'Iraq too dangerous for us to cover the war properly'

By Richard Keeble

Broadcasters
are not showing the British public what is really happening in Iraq,
according to Dorothy Byrne, head of Channel 4 news and current affairs.

She told students at the University of Lincoln: “Iraq is now so
dangerous it is almost impossible to cover the war properly.
Journalists who travel about the country go under the protection of the
US or British army and so there are limits to what they see. Reports
often look like real reports; they are smooth and professional. Yet
their information may well have come from their headquarters in London
or Washington.”

She continued: “Television needs to flag this limitation in covering the war.

We are not showing the whole truth and it’s our job to tell the public precisely that.”

Byrne
also pointed out that broadcasters are prevented by law from showing
the gruesome realities before the 9pm watershed – though much more
could be shown later in the evening. She cited Channel 4’s The True
Face of War, about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which had been shown at
11.30pm and included a two-and-aquarter second shot of a boy with his
brains blown out and a two-second shot of a hand lying on the ground.

On
a more positive note, she said that local Iraqi journalists were
increasingly being employed. “And these Iraqis gain access to different
events and sources, and so help to provide a different perspective.
Thus the dangers limit us – but also provide us opportunities.”

Byrne
also criticised television’s coverage of climate change. She recently
chaired a session in Amsterdam at the NewsXchange conference for
broadcasters at which television executives had shown little interest
in the subject.

“The trouble with climate change, they said, is
that it’s not new. TV likes new things: a glacier melts, a hurricane
flattens a city. But this is the wrong approach. The subject is too
important for us to be limited by too narrow a concept of what is new.”

She
said journalists’ obsession with balance and impartiality was also
impeding their coverage of global warming. In the past, journalists
went out of their way to report the two sides in the smoking and cancer
controversy.

Today, some journalists felt obliged to quote the
global warming deniers, even though they often tended to be
representatives of institutes funded by oil interests. “There is now a
consensus in the scientific community that manmade global warming
exists – though there is a debate over its extent and what can be done
about it.”

Broadcasters were also too often interested in what
was fashionable, she said. For instance, Muslims were today “sexier”
than climate change. Famine coverage tended to provide good pictures,
but the global shortage of micro-nutrients was little reported, even
though it killed more people.

Similarly, Aids was fashionable even though more people died from malaria.


ITV News editor Deborah Turness has echoed Byrne’s concerns about the
way the war in Iraq is being covered, writes Caitlin Pike.

She told Press Gazette: “We go in and out of Iraq intermittently, to Baghdad or Basra. Security is the number-one issue.

It
is down to the correspondents and fixers on ground what they can do.
It’s a scandal of our time that it needs covering, but you can’t
because it’s such a risk to the people who go out there.

“We have
an Iraqi cameraman who works for us whenever we need him, which is very
good, and we’re also talking to [documentary maker] Paul Eadle about a
year-long project in Baghdad using local Iraqi journalists and
cameramen.”

The full interview will be published in Press Gazette next week.

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