Media Watch: "I’m a firm believer that all aspects of the story of war need to be told"
Michael appeared on a television program in Brisbane to discuss the difficulties of reporting from embeds.
Are these Defence Force sponsored trips serving the public or military and political interests?
MW: It's very difficult for me to comment on Australian media stories about the Australian Defence Force in Iraq. Obviously I'm not in Australia to consume these stories. In Baghdad we don't see a great deal of it. The smattering that I have seen, however -- you know, there's a great risk with embedding with any forces, Australian or any other kind, is that the journalist can fall into the trap where they become too closely linked with their host. So in some of the reports I've seen there's very much a mirroring of the Defence Force message. It's almost as if, instead of a journalist, you're listening to a military Public Affairs Officer ticking off the key talking points. Obviously that's something that everyone must struggle with and it's something that people must be very guarded against. However, you still see pieces coming out of some of these embeds that are illuminating or are making significant attempts at telling a broader story, such as one I saw about the reconstruction of an attack on an Australian patrol. That piece, for example, at least attempted to give a broader context. Most of what we see simply doesn't do that and I think that's at a great risk of doing a disservice to the public.
If the public only receives limited news coverage, is it better than receiving nothing at all?
MW: Well, embeds are multi-faceted things, when you join with a military unit. Obviously the military has its message it's trying to deliver through you the journalist. However, you also have your own obligations. There's a great responsibility incumbent upon the journalist to look beyond the immediacy of the embed and to try and draw a bigger picture. You need to be constantly aware that the very carefully stage-managed sliver that you are being shown by the Public Affairs Officers does not address the big picture, and one must always try to keep the broader context in mind. So if the only way you can access the conflict is through an embed, then yes, I say take them, but you must be cognizant of the heavy onus upon you, as the journalist, to look beyond that.
Is there any value in telling such limited stories?
MW: I’m a firm believer that all aspects of the story of war need to be told, and that includes the drudgery and mundanity of the life of the ordinary soldier or digger, so of course there is a value and a worth to providing that snapshot, but as long as its presented as precisely that – a snapshot of that particular aspect of the war. One can’t allow people to think that that defines the war. I mean, this is one of the most complex stories in the world at the moment, and to think that you can parachute in on a dog and pony show tour for just a few days and then use that as a representation of the broader war or the broader dynamic there or the, in fact, actual impact, for example, that Australian troops are having, is erroneous in the extreme. I mean, that’s a grave mistake. It verges on arrogance with a hint of ignorance, and I have heard some of that in some of the broadcasting that I have listened to that has come out of some of these embeds in Iraq, people using these very narrowly defined pictures to try and extrapolate from that -- as we said, a well-crafted picture that was presented to them in a controlled environment -- as a broader lesson. What that ignores is what's around these Australian troops. Who's really in control? When we talk about the Australian troops training Iraqi security forces, then I think it's incumbent upon us as a journalist to remind people that even the Western military intelligence openly admits that many of these Iraqi security forces are in fact controlled by militias, many of whom are backed by Iran. Indeed, we see in the southern city of Nasiriyah, where the Australian base is located just outside, there was a clash last week between two rival Iranian-backed Shia factions, taking the combat into the streets. It just so happens that one of those factions is in government uniform.
Is it possible for embedded reporters to break away from the itinerary?
MW: Well, I haven't done one of these Australian Defence Force embeds in Iraq per se, but I have literally done dozens and dozens and dozens of embeds, with American forces, Iraqi forces, Afghan forces, British forces, and I have embedded with virtually every kind of unit that has been engaged in these wars, from airborne troops to special forces to mechanized infantry to ground troops, and I can tell you that it all depends on the particular unit, on the particular commander, and the particular nature of the embed. Now, many of these Australian embeds are clearly presented as efforts to show the good work that Australian troops are doing in terms of reconstruction. It's very clear that that's how these embeds are framed and offered. The difficulty for the journalist is making sure that it's represented in a much broader sense than that. That if you're talking about an embed when you're showing reconstruction then you must make it very clear that that was the purpose of this and you must make it clear that there were certain things, perhaps, that you couldn't see. I mean, for example, you go and see a village -- as one Australian journalist called it, to get a reality check or to see the reality of the situation -- that statement alone just illuminates the delusional nature that some journalists have on these embeds. To think that going in with a platoon or a company-minor sized force of Australian troops into a village in Iraq is any way a snapshot of the reality on the ground is, honestly, beyond belief. I mean, that is a very artificial environment, and one can't take that and think that that represents the true situation, and you must reflect that in your journalism.
