The Guardian, Television reports produced by “embedded” correspondents in the Iraq conflict gave a sanitised picture of war, according to an academic study published by the BBC today.
Researchers found that although reporters who accompanied the British and US military were able to be objective, they avoided images that would be too graphic or violent for British television. Some of the coverage resembled a “war film”.
Today, a senior BBC news executive will make a controversial case for desanitising the presentation of war on British television. In a speech to a conference of broadcasters in Budapest, Mark Damazer, deputy director of BBC News, will say the current position is a “disservice to democracy”.
He told the Guardian last night: “For reasons that are laudable and honourable, we have got to a situation where our coverage has become sanitised. We are running the risk of double standards, and it is not a service to democracy.”
British television viewers have not seen images of dead or injured British soldiers since the Falklands war, he said. “The culture has become more and not less sanitised over the years. We have a problem, and we need to start a debate about this.”
But Mr Damazer, who stressed he was speaking in a personal capacity, said viewers were not being presented with the full picture. “I'm not saying we should go fully down the al-Jazeera route and show everything, but we need to move from where we are.”
The BBC-commissioned research will be discussed at NewsXchange conference in Budapest today. It showed that the corporation, like most other British broadcasters, tended towards “pro-war assumptions”. The least pro-war broadcaster was Channel 4. The study is the most comprehensive yet, covering 1,500 individual reports.
Professor Justin Lewis, deputy director of the Cardiff journalism school, said: “The criticisms that were made at the time, that the embedded reporters were more likely to give a pro-war spin, do not hold up.
“But we do have some reservations, particularly about the narrative that is created by embedded reports, where the only discussion is about who's winning and who's losing, with little of the wider picture.”
Although British broadcasters were not guilty of the overt pro-war bias of their US counterparts, they tended to assume the truth of what they had been told. In nine out of 10 references to weapons of mass destruction during the war, there was an assumption that Iraq possessed them.
Broadcasters were twice as likely to show Iraqi enthusiasm for the coalition forces as suspicion or hostility.
Mr Damazer said the BBC report exposed the poor quality of official briefings. “The quality was too low for what we should expect in a pluralist democracy,” he said.