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Where was the reality? Manipulation and misinformation in Iraq

By Paul Malone - posted Monday, 28 July 2003

Objectivity does not exist - it cannot exist… The word is a hypocrisy which is sustained by the lie that the truth stays in the middle. No sir: sometimes truth stays on one side only.
- Oriana Fallaci

"Let me say one other thing," Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defence lectured, "the images you are seeing on television you are seeing over, and over, and over, and it's the same picture of some person walking out of some building with a vase, and you see it 20 times, and you think, "My goodness, were there that many vases?" (Laughter.)

Rumsfeld was pouring scorn on the television media in the United States for focussing on the looting following the US capture of Baghdad. Previously he had spoken glowingly about the television footage of people welcoming American troops and the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statues. This, apparently was not repetitive selective footage but the real picture of what was going on.


It now seems clear that the welcome and the footage of small cheering crowds were unrepresentative. The coverage which conveyed the fuller picture was that of an occupying force in a severely damaged country.

"Do you think that the words "anarchy" and "lawlessness" are ill-chosen," Rumsfeld was asked on April 11. "Absolutely," he replied. "… here is a country that's being liberated, here are people who are going from being repressed and held under the thumb of a vicious dictator, and they're free. And all this newspaper could do, with eight or ten headlines, they showed a man bleeding, a civilian, who they claimed we had shot -- one thing after another. It's just unbelievable how people can take that away from what is happening in that country!"

And yet take it away, some media did. Here a report of civilians shot at a road block; there another; here a killing by US troops of ten or more civilian demonstrators at Mosul.

If there were papers in the United States showing bias that made Mr Rumsfeld feel unhappy, there were those in Australia doing everything to redress the imbalance.

IRAQ THREATENS WORLD TERROR, The Australian bellowed on March 31 while on the same day the Sydney Daily Telegraph's front page pleaded on behalf of our servicemen's children PLEASE DON'T HATE OUR DADS.

Outlandish claims also got a fair run. Malcolm Farr, writing in the Daily Telegraph alleged that "There are few gatherings more violent than a so-called peace rally these days". Well all I can say is Farr mustn't go to many gatherings, see a pub late on Friday night; or watch rugby league or union matches.


Manipulative journalism was alive and well in Australia during the first military phase of the war with the Murdoch press leading the charge. Some 175 Murdoch media outlets worldwide were reported in the Guardian newspaper to be pro war, none was anti, a somewhat surprising statistic, given that in countries such as Australia and the UK the population was roughly divided on the issue.

The Murdoch papers' consistent line must surely put paid, once and for all, to the old chestnut that proprietors don't matter - it's the journalists who determine a publication's bias. Murdoch, of course, is not sitting down personally every night writing editorials or choosing the front-page headlines. Editors get some guidance occasionally from Mr Rumsfeld's or Mr Murdoch's public statements (Mr Murdoch said in mid February that he was completely behind Mr Bush and Mr Blair) but in general they don't need it. Mr Murdoch rests confident in the knowledge that the chosen editors will do their bit, selecting the right people and the right stories.

Why does the media coverage of this war matter? It matters because the media influences the way the whole community views issues. Not only the general public, but Bush, Blair and Howard. Is the issue still the elimination of weapons of mass destruction? Yes but only if the media continues to pursue it. No, if politicians are no longer pressed on the matter.

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An edited version of this article was published in Issue 22 of The Walkley Magazine.

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About the Author

Paul Malone spent 20 years working as a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Australian Financial Review and The Canberra Times.

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