Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 760-769)


2 JULY 2003

  Q760  Mr Roy: Or if someone in London who was reading The Daily Mirror contacted Baghdad.

  Ms Gillan: Obviously there are implications in things like that. That was a mistake but it does show you that intelligence can be gathered from these types of pieces, and that is why the serious issues of censorship I was talking about we understand have to be done, and why "red smoke" has to be taken out and why it can be changed to "coloured smoke". Those are the vital things that we understand. It is just the other stuff.

  Q761  Chairman: If you read Russell's reports to The Times of the Crimean War, he was under no inhibition whatsoever as to what he wrote, and the Russians were getting much of their intelligence from reading The Times.

  Mr Hewitt: I think it is always a very difficult line, and every conflict is a little bit different in terms of what the intelligence capability of the Iraqis, or the other side, is. There is no question it is a cultural thing. The Americans, although I do not think necessarily it was taken advantage of by all their reporters, incline to greater freedom. Simply listening to Audrey, I just think nobody ever spoke to me at all about phrases. They could hear me on the World Service and the American presumption is one that, in the end, the people on whose behalf the soldiers are there, on the whole, have a right to know as much as they can. As I say, the only restrictions were that you could not say "Later this afternoon this is what is going to happen". That, obviously, seems to be self-evidently wise, but in terms of whether you end up saying "Look, the soldiers were frightened today" or whatever, they would never have prevented me from saying that. I am surprised, and I know a little bit about the background to it. The Pentagon took a view, against the instinct of a lot of its commanders, that this war would be different. Back in 1991 reporters were largely excluded from where the real fighting was taking place. There were one or two people who got facilities but, on the whole, the idea was if you involve the cameras all kinds of problems come along. This time there was a total change of attitude. In fact I went to a meeting with people from the Pentagon and they said "We have decided to make a real change of approach and to allow access on the battlefield", and that is what we got. I actually believe there were occasions—we did not have to attach ourselves to units, which the unilaterals had to for their safety—when we did have, within the confines of the fact that you were travelling with the 3rd Infantry Division, an enormous amount of freedom and I was staggered by that amount of freedom. As far as I know, I think the Americans' view of that was not taken advantage of. There was quite a lot of critical writing but I do not think they feel that people revealed secrets. Certainly, this kind of minute detail about what flares were emitted from aircraft—nobody was ever, ever talking to us about that. I can see, even as a journalist, conflicts where maybe a more sophisticated intelligence-gathering capability on behalf of the other side, if you like, would need greater restrictions. I did not feel that on this occasion.

  Q762  Mr Howarth: You have variously talked about exercising self-restraint, Mr Thompson and Mr Hewitt, and you have also expressed the view that you recognise it was a responsibility resting upon you. I think Bill Neely made a very important point about would this all have been different had the conflict been longer and had we sustained many more British casualties. That is a question we cannot answer at the moment. If we look at the news values, do you feel that you were under pressure to report more graphic scenes than perhaps your bosses back at home would be prepared to accept? Did you feel any responsibility to exercise self-restraint yourselves in what you showed?

  Mr Neely: I think it is not just this war; probably for all of us in the last 20 years—certainly all the time I have been a television journalist—there has been self-censorship. There is an issue about showing bodies, body parts and blood on British television. A lot of our colleagues, especially in Italy and Spain, for example, do not have these restrictions; al-Jazeera, I think, do not feel restricted in that way. There is no doubt that for the last 20 years in whatever I have done I have been aware, and the cameramen are especially aware, not to shoot blood, not to shoot brains; you shoot in a way that suggests the horror of an incident, or the tragedy of an incident. You might shoot a hand, and that can be very powerful and suggestive. I am not arguing against that either. I think the idea "Yes, we have got to show horrific scenes" is too crude; you can portray a great deal by that. In fact, I think one of the most graphic shots we took was of two Iraqis in a trench who had been hit by C120 gunfire, and one of them was clutching a stick upon which was a white towel, and he had obviously been signalling from the trench. Now, the top of his head was blown off, which we could not show, but the mere shot of the hands and this crude flag was tremendously powerful. You knew—and I said it in the commentary anyway—the man was dead but you did not show a great deal. I did not feel under any pressure whatsoever. I feel, I suppose—and maybe this is going off the point—that we are too squeamish and that we have self-censored ourselves rather too much in the media. One of the first experiences I had (I grew up in Belfast) was watching an incident known as Bloody Friday, in which the BBC took a very courageous decision 20 minutes before broadcast to show scenes of security officers shovelling people's parts into black plastic bags. They took that decision, I think, to show what terrorism meant. It did not offend me at the time. I think the general feeling was that it was a courageous and right thing to do. I feel, as a broadcaster, we show far too little. I am not an advocate for just gratuitously showing foreign conflicts, such as Liberia—"Let's show that man being executed on screen"—and we are all very aware of the watershed at 9 o'clock, before which children might be watching. However, I think some review of how we show things and when we show things is necessary. To answer your direct question, no, I did not feel under any pressure from any outside force, the pressure was inside me.

  Mr Hewitt: I would like to go along with that. There was never any pressure from BBC management in terms of how I shoot this, but there was one occasion as we were coming along the highway into Baghdad when I saw both civilians who had been somehow caught up in it and Iraqis lying there. When I said to the cameraman, Peter Giggliotti (?),"pull wide", I regret that, because that historical record of a very bloody day, when a lot of civilians did get killed, is actually not there. Later on I thought to myself—

  Q763  Mr Howarth: What does "pull wide" mean?