Do journalists feel pressure to file stories even if there isn't one?
MW: Well, I have been on any number of embeds where I actually haven't filed a story because at the end of the day there may not be one. Now, one needs to be very frank with the unit and the military that's hosting you and one should tell them that, that there is no news value or that there is nothing of substance that you feel compelled to report. However, many people worry about their relationships, obviously, with the military. Some people feel this pressure that is self-imposed, to deliver, to maintain that relationship with the military. One must guard very carefully about that. And also, we can't ignore the pressures that will be coming from employers, from media companies that are sending journalists on these relatively unique opportunities to go and visit Australian troops, for example, in Iraq. The media organizations would be expecting a product as well. So in these particular cases where the opportunities are so rare, where the Australian Defence Force is still struggling terribly with its concept of how to handle the media and the truth and how transparent to be, that whilst we're in that environment and these opportunities are so infrequent, then that pressure from employers will continue, and that also must be guarded against.
Why do you say the Australian Defence Force is struggling with its media management?
MW: Well, from the experiences I have had with the Australian Defence Force, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq, they very much seem to have more of an old-school kind of military mentality towards the media. Now, the American army -- which is obviously much larger, much brawnier, dealing with a much more complex environment -- is also going through an evolution in how it handles the media, but it's far ahead of the Australian Defence Forces. The Defence Force's natural reaction is to see the media as a problem or to see it even as -- some people describe it as the enemy. I mean, many Australian officers I speak to, for example, don't believe that they should be giving embeds at all, so controlled should the information flow be. Yet the Americans have come to realize that particularly in this kind of insurgent warfare or where it's a war against terror, the true battlefield is on the television. It's on the internet. It's the information war. And that's where the Americans openly admit their enemies are much more adept than they are. The Australian Defence Force is far from reaching this kind of awareness, let alone coming to terms with dealing with the media appropriately.
What options are there to talk to the Iraqi people, especially Arabic speaking Iraqis?
MW: Well, this is the great dilemma of reporting in Iraq: the journalist's ability to actually get to the story, particularly to get to it before it's distilled down by the many interests in these conflicts who are motivated to lie -- that's our government, the American government, the Iraqi government, the insurgents, the militias. To actually see it for yourself is now increasingly difficult. The threat of kidnap, the threat of carbomb, the threat of assassination, the simple violence in the street, being caught in a firefight -- all make this so logistically difficult to get to the truth, so sometimes the military is your only vehicle, your only way in. Yet even if they are, there is still this moral weight upon you to at least try and address the other interests that the military will not reflect. Now, a very simple mechanism to do that in this modern age, in this modern kind of warfare is through the internet. For each embed where I go with American or other troops into a combat zone or a battle in Iraq, what I automatically do is check the insurgent websites for any of their footage or any of their statements about the same areas or the same battles. Now, everything must be taken through a very heavy filter. This is all about propaganda on all sides, but nonetheless, from that you can at least glean some sense of the other side of the coin.
How hard is it to get the other side of the story from the Iraqi locals?
MW: Well, it's much more difficult for people just parachuting in on a quick-hit mission. If they're with the military, then they have absolutely zero chance of getting any kind of genuine reality check from the locals, because you need to bear in mind, Iraqi villagers or Iraqis in their homes in the cities, whenever they're talking to a uniformed Western soldier, he's not alone. There's bound to be armor or support vehicles with heavy weapons. They travel in reasonably large numbers. You also know that air support is never far away. So, often you find that people will just quite simply tell the soldier what they think the soldier wants to hear. And the same will go for you. Because not only are you surrounded by soldiers but most likely your only recourse to speaking with the Iraqis is through the military translator. And I've caught translators on film working for the military brazenly lying or mistranslating to their own officers in the American forces. So the only other way, the only way, to get the true voice of Iraq is to be there on the ground yourself, with your own Iraqi translator, and finding your own means of moving about, and that's inherent with all the potentially deadly factors that are part of working in Iraq.