Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths
Politics, media and war: 9/11 and its aftermaths

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

6.3 Reporting the spectacle

A further criticism of Kellner's account might be that it underestimates the possibility of embedded reporters providing more objective and critical accounts of US (and other allied forces) government and military operations. It may also be the case that he somewhat idealises the degree to which independent and 'accurate' (p.17) reporting can be obtained by non-embedded 'unilateral' reporters.

Activity 22 Interview with Stewart Purvis

Stewart Purvis is the former Chief Executive and Editor in Chief of Independent Television News (ITN). Read the transcript of an interview Mark Banks conducted with him below by clicking ‘Reveal comment’.

Comment

Interview with Stewart Purvis

Mark Banks
I’m Mark Banks from the D271 course team. In order to help inform our discussion of ‘embedded’ and ‘unilateral’ news reporting, I spoke to Stewart Purvis. Stewart is the former Chief Executive and Editor in Chief of ITN, the main news provider for the UK broadcasters ITV and Channel 4. At the time of the 2003 Iraq War Stewart was in charge of ITN and co-ordinated its strategy for reporting on the conflict. I began by asking him what embedded reporting was and how it first emerged:
Stewart Purvis
Well, sometimes people talk about it as if it's a relatively new phenomenon but actually it goes back more than a century I think to the Crimean War where it was thought that it would be to the advantage of the British government at the time that the war should be reported from a journalist at the front line. The word wasn't used ‘embedded’ then but effectively that was the idea that the reporter would be with the military, sometimes wearing uniform, sometimes not wearing uniform, but would actually see it from the front line troops’ point of view and could report back with that perspective. And that has captured the imagination of military commanders and particularly in recent years as part of a kind of bigger picture. The bigger picture is on the battlefield it's logical to control all communications. You know you want your own communications to work; you want the enemies’ communications not to work or you want to hear what they’re saying and you don’t want any stray communications around. So the idea becomes if you bring the media into your control, into your communications net if you like, you have some advantage. And so this is why we suddenly had this almost an explosion of it in the two Gulf Wars really. First in the war which was basically about Kuwait and then the second war which was obviously about putting down Saddam Hussein. And in both, the allies if you like or the coalition or the British and American side, decided it was to their tactical advantage to have reporters with them. The other model, which is sometimes called independent, sometimes called unilateral, sometimes called freelance, is where the reporters may actually seek some form of accreditation as it's called, like a kind of pass, to be on the battlefield. But they don’t actually live with the troops and they basically make their own travel arrangements and they’re kind of free to move. Now obviously the downside of that is that they are out of the protection of the military in a sense that they are more liable to be attacked by either side. And sometimes, in the case of the ITN reporter Terry Lloyd, who died, they were attacked by both sides at the same time.
MB
That’s right.
SP
So that's the danger of that, of course.
MB
Prior to embedding their reporters with British troops, ITN met with the Ministry of Defence to set down guidelines for the number of reporters that would be embedded, the units they would be attached to, and the rules that reporters would have to follow while embedded. These rules were primarily designed to ensure the safety of reporters and troops, and to guarantee operational security would not be compromised. Thus reporters were only forbidden from revealing sensitive information regarding military strategy or troop movements and location. According to Stewart, no other specific restrictions were imposed regarding what could be reported. ITN were free to allocate their own experienced reporters to units where they saw fit – and gave them the instruction to go out and do their jobs as objectively and effectively as possible. For Stewart the aim was quite clear:
SP
Those of us back in the newsrooms in London we want them to be there on the big stories. We want them to, in a sense, work with the troops, want them to understand the troops, but we don’t want them to go native. We don’t want them to become cheerleaders for the troops. They’ve got to retain some independence as well.
MB
Maintaining independence while meeting the demands of the military is however a difficult job. Military commanders could try to censor material that they considered unsuitable for public consumption. There was sometimes disagreement between reporters and commanders regarding what constituted sensitive or compromising broadcast material. Often reporters and military commanders had different ideas regarding what should be broadcast, as Stewart describes:
SP
Well the reporting restrictions, which we don’t have a problem with are those which attempt to protect information which, if it got out, could endanger the lives of the unit. That’s always seemed eminently sensible to people. There's also information which a reporter may come across kind of almost accidentally in the course of covering a conflict which whilst not endangering anybody is to the embarrassment of the military. And this is the most sensitive area actually. For instance, there was an example in 2003 where a young woman ITN reporter went out with a group of British soldiers who were doing, basically some humanitarian work in an area which had been liberated and it didn’t go well. The local Iraqis did not welcome this humanitarian work and began sort of disturbances. And she fairly and freely with her camera team filmed this and reported this. The military commander said you can't show that. You can't send that back. Well, it didn’t, there was no ones lives at risk because there wasn't even a conflict going on in this area. You know, the Iraqis had long gone. The Iraqi troops had long gone. What he was really embarrassed about was his you know his job hadn’t gone very well. We don’t have any truck with that at all. I mean basically, we showed the piece. We almost challenged if you like the military commander. Now at one point he threatened to expel the reporter from the area. He didn’t in the end because it would have been of further embarrassment to him. So those are the two divides if you like or two themes. One is areas, which are rightly confidential for military safety and those, which are of embarrassment to the military, and we don’t accept that as a reason for not reporting.
MB
So we see that the embedded reporter has a privileged access that enables them to witness and report back on events that the military may not want the outside world to see – this, arguably, is one advantage of their role. However, for many critics the idea remains that embedded reporters, by virtue of being so closely tied to the military, have given up their independence and relinquished their claim to objectivity. As we saw in the Kellner reading, the embedded reporter has been identified as little more than a propagandist or mouthpiece for the military view. I put this claim to Stewart:
SP
