A book on war correspondents by my friend Philip Knightley has a pithy title: First Casualty. When wars break out, the First Casualty is truth. The war correspondent becomes the myth maker, an integral part of the war effort.
Fair enough. If the US, Britain and France are at war, say, in Libya, who am I to object to their journalists becoming drumbeaters. The problem arises when that customised coverage becomes the only source of information for the intellectually colonized world.
I myself learnt the hard way that scooping against the national purpose in a war is sacrilege. Sasthi Brata, author of My God Died Young and Confessions of an Indian Woman Eater, walked into my cubicle at The Statesman in New Delhi, and tossed in my direction two type written documents, about 2,000 (two thousand) words each, looking as sinister as only he can look. “Publish these if you have the b….ls.” I was editor of the paper’s Sunday Magazine. Bangladesh was being liberated. Sasthi had sneaked into what was then East Pakistan and given graphic accounts of Indian participation in the war. I published it.
Next morning the Hoogli, Chowringhee Square, Statesman House were in a manner of speaking, all ablaze. What should be done about the more explosive second part due for publication next week? What better way to stop the leak than sink the ship? Sunday Magazine was instantly discontinued. When it resumed after a few months, I was not its editor.
After Sasthi Brata’s alleged recklessness had been tamed, the “war effort” the Indian media joined remained a local affair. It did not inform or shape opinion beyond India. The Nixon-Kissinger duet continued to hate Indira Gandhi till the very end, quite oblivious of the Indian media’s extended patriotic slants.
The situation now is totally different because all perceptions of an event like Libya are dominated by the global media inaugurated by CNN’s Peter Arnett from the terrace of Al Rashied hotel in Baghdad during operation Desert Storm. This one event altered the global media hierarchy.
Until Desert Storm, BBC radio was by far the most credible and influential news source anywhere in the world. I remember Nelson Mandela’s first day out of prison in Archbishop Tutu’s house in Cape Town. Religiously, every hour, he would bend to pick up a transistor he kept by the wall, listening to BBC World Service.
There was always a lull in the continuous, sputtering sound of small arms fire during the Sierra Leone war, at specific hours when BBC Africa Calling was broadcast.
During an election campaign in Mahmudabad, UP, Mark Tully and Waqar Ahmad were startled by an elderly man, relaxing on a cot under a mango tree, when he refused to divulge his voting intentions. “I will first listen the BBC” he said “then make up my mind”.
That was the credibility of BBC radio which its TV avatar has wilfully surrendered by constantly dissembling in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now in Libya.
Suddenly, a battery of the BBC’s TV stars, led by Liz Ducet, materialise along the stretch from the Egyptian border to Benghazi and beyond. You see men in jeans making V signs from a ramshackle station wagon. The reporter describes these as “advancing” rebels.
The clever Miss Ducet scoots from the implausible visuals, to keep her credibility for another invasion, armed intervention.
Meanwhile, John Simpson appears in what he says is Tripoli. No-fly-zone, regime change, arm the rebels, but supposing they are Al Qaeda, NATO air strikes killing civilians and so on, are parallel stories.
But an undeterred Mister Simpson, his neck at a perpetual tilt, dons a plausible manner: “Well, to be honest, the picture here, I doubt if anyone can, the rebels too…”, he continues, even as focus shifts to Ivory Coast until the props in Libya are ready to make fireworks more telegenic. Only last Monday a CIA operative with a satellite phone and chests full of money is rumoured to have reached Benghazi. CNN will now certainly revert to Libya and BBC will follow.
That’s the BBC for you in a war no one is clear about. Oh! Give me BBC radio any day.
Author is senior journalist and political commentator and can be mailed at email@example.com