War behind the cameras

War is Viagra for TV journalists. There’s nothing like the prospect of a gigantic set-piece news event to get the adrenalin flowing in the newsroom.

As a bulletin editor at IRN during the Falklands conflict, I remember one of my bosses wearing a tin helmet of the Second World War variety and barking parade ground orders to all and sundry. It’s definitely a “guy” thing, although “gung ho-ism” is not an exclusively male preserve.

There’s the military hardware: suddenly everyone can tell you the range of a Scud missile or the area of the flight deck of the Ark Royal.

There’s the gear: fly-away dishes, armoured crew cars – preferably a “Hummer” – gas masks, flak jackets, and so on.

For those not at the sharp end, there’s the graphics: holograms of Tomahawk missiles hovering in the studio and 3D electronic sandpits.

Of course, this all costs tons of money, but because it’s war it’s a bit like the good old days, when coverage costs were no object. The only objective is to win the war of the airwaves.

This time, for the first time, I believe the battle for TV news supremacy will be fought out on digital television, not terrestrial.

The audience for news on cable and satellite may be minute compared with those for any terrestrial news programme, but the news channels are watched in every newsroom and they’re easier to compare with one another than individual news programmes.

At a very basic level, it’s simply a matter of who reported big news first and who got the first pictures of a major event.

All three British dedicated news channels – Sky News, BBC News 24 and ITV News – are limbering up for a big fight, each determined to prove who’s the daddy of rolling news.

ITV is reportedly setting aside £2m to £3m for the war – much of it to service the newly enhanced ITV News Channel. A second Gulf War will be its first really mega international story.

Sky will probably spend around half that, but is out to prove it is not only the original but still the best, despite competition from the far better-resourced BBC.

Sky says that it will match the BBC and ITN location-by-location.

This means that ITV, BBC and Sky will probably field around 10 news teams each, spread between Baghdad, Kuwait, Qatar, Amman and various military facilities.

Channel 4 News is apparently looking at a weekly war chest of around £100,000 and Five, I can tell you, will be doing what it can for a good deal less than that.

It could well be the most expensive single news event in British television history.

Even as I write, the TV task forces are deploying throughout the Gulf. Sky News isÊup and running with live nightly feeds from Baghdad, as is the BBC.

Other early visitors to Iraq include two illustrious anchor people, Jon Snow and Trevor McDonald, both presenting their programmes live from Baghdad in the last week of January. It felt slightly over the top at this stage, especially as the main Gulf story was actually at the United Nations and Washington and not in Iraq. The next scoop target will presumably be the first interview with Saddam – Tony Benn notwithstanding.

Five, for the record, has a documentary team sailing with the Ark Royal. It’s all go.

Pooling pictures, resources and information is a practical necessity in war time. You can’t have convoys of hacks following the 7th Armoured Division through the deserts of southern Iraq.

It’s also the way governments keep control of journalists. That’s why every reporter and camera operator will be trying to break free from the constraints of pooled video and information and bring something distinctive and memorable back from the theatre of war.

The military briefing system is to be co-ordinated in Qatar by the US State Department and No 10. This suggests that information control will be tighter than ever – and it was pretty tight in the last Gulf War.

A ground war in the Gulf may provide opportunities for courageous freelance enterprise, but the best hope for something different involves what the US networks are calling “embedment”. This involves reporters being assigned to a particular fighting unit for a week or maybe longer.

Outside these official facilities, we’ll be lucky to see much genuine frontline action, except for the usual Pentagon and MoD cockpit video of ultra-accurate laser bombing.

Back in 1991, we marvelled at CNN’s Peter Arnett reporting the US bombardment of Baghdad by telephone from the roof of his hotel, accompanied by live black and green pictures of tracer fire and explosions.

TV journalists reporting on “Gulf War II” will have an incredible array of sophisticated equipment that simply wasn’t available a decade ago.

The capacity for live reporting has been hugely enhanced. Instead of the cumbersome fixed-point uplinks, which had to be driven to Baghdad on the back of a truck and erected in a hotel car park, news teams in this conflict will be armed with a variety of portable live feeding equipment.

At the most basic end is the videophone, offering low-resolution, fairly static live images. But the well-equipped correspondent will probably be carrying a “store and forward” device for sending decent quality pictures on a mobile phone line, or the state-of-the-art “Swe-dish” – a fully portable high-quality satellite uplink which can be erected and operational in minutes.

Some US crews have also developed a gyroscopic mount, which allows live satellite feeds from a moving vehicle or tank.

The holy grail for TV news in the next Gulf War must surely be live pictures of fighting action from the front.

Chris Shaw is senior programme controller at Five. He’ll be back in four weeks

lNext week: Bill Hagerty

by Chris Shaw

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