Wednesday 2 April 2003

The battle for our hearts and minds

Everything is going wrong on the coalition's propaganda front

Fetch Tony Fetch.... Good boy.... Iraq is winning the propaganda war against the coalition. The British government admits it. David Blunkett, the home secretary, says we are regarded as the villains. The government's spin specialist Alastair Campbell has called for a media shake-up, and in Kuwait the coalition's Psychological Operations Tactical Group for Special Ground Forces Command (Psyops) is working on an emergency plan to regain the propaganda initiative.

Everything has gone wrong on the propaganda front. The widespread coverage of the deaths of British servicemen at the hands of their US allies, the shooting by US troops of Iraqi women and children, horrific TV footage from al-Jazeera of Iraqi civilians killed in bombing raids on Baghdad, the contradictory statements from the military briefers, and the failure of Iraqis to turn out to welcome their "liberators".

From Bush and Rumsfeld to Blair and Straw, the message had been that Iraqi soldiers would surrender en masse and that once ordinary Iraqis realised Britain and the US had come to "liberate" them, they would rise against Saddam and his thugs and throw them out. This did not happen. It became clear that Iraq was going to fight back and that although millions of Iraqis might hate Saddam, other millions admired him as the one Arab leader prepared to stand up to the Americans.

As media comment turned from "Support out boys" and "It'll all be over in a few days" to "Defiance grows", "Marines turn fire on civilians at the bridge of death" and "I see soldiers shoot children", Campbell ordered the Ministry of Defence to "get the big picture out there". The Labour party chairman, John Reid, had sharp words with the BBC, Campbell rang the BBC news department to complain, the Pentagon asked the BBC and American media groups to withdraw their correspondents from Baghdad, and under pressure from the Pentagon, the US broadcaster NBC sacked celebrated journalist Peter Arnett for saying on Iraqi TV that the coalition's initial war plan had failed.

But the most devastating assessment of the coalition's propaganda failure came in a recent Russian-intercepted secret Psyops report. It analyses the effectiveness of the coalition's campaign to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis. Using Iraqi TV broadcasts, intercepted radio communications, interrogations of Iraqi prisoners of war and summaries of British and US media coverage, Psyops concluded that Iraqis were more stable and confident than they were in the last days before the war. The report said that the coalition had little time to change this attitude before what Psyops people call "a resistance ideology" developed, making an eventual coalition victory even more difficult.

The report proposed: bringing all Iraqi PoWs into impressively large groups and offering the world's media a photo opportunity; making more use of Iraqi opposition groups; and persuading Iraqis in "liberated" areas to speak out against Saddam Hussein.

The trouble with this approach is that the media has become suspicious of stories handed to it on a plate. Even if some western correspondents might fall for such an operation, Arab and neutral reporters would expose it.

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