Book review: Afghanistan, war and the media. Deadlines and frontlines edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair
Informed by a recent conference at Coventry University, Richard Lance Keeble’s and John Mair’s book comprises 23 easily-digestible essays from journalists and academics discussing the quality of the media’s coverage of the escalating war in Afghanistan.
Facing military setbacks, a high-level of casualties and a hostile public at home, one contributor bluntly notes the British military establishment “has a war to sell… and it is not going well.” So it’s perhaps unsurprising to find Vaughn Smith, an independent video journalist, highlighting how “news management has become an integrated part of the war effort, aiming to maintain public support for the conflict nationally, while winning the information war abroad”.
High on arrogance but low on analysis, in the book’s first section frontline correspondents relay their personal experiences of embedding with the US and UK military. According to Channel Four News’s Alex Thomson, people such as the internet-based media watchdog Media Lens “get extremely hoity-toity at the entire concept of embedding” but provide no plausible alternatives to this necessary evil. However, although the risks are extremely high, independent journalists such as the Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and Rolling Stone’s Nir Rosen do manage to report the conflict without the support and protection of the US and UK military. Sky News’s Stuart Ramsay naively says “not once have I been stopped from filming nor have commanders or press officers tried to influence or change what I have said”. But, as US journalist George Seldes noted in the 1930s, “The most stupid boast in the history of present-day journalism is that of the writer who says, ‘I have never been given orders; I am free to do as I like’. We scent the air of the office. We realise that certain things are wanted, certain things unwanted.”
Only with the academics’ contributions in the book’s second and third sections does the reader get the high level of analysis and political and historical context the subject requires. John Tulloch provides an incisive piece on the invented tradition of the ‘military covenant’ and the propaganda value of Prince Harry’s tour, while Phillip Knightley skilfully argues the media has manifestly failed “to tell the people what is really going on, as distinct from what the government says is going on; to penetrate propaganda and lies” and “to provoke debate.” For Knightley, Afghanistan marks “a turning point, the moment marking the military’s final triumph over the media.”
All is not lost though, with Keeble explaining how more critical and independent voices can be found in alternative sources such as TomDispatch.com, Gareth Porter at IPS, Media Lens and, yes, the Morning Star itself.
While the collection is bang up to date (Stanley McChrystal’s June sacking is mentioned) this is probably the reason behind its rushed feel – the text is littered with spelling and grammatical errors and several instances of unnecessary repetition. But if you can get past the mistakes, this accessible and often illuminating book opens up a much needed debate on the media’s coverage of an increasingly unpopular and deadly war.
Afghanistan, war and the media. Deadlines and frontlines edited is published by Arima Publishing, priced £14.95.
* Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London, UK. email@example.com.