War: what was it good for?

As “iconic” images go, they don’t come much more iconic than the statue of Saddam Hussein being hauled down in Al-Fardus Square in central Baghdad on the afternoon of Wednesday, 9 April.

This was victory according to the script – a nation liberated taking revenge on the bombastic bronze image of a hated dictator – and every moment broadcast live around the world.

Excited commentators drew comparisons with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, but the truth was perhaps a little more prosaic.

There must be thousands of Saddam statues and murals in Baghdad, but this one happened to be in front of the Palestine Hotel, where 300 foreign journalists had been based for the duration of the war.

There were at least four live cameras trained on this rather nondescript roundabout on the east bank of the Tigris, so it was the perfect place for a liberation display, complete with jubilant citizens dancing on the statue.

Later, a pick-up truck dragged the bronze head through the streets with a couple of young Baghdadis sitting on Saddam’s face. Is this, I wonder, what Donald Rumsfeld envisaged when he spoke of regime decapitation?

It was undoubtedly the TV moment of the war, but a very misleading one. Around 100 Iraqis took part in this symbolic toppling, but the majority of the other five million citizens of Baghdad were cowering in their homes terrified of the shooting and looting going on around them.

The more considered reporting on that Wednesday reflected the fear and misery as well as the jubilation, but others – especially Sky and other 24-hour news channels – focused almost exclusively on the photogenic celebrations laid on by the media-savvy crowd in front of the Palestine Hotel. In a sense, this was the story of the war on television – big, sometimes misleading, conclusions drawn from small, exciting snapshot images.

The difference in this war was that we had more snapshots than ever before, with around 500 “embedded” journalists and crews following the military action.

In fact, the Gulf War coverage delivered a number of memorable “firsts”. The first live blitzkrieg on tea-time television, the first live images from an armoured column as it charged through the western desert, the first live interview with an army sniper scanning for targets. Sadly, it was also the first time TV reporters and their teams were killed by “friendly fire” and controversially, the first time that armed security guards employed by a TV news team actually opened fire on Iraqi soldiers who had attacked them at a checkpoint.

Television news companies had six months to prepare for this war and in general, I think they acquitted themselves extremely well. The dedicated news channels really dominated the coverage for the first time in a major international event – and this is where the star reporters made their names.

Suddenly, news was the most important thing on TV. But less than a fortnight after the war ended, it appears to have returned to its more familiar role as the public-service “Cinderella” of television.

Viewing figures for TV news have already dropped back to pre-war levels – they didn’t even benefit from the “dead cat bounce” effect. If anything, they might be slightly lower than before.

ITV’s highly successful News at Nine experiment ended abruptly and “News at When” returned with a corresponding fall in ratings.

Channel 4 News, which increased its average audience by around a third and regularly attracted more than 1.5 million viewers during the war, has seen its figures drop back to around 1.1 million.

During the war, Sky News achieved record-breaking figures – up to seven times its normal daily share of audience – but now is finding that it’s business as usual, with around 1 per cent of viewing in multichannel homes. It’s pretty hard to identify a “peace dividend” for television news.

Spare a thought for all those returning TV war veterans. How will they settle down to the humdrum existence of normal daily news coverage? A ‘two-way’ outside the High Court on a rainy afternoon can hardly compare with a search-and-destroy mission with the Desert Rats in Basra.

There’s also the matter of money. One senior executive confided that he expected a rash of excessive pay-rise demands from the heroes of the TV war, while another predicted crippling overtime claims. By my estimates, around 350 British TV reporters, camera operators and producers are owed around two weeks’ additional leave after five to six weeks working non-stop in the Gulf. You do the maths.

After the September 11 tragedy, many of my colleagues announced the death of “trivial journalism”. They confidently claimed that geopolitics, international current affairs and serious news were back on the agenda. Well it didn’t quite turn out like that.

Similar predictions have followed the end of the Gulf War, but again I think they will turn out to be wrong.

The TV news editors I’ve spoken to say “enough war already” – in fact, they are desperate to get back to more traditional fare such as Bank Holiday heatwaves, gameshow cheats and killer bugs.

There is residual interest in the hunt for Saddam and the ongoing humanitarian relief effort, but I expect Iraq will slowly slip down the running orders and will all but disappear by the start of the “silly season”.

You can, however, expect a rash of post-war documentaries over the next six to nine months. The BBC has already promised a fly-on-the-wall series looking at the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force’s roles. There will surely be Panoramas and Dispatches on the tense post-war political situation in Iraq and the saga of “Gorgeous George” Galloway will certainly make an interesting programme.

One of the more unusual proposals to land on my desk in recent days was Saddam Style – Décor for Dictators. Those palaces could certainly do with a makeover and why not send the Ground Force team to rehang Nebuchadnezzar’s famous gardens in Babylon?

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

Next week: Bill Hagerty

by Chris Shaw

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