Overdosing on live war

In the past fortnight, about a million people have become hooked on war. Sadly, I am one of these rolling-news addicts, unable to tear myself away from the wall-to-wall TV coverage from the Gulf.

At work, I’m glued to the four monitors in my office showing Sky, CNN, BBC News 24 and the ITV News Channel; at home I flick endlessly through my electronic programme guide, compulsively searching for a new piece of breaking news or the latest pictures from Iraq. I find it almost impossible to break the habit.

Clearly, I am not alone. Sky News – the addict’s channel of choice – has increased its share of viewing by a massive 700 per cent since the first shots were fired. In fact, for the opening days of the ground campaign, Sky News was bigger than Channel 4 and Five in homes with multichannel TV.

BBC News 24 and the ITV News Channel have seen their ratings roughly triple.

On terrestrial television, ITV ran several hours a day of special war programmes, Channel 4 introduced a breakfast and lunchtime news, and BBC One and BBC Two between them offered round-the-clock coverage for the first 48 hours. In those early days, I reckon roughly half the viewing public was fixated by the war.

The ultimate goal for TV news- as predicted in my February column – is “live” warfare beamed straight into your front room. Sure enough, as the armoured columns rolled, the US networks broadcast the extraordinary spectacle of live pictures of the US 7th Cavalry charging north through the western desert. The videophone images stuttered and broke up as they bounced along, but this was real-time war on tap.

The CNN correspondent could hardly contain himself. “These are historic pictures; this is historic journalism,” he proclaimed. Over on Fox News, the cameraman got bored and panned past thundering tanks to show camels and their herdsmen scattering into the desert. The anchor in New York told viewers she’d seen real-life camels on a recent trip to Jordan – it was utterly surreal.

On Friday, 14 million viewers to the early-evening news on ITV and BBC witnessed the ultimate live war event – the “shock and awe” bombardment of central Baghdad complete with running commentary. The Pentagon called it the most powerful single attack in the history of warfare, but I have to confess I found it sanitised and unreal, almost like a giant fireworks display. For me, it carried none of the horror of the black and white film of Dresden or London being blitzed 60 years ago.

I ate breakfast on Saturday while watching a three-hour gun battle on the outskirts of Um Qasr broadcast live by Sky News. This small, localised skirmish proved war isn’t just a cavalry charge through the desert. In truth it’s often a slow, dangerous and haphazard process. It also showed that confusion reigns. No one – even the soldiers fighting – appeared to know what was going on.

Twenty-four-hour television news certainly contributes to this general confusion with a welter of disconnected images and reports. One is often watching live pictures from Baghdad while listening to an armchair general pontificate about berms and bridgeheads.

Turning to terrestrial TV, I hoped I would get the big strategic overview. Instead, I found that traditional set-piece news programmes are equally obsessed with immediacy and live coverage, often at the expense of clarity.

The truth is that in covering this war, TV journalists are conditioned to believe that speed – being live, being first – is everything.

As I marvelled at the power of television technology, I was bought down to earth with a dreadful bump by a phone call on Saturday afternoon telling me that veteran ITN reporter Terry Lloyd was missing presumed dead after coming under fire – probably from US marines – on the road to Basra. Lloyd was the living embodiment of journalistic enterprise at home and abroad and he did it with unbelievable levels of energy and enthusiasm for 20 years.

It’s all too easy to get over-excited by gyroscopically mounted satellite up-links, night-vision camera lenses and all the other tools of modern war coverage. But it’s as well to remember that none of it really works without the human ingredient – the reporters, camera operators, producers and assorted fixers, drivers and translators who are risking their lives to bring pictures and information into your front room.

There’s been a curious symbiosis between the momentum of the military action and the energy of television coverage. In the first few days, the sheer pace and energy of the ground assault was matched by the élan and urgency of the news coverage. As the ground assault got bogged down, so the TV journalism started running out of steam.

The first 48 hours of war presented a clear and thrilling story. Um Qasr and Basra were under coalition control – Iraqis were being shocked and awed by smart bombs and the US Cavalry would be at the gates of Baghdad within three days. But that version of the war turned out to be a simplistic, if attractive, illusion. In truth, British and US forces were meeting significant localised resistance and by day five an eerie orange sandstorm had virtually stopped the coalition advance in its tracks. The blitzkrieg script had to be torn up and a much murkier and more complex story was emerging in dribs and drabs from various reporters embedded with US and British military units across southern Iraq.

It’s not really surprising that soldiers and the journalists “embedded” with them grew wearier and frustrated together. As the advance began to sag, so did the coverage.

By week two there were signs that viewer fatigue was setting in too – ratings for 24-hour news peaked around day six, while terrestrial TV slowly reduced its additional coverage and ratings to ITV’s News at Nine special and the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News also showed signs of flagging.

By day nine I could feel the “pall” setting in. The armchair experts with their fancy tele-strators were beginning to grate, I wasn’t interested in yet another shot of B-52s loading up their smart bombs at RAF Fairford, and the early buzz of watching live war coverage by videophone was definitely wearing off.

After some 300 hours of non-stop wall-to-wall coverage, I realised – to my horror – that I had OD’d. Time to cut back, I think, to maybe three or four hours a day.

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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