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You shouldn't believe everything you see - especially when there's a war on

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Thursday, 27 March 2003

In 1999, in a previous incarnation as a magazine editor, I happened to be at a breakfast meeting with a number of senior executives when one of them asked me whether I expected any serious problems from the Millennium Bug, then a hot topic. I muttered something about how I did not think the effect would be all that serious, only to be strongly over-ruled by a senior partner from one of the major accounting firms who also happened to be present. Yes there would be enormous problems, he assured the audience, and those who were not prepared would be in trouble.

Needless to say, no-one now remembers much about the Millennium Bug - meant to kick in when the date ticked over to 2000 and thereby, so the theory went, messing up the memory of computers built before anyone thought to allow more than two digits worth of memory for the date. Nor can anyone remember why or how the IT industry and consultants managed to get themselves into a lather about the bug. However, everyone does remember that good fees were earned from replacing old systems before the date itself arrived to disprove all the scare stories.

But the Millennium Bug issue does illustrate, if any further illustration is needed, the danger of paying much attention to most of prognostications aired in the media - particularly at the moment when every man and his dog, it seems, has something to say about just what will happen in Iraq, before it actually happens. Media consumers all too easily forget that the same people making predictions about Iraq were completely wrong in predicting a war of attrition in Afghanistan and have a sort of vested interest in that they are writing for effect - to sell papers (or get viewers) by purveying tales of doom and gloom - just as my consultant acquaintance in the Millennium Bug example above had a vested interest in garnering more consultancy fees.


Already the course of the war has proved much of the media specualtion about how it will be played out as wrong. There has been no "shock and awe" smart missle bombardment as a preliminary to the assault - I lost count of the number of times I read stories about that expected approach. Instead, mobile columns have punched deep into Iraqi territory before the first bombardments.

As it is a little too early to congratulate the winners, and rather than add my own doubtful prognostication to the many weird and wonderful scenarios being aired in the media, perhaps I can do my little bit to add to the confusion by pointing to one of the major lessons learned from the first Gulf War - that many of the statements being made in news broadcasts from the scene are likely to be incorrect. To take an example, we were told at the time that Patriot Missile systems had shot down a number of Scud missiles. In fact, later and more careful analysis showed that the Patriots did not hit anything. Similar claims are being made this time around, but the Patriot systems are likely to have improved in 10 years (although not enough to avoid hitting a British jet). We were also told that the oil rigs set on fire by Hussein's forces and the gigantic oil spills would cause an environmental disaster. The spill did occur and was duly cleaned up (whether the clean-up did more damage than the spill has not been revealed) or dissipated of its own accord, with one result being that the Gulf waters were briefly cleaner than they had been for some time. The war had interrupted the region's usually heavy, polluting tanker traffic. The pollution that did occur was unexpected in that (my source for this is the magazine New Scientist) a large quantity of oil spilled onto the ground and not mopped up eventually polluted the area's ground water.

Other examples could be cited but in raking over these points I am not complaining about the standard of journalism of that now dimly-remembered conflict. In fact, I sympathise with the journalists. They were just repeating what they had been told by whoever happened to be in charge (who were repeating what they had been told by experts) and had no means of checking the information. The real picture only emerged later.

Another point to note about that old conflict is that the media banged-on constantly about the accuracy of the high-tech weapons fielded at the time. In fact the weapons rarely hit their targets. It has since been written that for every smart missile that hit a bunker, 20 targetted open patches of desert - although perhaps the hit rate was better than conventional weapons. However, the rare hits were well publicised.

This time around it is likely to be different in that the technology has improved and the Americans may have learned lessons about having soldiers on the ground (notably the likes of the SAS) to mark the targets. But whatever actually happens it may be best to save all judgments until after the analysis papers have been written. Reporting from the front may be colorful but it is of limited use in understanding what is happening. Thankfully at least no-one is predicting the fighting will be disrupted by a Millennium Bug.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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