The media has always published images of death, mutilation, humiliation and starvation.
The practice is part of the media’s stock in trade and often shocking images have prompted the urgent global intervention a particular political or humanitarian crisis requires. In many ways, it’s a noble tradition.
This renders irrelevant any outrage about the ethics of releasing images of Uday and Qusay Hussein and, as for Washington’s doublethink (pictures of charred US servicemen in March contravene the Geneva convention; pictures of dead children of a dictator in July don’t), well, that’s just par for the course.
Bob Steele, a “journalism ethics expert” at the Poynter Institute, Florida, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying “there is an inconsistency, even a paradox, perhaps hypocrisy, when the government strongly endorses the release of certain information and then strongly censors other information and restricts its release”.
Thanks Bob. If we hadn’t had an expert in journalism ethics available to comment, I doubt we’d have worked that out. Governments are hypocritical? Hold the front page.
The real issue here is not ethics and playground namecalling (“if you say it’s wrong for me to do it, why’s it right for you?” etc ad infinitum).
The central questions are: what was the Bush administration’s motivation in making the images public and how did the outcomes relate to the stated objectives?
Since this is war, this is PR and the Uday and Qusay photograph incident, planned as a surgical media strike, has turned mucky (both in media and military terms) because no one had the sense to think through the PR implications properly. It’s been a total PR disaster.
Donald Rumsfeld said (in his characteristically clunky, laborious style) “these two individuals were particularly vicious individuals… they are now dead… the Iraqi people have been waiting for confirmation of that and they, in my view, deserve to have confirmation of that”.
He also observed “the strategic importance of the killings… is to help us persuade the Iraqi people that we have liberated the country”.
Lieutenant Paul Brenner, the US administrator of Iraq, also pointed out the deaths of Uday and Qusay and the publication of the images would ultimately “help reduce the security threat to our forces”.
To dispatch the military argument first: Lt Brenner, while talking up the “reduced threat”, also remarked “I would not be surprised to see an uptick in violence against our forces [following the release of the photos]”.
This was (unremarkably) prescient because three soldiers from the 101st Airborne were ambushed and killed following the deaths of Uday and Qusay.
Of course, “there was no evidence it was a revenge attack” according to a US army source. If that source had listened to the Saddam Fedayeen spokesperson in the national media he might have thought otherwise.
After the deaths of the brothers, that spokesperson said: “We pledge to… continue in the jihad against the infidels. The killing of Uday and Qusay will be avenged. We will not decrease attacks against the Americans but rather increase them.”
Am I missing something, or are there more than a few contradictions in this catalogue of events and pronouncements?
But it’s with regard to convincing the people of Iraq that the whole exercise has been in pursuit of liberation that this project has most signally failed.
In Baghdad, faith in the Americans and the truth of the images is not universal. I see the Hindustan Times features a story about the front page of the Islamist newspaper Iraqi Life.
Iraqi Life, it says, recently “carried a story about an alleged phone conversation between US President George W Bush and Saddam just hours before US air strikes rang in the war on March 20. Bush tells Saddam: ‘You are to obey what our agent in Baghdad tells you. Keep holding military meetings and appearing on TV. You must not worry, our agent in Baghdad will get you out safe. Have all your belongings packed.'”
This is just one among a bewildering array of conspiracy theories concerning the activities and whereabouts of Saddam Hussein and his cohorts that are rife within Baghdad and in the wider community (as the most cursory visit to the wonderfully weird world of blogging bears witness).
Cynicism is entirely understandable under current circumstances. It was, therefore, the White House’s PR duty to shut down the tiniest loopholes in the story before it was ever released for public consumption.
To hold together in media terms the story of the deaths of Uday and Qusay demanded science – positive identification based on the presentation of dental records, fingerprints and DNA, plus solid eyewitness accounts with cast-iron alibis, plus a clear narrative relating to the pursuit of the brothers and the completion of the mission.
Even with this evidence in place, the story would still have been open to question, but the margin for error would have been minimized significantly. In the event, none of this was forthcoming.
Instead, the US decided to shoot itself in the foot with shocking naivety.¾The monumental blunders were to bring in the morticians to remodel Hussein’s sons faces, to permit the photographing of the process and to permit the filming of the photographing of the process.
I can only think this was perceived as an exercise in exemplary openness that would demonstrate everything was thoroughly above board and was even respectful to the dead.
In fact, it simply triggered every possible alarm bell, not just in the Iraqi media but throughout the world.
Clearly, if a face can be remodelled at will the collective consciousness would argue its final form could bear no resemblance to the original. As the Americans admitted themselves.¾ From the Age: “an official, speaking to a pool correspondent at Baghdad airport where the corpses are being held, said the reconstruction was done to ‘make them resemble as closely as possible the faces of the brothers when they were alive'”.
What adviser, in God’s name, could have briefed this guy? You don’t have to be a rabid, anti-American conspiracy theorist fanatic to conclude, from that, that maybe these two weren’t Uday and Qusay. After all (when it suits) the White House has been banging on about Saddam’s doubles for long enough.
Quite apart from this blatantly obvious concern, the mortician story provided an additional hook on which to hang debates about taste, ethics, decency and integrity.
To all intents and purposes, Bush and his friends deliberately decided to take Route 1 to a comprehensive PR collapse that will do nothing to further the credibility of the administration.
Perhaps they felt this success story would dig them out of the hole being created by the revelations of increasingly creaky pre-war intelligence.
On the contrary, the whole episode just makes the hole bigger and blacker and will continue to have ramifications for the US in terms of public confidence in its pronouncements for years to come.
And what about tag-along Tony, the man with the special relationship, floundering in his very own 45-minute, dodgy dossier, imaginary uranium and (un)intelligence crisis – a crisis his good buddy exacerbated by undermining the UK’s shaky account of events?
Well, while he gets no support when he desperately needs it, he certainly gets hit by the fallout and his credibility takes a further hammering when Bush’s PR goes so spectacularly arse about face.
With friends like these, who needs Iraqi enemies or a fretful fourth estate gunning to get you?
Perhaps – just perhaps – there might be a beneficial outcome from this nightmare. It might encourage Blair to consider – at least consider – the virtues of a trial separation from his increasingly troublesome lover.
It didn’t have to be like this. There’s a strong likelihood these were Saddam’s sons, I’m sure. So why do so many people disbelieve it? Because the administration mismanaged the information and because – so bizarrely given the media history of this conflict – it was honest about the way in which it opted to manufacture an image to suit the needs of the media.