Maggie Brown: The reporting of the war in Iraq

Maggie Brown: The reporting of the war in Iraq

ALL I need in this life of media journalism is me and my electronic programme guide. So, what are the rolling news channels telling us about the war with Iraq? 

First, that the pundits who worry about young people not being interested in politics and news are wrong. Large numbers of British children, teenagers and students are engaged in the rights and wrongs of war with Iraq.

Pub screens usually filled with live sports are switched to live war footage.

Remember how Dyke's BBC sent the editor of Newsnight on a two-year search for new ways to report politics, so an apathetic generation would watch and take part?
Well, suddenly schools and colleges are fermenting debate and protest, with pupils bunking classes last week.

The Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir John Stevens has weighed in, saying the place for children was at school, not on the streets - I agree. But the subtext is: how dare youngsters demonstrate and have opinions.

This fails to recognize that participating in a democracy may produce vigorous dissent. I was startled to hear ITV News dismiss last Saturday's protest as not that serious, since, unlike the previous Stop the War demo, it did not represent "Middle England".

MTV also deserves an award for its pre-war debate with Tony Blair, assembling an international audience, well groomed, college educated - the best of the MTV generation.

For people aged under 21, war with Iraq, which may now drag on for several months and cost many lives, is a defining moment. Controversial conflict is politicising youth culture. Anyone seeking to market to this generation in future will have to bear it in mind.

Second, there is the continuous impact of rolling news, with the eight channels available on Sky Digital providing live war footage from a mix of video cameras and mobile satellite dishes. Sky News, BBC News 24 and ITV News accounted for 15% of all satellite viewing last weekend, with doubled and even trebled audiences. Sky News peaked at 1.2 million viewers - audiences rarely seen for a top sporting event or film. There is anecdotal evidence of a sharp rise in Sky installations.

The criticized BBC News 24 is also gaining a massive opportunity to popularize and introduce itself to traditional BBC audiences, taking over chunks of BBC1 morning and afternoon schedules this past week, in simulcasts led by Huw Edwards and Fiona Bruce. Yet the BBC was first to blink, introducing a 10-second delay in transmission last weekend, when Iraqis were shooting into the River Tigris in search of American casualties.

The most pertinent remark came, I think, from America's Donald Rumsfield, who described reports from "embedded journalists" as "seeing slices of war". This is not the whole truth, just that which their eyes and cameras can train on.

The bigger truth when searching for media winners and losers is something else: many of the skirmishes reported  are probably small beer, as insignificant to overall military victory as an explosion reported at the Doha base in Qatar (it was just a gas canister going off). Try ticking off the things rolling news hasn't shown - yet. There are 500 oil installations, yet only a handful were set on fire; suggesting ruthless securing of wells behind enemy lines. There has been no footage (as I write) of an alleged chemical plant.

As the novelty wears off, there is a greater need for old-fashioned, edited news programmes.

Watching rolling news, I am reminded of the only time I went to the Olympic Games and didn't have a clue about what was happening in the vast arenas of tiny active figures, bereft of helpful TV commentary.


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