  Mr Hewitt: "Pull wide" means, rather as Bill has been describing; you can either go in for some quite graphic close-ups or you can go much wider and you have a general impression. What brought this home to me was that when I was discussing this later there were people saying that what was a strange thing sometimes, watching the ten o'clock news, was that the film that ran after the ten o'clock news made in Hollywood was actually more graphic than we had shown about a conflict that actually our troops were involved in. That does worry me. I think there is a limit and it is a very difficult one to work out what it is, because if you did show absolutely what you see there people would switch off, they would tune out, and that does not help anybody. Certainly the one thing about my own reporting from the war that has concerned me the most is whether I can convey actually what war is really like when it involves civilians. I think sometimes there is a sense that war is about machines and armour and actually not that war is about individuals, human beings. I think it is a very difficult line. I was certainly under no pressure, nobody was `phoning me up on the satellite `phone saying "Listen, be careful about that"; it was just my view, which, as I say, I have altered a little bit since I have been back, that this would not be acceptable. Yet there were two particular days when in terms of the accuracy of the reporting of the war it would have been better if I had actually said to the cameraman "Look, let's just show this how we are seeing it because I think that is something that the audience should see as well". So I would probably go along with what Bill says; I think we were too squeamish but I think we have to be very careful and the line is a difficult one—difficult for editors and difficult for members of the public as well.

  Q764  Mr Howarth: So they did not edit it down for the domestic audience?

  Mr Hewitt: Not that I know of. You send out your report and you do not quite know what goes on. As far as I understand, I was never edited down. I think it is actually more a question of self-censorship, sensing "Well, maybe we should not do this." That is how it happened, not the other way round.

  Q765  Mr Howarth: Very quickly, what Frank Roy said is an experience that I also shared, which is that watching a firefight live on television is a pretty arresting experience, and we came perilously close, in my view, to that being shown. I represent a garrison town and there is a real problem with the families back home, some of whom are glued to the television 24 hours a day to look for their husband. If I can just flag you that.

  Mr Thompson: I think we are all aware that there is going to be a point soon when, sadly, somebody is going to die live in front of the camera. I think that is a very real concern we all have. We are aware of the technological developments. The technological advances this time meant that, in effect, we out there reporting were ahead, really, of Downing Street, Whitehall, gutter, Pentagon and everywhere else, as they said repeatedly in their briefings: "We cannot confirm what your guys have just reported live from the field". The technology, in a way, is maybe galloping ahead of how we all deal with it and how we all cope with it and what our sensibilities are, and certainly galloping ahead, in some cases, of how politicians and military people respond to that. I think it is going to be very difficult to restrain and constrain that technology now.

  Q766  Mr Roy: Just on that point, what would have happened if one of those troops we had been watching for half-an-hour on a Saturday afternoon had been killed? You would not have known it was going to happen, it was going to happen live and for the families and the general constituencies watching it, that is not a form of entertainment or voyeurism for anyone. That is a very serious matter, and it is going to happen at some point.

  Mr Hewitt: It is. The Americans went further this time. They were much more aware of how they could use this access and they developed the technology this time of being able to report live, on the move, from the battlefield. I know that the BBC and I am sure Sky and ITN are looking at using that technology in future. Why? Because there clearly is an audience who wants that sense of being there. The problem with it is precisely the one that there may well come a time when you cause huge distress to people, and distress I do not think you could justify. I do not think the Americans in this particular war had that experience, but I know that that technology is already there. One of the things that we will all have to face next time round—if there is another conflict—is that the technology will be there to show war as it unfolds. What do you do with that? How far do you go?

  Q767  Mr Roy: What is its purpose?

  Mr Hewitt: I think there can be a purpose, in the sense that there is huge—from the all-news channels—interest. The audiences went up. There is an interest for that sense of watching things as they unfold. I think that is part of keeping people informed, allowing them to see it as it unfolds. Obviously the limitation is that sometimes as you see something unfold it does not have the context, you do not quite know what it means, and at some stage you have to stop that coverage and put the context in there. I think it will be very difficult to say "We are not going to go in for that live coverage" because a lot of people, I think, feel it is their democratic right to see it. It will be very difficult.

  Q768  Mr Howarth: I think we could be here for a very long time arguing that one, but unfortunately time is running out. Can I just ask Jeremy Thompson a very quick question? What are your views on the hiring of armed guards for unilateral journalists?

  Mr Thompson: I find it of great concern. As far as I am aware it did not happen in the British media but it did happen in the American media. There is certainly a move towards the media generally starting to have people with military experience—ex-military men, ex-Special Forces—going along as consultants, if you like, as advisers to help us avoid some of the pitfalls in battle zones. Quite a number of us feel that it slipped over the line of good sense when it appeared in some cases (and it appears to be on American networks) that some of those armed minders started carrying weapons and, in fact, used them in exchanges with Iraqi defensive positions. Again, unfortunately, we feel that is an added danger for journalists because it takes us further down the line of us being drawn into a role as combatants rather than independent observers.

  Q769  Chairman: Thank you all very much, that was really enthralling. We hope we do not have to see you in similar exchanges for some considerable time. Most of us have had quite enough conflict. I am sure it is a wonderful experience, positively and negatively in some respects. Thank you very much for coming.

  Mr Hewitt: Thank you.

  Mr Neely: Thank you.

  Mr Thompson: Thank you.

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