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War and Pandemic Journalism

During both, the truth can quickly disappear.

by Patrick Cockburn 

Part 4 - Disappearing News

By its nature, reporting wars is always going to be difficult and dangerous work, but it has become more so in these years. Coverage of Washington’s Afghan and Iraqi wars was often inadequate, but not as bad as the more recent reporting from war-torn Libya and Syria or its near total absence from the disaster that is Yemen. This lack fostered misconceptions even when it came to fundamental questions like who is actually fighting whom, for what reasons, and just who are the real prospective winners and losers.

Of course, there is little new about propaganda, controlling the news, or spreading “false facts.” Ancient Egyptian pharaohs inscribed self-glorifying and mendacious accounts of their battles on monuments, now thousands of years old, in which their defeats are lauded as heroic victories. What is new about war reporting in recent decades is the far greater sophistication and resources that governments can deploy in shaping the news. With opponents like longtime Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein, demonization was never too difficult a task because he was a genuinely demonic autocrat.

Yet the most influential news story about the Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait in 1990 and the U.S.-led counter-invasion proved to be a fake. This was a report that, in August 1990, invading Iraqi soldiers had tipped babies out of incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital and left them to die on the floor. A Kuwaiti girl reported to have been working as a volunteer in the hospital swore before a U.S. congressional committee that she had witnessed that very atrocity. Her story was hugely influential in mobilizing international support for the war effort of the administration of President George H.W. Bush and the U.S. allies he teamed up with.

In reality it proved purely fictional. The supposed hospital volunteer turned out to be the daughter of the Kuwaiti ambassador in Washington. Several journalists and human rights specialists expressed skepticism at the time, but their voices were drowned out by the outrage the tale provoked. It was a classic example of a successful propaganda coup: instantly newsworthy, not easy to disprove, and when it was — long after the war — it had already had the necessary impact, creating support for the U.S.-led coalition going to war with Iraq.

In a similar fashion, I reported on the American war in Afghanistan in 2001-2002 at a time when coverage in the international media had left the impression that the Taliban had been decisively defeated by the U.S. military and its Afghan allies. Television showed dramatic shots of bombs and missiles exploding on the Taliban front lines and Northern Alliance opposition forces advancing unopposed to “liberate” the Afghan capital, Kabul.

When, however, I followed the Taliban retreating south to Kandahar Province, it became clear to me that they were not by any normal definition a beaten force, that their units were simply under orders to disperse and go home. Their leaders had clearly grasped that they were over-matched and that it would be better to wait until conditions changed in their favor, something that had distinctly happened by 2006, when they went back to war in a big way. 

They then continued to fight in a determined fashion to the present day. By 2009, it was already dangerous to drive beyond the southernmost police station in Kabul due to the risk that Taliban patrols might create pop-up checkpoints anywhere along the road.

None of the wars I covered then have ever really ended. What has happened, however, is that they have largely ended up receding, if not disappearing, from the news agenda. I suspect that, if a successful vaccine for Covid-19 isn’t found and used globally, something of the same sort could happen with the coronavirus pandemic as well.

Given the way news about it now dominates, even overwhelms, the present news agenda, this may seem unlikely, but there are precedents. In 1918, with World War I in progress, governments dealt with what came to be called the Spanish Flu by simply suppressing information about it. Spain, as a non-combatant in that war, did not censor the news of the outbreak in the same fashion and so the disease was most unfairly named “the Spanish Flu,” though it probably began in the United States.

The polio epidemic in Cork supposedly ended abruptly in mid-September 1956 when the local press stopped reporting on it, but that was at least two weeks before many children like me caught it. In a similar fashion, right now, wars in the Middle East and north Africa like the ongoing disasters in Libya and Syria that once got significant coverage now barely get a mention much of the time.

In the years to come, the same thing could happen to the coronavirus.

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