(Un)real Versions of Experience

By Metin Alsanjak

gatar-tv-station.jpgGatar TV Station

The cross-cultural trade in media imagery during the invasion of Iraq

Nothing could better convey what was happening to Iraq during the invasion than seeing a correspondent standing with a microphone in their hand as bombs destroyed buildings behind them. This was one of the few events that had channels across the world showing the same image.

But the meanings of these images differed greatly according to the country in which they were viewed. In America, the Fox network broadcast images of live bombing to music, whilst the same images in the UK left viewers confused as to whether the broadcast was meant to be showing the horrifying results of conflict or an awesome ‘liberating’ power.

However, one segment of global society was able to get past prescribed national viewing models. These were people with a different ethnic background to that of the country they lived in, privileged through their access to another culture, able to penetrate political and cultural barriers they were not meant to penetrate.

This was never clearer than when Anicita Hudson, an American of Filipino origin, was watching a Filipino news programme via satellite and learned that her son, 23-year-old Army Specialist Joseph Hudson, had been captured by Iraqi forces. Suddenly the scale of media filtering was exposed, and the US Administration’s unwillingness to divulge damaging news about the progress of the campaign to its majority pro-war nation made viewers across the US aware of their lack of information.

This was an important news story for all English-language media: there was more than one version of what was happening, and more importantly, to get a different perspective you had to go beyond English language providers. This one incident told the story of how so many bi-cultural people’s perceptions of the war were being deepened through their access to non-English language media.

Saba Al-Sultani is a British-born Iraqi. Bi-cultural and fluent in Arabic, she has just completed an MA in Intellectual Property Law and made a point of watching Al-Jazeera, the BBC, CNN, Fox, Sky, El Arabia and Kuwait TV on the digital satellite dish in her family home. As a result, her experience of the war mediated via television demanded a sophisticated process of bringing together disparate semantics, breaking down the rhetorics of both image and language.

She remembers that on the same day Al-Jazeera showed fierce resistance at the Port of Umm Qasr (correct), Kuwait TV showed images of people clapping and celebrating the coming of the Americans. “There would never be that many of them, just a few people clapping. Then they would show American soldiers giving sweets to children,” she recalls. In the early days of the war this was doubly enlightening as it exposed more than just Kuwait TV’s image bias. “At Umm Qasr, Al-Jazeera said that in the fighting both sides had lost men. But whenever Western media reported on any clashes and losses they would say it was friendly fire or an accident. This is a war. Soldiers die. But the Western media was not showing it.”

In an interview with Fi Glover on BBC Radio Five Live, Newsweek reporter Rod Norland, who was embedded with the US military in Iraq, argued that not only should people be kept from seeing such extreme images, it was actually an irresponsible thing to do. “You can pick your images. In a conflict as big as this you can run gore all the time, as Al-Jazeera did, and really inflame your audience. In a way, that was really unfair to the conflict. It did have, considering the scope of it, relatively low civilian casualties and very low military casualties, and to show a lot of gore misrepresented that fact.”

According to Norland, the media are responsible for choosing representative images that show the whole story. But this was ignored by the majority of broadcasters and print publications, including Newsweek, when reporting the first big post-war story: SARS. Images of people in masks dominated, images entirely unrepresentative of the wider scope of the story in terms of the threat and spread of the disease in the West.

Besides which, people realise that images in the media are not whole truths in themselves, but part of individual stories that help make up a version of reality for the news story. Perhaps the most semantically fraught image of the war was of the Iraqi boy Ali, who tragically lost his arms, legs and entire family to the bombing. Every channel showed the same pictures of the child in hospital, but the image was being sold to its audience in vastly different ways.

Saba remembers when she saw Ali on Kuwait TV, the channel was trying to use him to do away with past differences between the two countries. “With Ali it seemed like the Kuwaitis were trying to say, ‘We’re not as bad as you think we are and we’re going to prove that by helping this Iraqi child.’” However, the same images on Al-Jazeera conveyed what Saba felt the channel had been trying to do throughout the war, seeking to portray the plight of innocent people.

In the West Ali was broadcast in a totally different light. He was used as a metaphor of hope for Iraq: a wounded child, who lost everything, survives thanks to Coalition medical intervention to tell his story to future generations, free from the tyranny of Saddam.

“It was quite hard for them. They wanted to report the Ali story, but they were trying to come from a different angle.” Saba found this representation of Ali was very difficult to stomach. “What has this child got to do with Saddam? Why should he have to pay the price? If someone is trying to tell you that it’s not as bad as it seems, saying that what has happened to that boy is ok, then that’s insulting.”

Ali becomes a different metaphor for the educated and informed news viewer: he represents the Western media’s willingness to sell their version of reality at any cost, and any image, no matter how horrifying, can be made to fit in with that version of reality.

Metin Alsanjak is a London-based freelance journalist.