real inspiration for the book goes back to my time as a student in the 1980s and reading Philip Knightley’s history of war reporting, ‘The First Casualty’. It challenged my then rather uncritical and romantic notion of war reporting as a noble profession. While my own book aims to question the role of the war correspondent today, it does not go so far as Knightley and see war reporting as just another form of propaganda because there are many independent journalists out there such as John Pilger and Robert Fisk who resist the propaganda and censorship that defines all major wars.
What differences do you find in war media coverage between the first edition of The War Correspondent in 2002 and the second in 2016?
The two most interesting and significant differences would be the advent of the ‘embedded’ journalist (Afghanistan and Iraq) and the use of social media as both tools of and sources for journalists in the war zone.
The mainstream, corporate media greeted the embed system as a new and revolutionary way of reporting war. It allowed the reporter to get up close and personal with the troops and the action; and it lent a new and exciting immediacy to TV coverage especially. But what they seemed to forget was that the system was one of military control – just like the pooling system in the Gulf War 1991 – and that it raises a serious question about the objectivity of journalists who work within it. Critics have argued that because embedded reporters cover war exclusively through this military filter, they tell us only a partial and selective version of events. They are also more likely to censor themselves when reporting difficult stories such as civilian casualties and military abuses. This is exactly what the military want to see.
As for the rise of social media in the last few years, that has been received in the mainstream with rather more mixed feelings. For the war correspondent, social media platforms deliver immediate information and breaking news that might otherwise be difficult to get for a variety of reasons. Good examples of this included the protests that followed the Greek debt crisis in 2009 and the Arab Uprisings (or Arab Spring events) that began in Tunisia in 2010. Paul Mason for Channel Four News was probably one of the first UK journalists to highlight the role of Twitter in mobilising grass roots support for fast moving events like these and he sees it as a very positive development for news and journalism by and large (see his book Why it’s still kicking off everywhere, published by Verso in 2013). Others such as the Guardian’s Peter Preston worry about the propaganda potential of the platform, as well as its anonymity. For him, social media and citizen journalism are no substitutes for the objective procedures of the professional reporter with their focus on the production of verifiable facts and the importance of authoritative sources.
My own position on both these developments is rather nuanced. I used to be very skeptical at first about citizen journalism but (with just a few lingering reservations!) I’ve come to a point where I recognize it as a valid form that should be taken seriously. As for the claims of the professional journalist, especially those of truth and objectivity, the history of journalism is littered with examples of bias and distortion, as well as uncritical relationships with sources of power such as the military and any government at war. As I argue in my book, the job of the war correspondent is to get the information and get the story while the job of the military is to control the information and spin the story. Both make mistakes, of course. But if we look at the Gulf War in 1991, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and the Iraq War in 2003, we see the military learning from their mistakes ahead of the next war and the majority of journalists forgetting theirs.
Your work, as depicted in four books, The War Correspondent, (1st and 2nd edition), The Propaganda of Peace: The role of media and culture in the Northern Ireland Peace Process and The British Media and Bloody Sunday, is mostly about the media role and the media coverage of significant events. In your opinion, what are the main challenges when presenting these events to the general public? Could the problem of reliability in news media be fixed with more available information from different sources or is that a delusion? How do you envision the near future of journalism with more open access information and fast connectivity?
First off, I think you’ve put your finger on something very important. A lot of ideological work is done in the media presentation of major events like international wars or peace treaties. If we asked the media what the challenges are, they would probably point to issues of logistics, technology, financial cost and the obvious risks to journalists and production staff. But as Slavoj Zizek would argue, it’s not just about the meaning that is present in the text and how it’s framed by power but also the meaning that is absent. For example, the media sold the Irish peace process as a self-evident story of conflict resolution. Yet my book with Stephen Baker, The Propaganda of Peace, proposes that there was another, implicit narrative there: that a peace agreement between ‘the warring tribes’ would return Northern Ireland to ‘civilisation’ or, to translate from the language of neo-liberalism, the global free market. There was a similar use of double-speak in the media’s coverage of America’s invasion of Iraq. As the US launched operation ‘Shock and Awe’ on the country in March 2003, the western media looked on in wonder and declared it the first step in ‘softening up’ Saddam Hussein’s regime and ‘liberating’ the people of Iraq. With very few exceptions, it never occurred to reporters and news anchor to consider ‘softening up’ as something of an understatement or question the liberating potential of this destructive display of military might.
Part of the problem here, as you suggest, is the over-reliance of the corporate media on sources of power, which is totally reflexive and structured into a hierarchy of assumed ‘authority’ and ‘reliability’. The rolling, live TV coverage given over to the Gulf War 1991 and Iraq 2003 was defined by a production line of military experts who were treated with a reverence usually reserved for presidents, prime ministers and religious leaders. Even when the media bother to use alternative sources of information or to refer to critical voices, the reflex then is to minimalize these within the story or, in broadcasting, either question their credibility or shunt them into the margins of the schedule.
So the corporate media’s lip service to the use of alternative sources is institutionally structured and ideological. The responsibility, then, shifts to the reader or the viewer to seek out their own alternatives, which is much easier now in this era of social media and high-speed internet where most people have a tablet or a smart phone. Of course we need to be judicious about the value and reliability of these sources but at least we are acting as citizens rather than passive, uncritical consumers of official statements and propaganda.
As for what this means for the future of journalism we can only speculate but more and more journalists today are buying into social media networks. We might be seeing a revolution in journalism practice there along the lines of the printing press in the 16th Century or what happened during the American Civil War (1861-65) when the commercial imperatives of the telegraph utterly changed the nature of war reporting and its presentation in newspapers. It sounds very exciting and romantic, doesn’t it? But as Thomas Hobbes once wrote, ‘Knowledge is power’. Citizens lost that power with the rise of the commercial press in the 19th Century. Perhaps the enormous potential of social media and the activities of Wiki Leaks promise an era when we might just seize it back?
PaperHive would like to ask you: If the reader had only 5 minutes,
what specific pages or sections should they definitely read to gain insight into your research?
The concluding chapter is short and concise and asks, ‘What is the ultimate role of the war correspondent? Is it to tell truth to power?’ It summarises the key issues and debates that are raised in the book and suggests that ‘telling truth to power’ is a delusion because as Arundhati Roy has argued, power owns the truth and it probably knows the truth better than any of us. The very best war and foreign affairs reporters through history – such as William Howard Russell, Morgan Philips Price, Martha Gellhorn, John Pilger and Robert Fisk – have spoken the truth to us about power in a time of war.