I think there's some truth in that and I think, you know, anyone who doesn't think there's some truth is being rather naïve about that. But that's why you need other elements of the coverage. I mean it's why for all the resources that are put into embedded reporters you don’t rely on embedded reporters. And you know I can think of examples in 2003 where embedded reporters, relying actually not so much on information, but sometimes it turned out almost gossip amongst the military, got things wrong. I mean if you look back at the reporting of the so-called uprising in Basra, there never was such an uprising in Basra and I’m not sure why somebody thought there was. But it seemed an exciting new angle at the time and it, I’m sure it came from military sources because, you know those embedded reporters, those were the only sources they had to a certain extent. And you know that seems to me a classic situation of getting carried away with the excitement of the moment.
MB
So overall what you seem to be saying is the embedded reporter obviously has a very difficult job but at the same time it’s, well it's an imperfect position in a sense.
SP
Yes, yes.
MB
That they’re trying to be objective. They’re trying to report the facts as they see them but they have kind of human traits which means that sometimes they can get kind of caught up and carried away with perhaps the military line.
SP
I’m honest enough to say that when a reporter is with a unit which, if you like is at the front line of winning a patriotic war and things are going well and they are there when, you know, the war is won. You know, you don’t get as much independent reporting as you might do if they – you know earlier on in the conflict. So if I look back even I have to say amongst independent reporters but particularly with embedded reporters, you know when Kuwait city was taken for instance you saw scenes of euphoria, excitement in which the reporters were almost inevitably caught up. And you know one just has to be realistic about that whilst, you know, asking people to try to tone it down at times.
MB
Stewart admitted that there is the real danger that reporters could ‘go native’ so to speak and come to over-identify with their military protectors. This is a clear disadvantage in terms of ensuring objective and unbiased reporting.
I then moved on to ask Stewart to comment on the role of ‘unilateral’ reporters, those reporters working independently from any military unit:
SP
The role of the independent or unilateral reporter is to offer a different perspective from those who are embedded with the military forces. It's to use their experience, because you normally give these kinds of jobs to the most experienced reporters, to use their kind of cunning, their wile, and their kind of you know expertise to get to the story. And it's about access really, because if you’re embedded you have given up control of your freedom of movement because you will not be allowed to go where you want to. So the independent reporter, the unilateral reporter, is seeking to go to places that embedded reporters can't, and to offer new perspectives, new insights and with that comes new dangers.
It is a riskier assignment. I mean a lot more has been done to try to provide extra safety advice and escorts than used to be. But you know you are on a road and you don’t really know what's happening to the left and to the right of you. You’ve got no real communications other than a mobile phone, which may not work anyway. So you’re very much on your own and it's down to your kind of individual judgement. There are I mean we’re talking about quite a few people now who you know - maybe thirty in the UK - who would be capable of coping with that situation, maybe twenty if you’re realistic about it. And it does put a lot of responsibility on them and on their editors to put them into that situation. And in a world of kind of health and safety executives and legislation it is an extremely uncomfortable position now for editors to appear as I have for instance at an inquest and ask what health and safety checks were done on the road to Basra? The answer is none really other than the common sense of the correspondent involved and that's the uncomfortable truth.
MB
I asked Stewart whether he thought the unilateral reporters were able to offer a more critical perspective on war, by virtue of being ‘dis-embedded’ from military units:
SP
I don’t think they go out there to be critical. I think they go out there to be revelatory. And I can certainly remember in the first Iraq war where, and this is not uncommon actually, but it is a particularly clear example where the coalition position was that they had taken a certain town and were rather proud that they had taken a certain town, and when our unilateral reporter turned up – they hadn't. And how could this be? You know there was a military spokesman saying ‘we have taken this town’ and there was our man live telling us ‘well I can't see anybody here’. And that's, you know, that's a story. I mean, that's a big story because in a sense the military, the politicians sometimes, have been caught lying. And you could argue that they have not enjoyed those moments and therefore they see little benefit in having that freedom of movement, that freedom of reporting because it challenges their version of the truth sometimes.
MB
Being able to challenge official versions of the truth is an important role of the media in democratic societies, one which the unilateral reporter may be in a stronger position to do, given the fact their reporting is not subject to the same levels of scrutiny or censorship as that of embedded reporters. I asked Stewart about the attitude of the military to these free–roaming and unfettered unilateral reporters:
SP
Completely split. The military commanders basically do not like them at all because they have the potential to embarrass them by revelation. The people on the ground rather like them and quite often do what they can to help them. And the best example of this in 2003 was Mark Austin of ITV News, who was presenting the news every night from the battlefield without being embedded. This caused such extraordinary controversy that even his own – some of his own ITN colleagues who were embedded – complained about him to the military.
MB
Really?
SP
Saying – ‘How come this guy is kind of constantly turning up on the battlefield and doing these reports and he’s not embedded?’ And the answer is ‘Mark is a very experienced operator and knows how to get people on his side.’ So he had got all sorts of middle ranking commanders and frankly, you know, non-commissioned officers to help him do his pieces without any form of accreditation other than that they recognised him as Mark Austin.
MB
We might conclude that the embedded and unilateral reporter, both do valuable but contrasting jobs. The embed has greater access to military commanders and troops, and is a privileged witness of frontline operations – yet they are also restricted in their movements, may have their reports censored and leave themselves open to accusations of siding with their military hosts, by producing propaganda or by ‘going native’. The unilateral reporter has greater freedom of movement and can report independently of military censorship – and plays an important role in what Stewart refers to as ‘revelatory’ reporting. But before you make up your mind about the relative merits and drawbacks of embedded and unilateral reporting you should continue with this week’s readings. On the next page, articles by David Smith and by Justin Lewis offer further insights into the nature of both embedded and unilateral reporting.
 

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371