Monday 7 April 2003

A morally hollow victory

No amount of PR will disguise the fact that this war is an outrage against humanity

The showdown approaches and the propaganda war moves on. Do not linger on images of a shroud-wrapped infant with a dummy clamped between grey lips. Do not think of a mother clasping the broken bodies of her two children in the car shot up at a military checkpoint. Or, if you cannot remove them from your memory, see such killings as the necessary price of liberation.

Be mindful, as the endgame plays out, of the Home Secretary's guidelines on war coverage. Some British journalists, he complains, are reporting the conflict in a manner that lends 'moral equivalence' to the Iraqi regime and encourages a 'progressive and liberal public' to believe this distorted version. Mr Blunkett, who yesterday embellished his assertions, is doubly wrong. There is no bias, nor the slightest hint that Bush, Blair and Saddam register equally on the weighbridge of tyranny.

On the separate question of whether Iraqi acts of war are on a par with those of the coalition, the answer is also simple. Ours are sometimes worse. The spectre of chemical attack remains, but, amid Iraqi Scuds unfired and bio-weapons undiscovered, reality trumps fear. The cluster-bombing of civilians by an invading force proclaiming its superior power is an outrage against humanity and the Geneva Convention.

The Government defends their use. Clare Short's conscience has not visibly twitched. Geoff Hoon, when asked on Radio 4 to consider Iraqi mothers mourning their dead children, demonstrated the compassion of a haddock. How unsurprising that, from Basingstoke to Basra, the Whitehall psy-ops department has failed to win its PR battle.

This, politicians say, is partly the fault of a feral media. Making 'snap judgments' on the basis of television footage is dangerous, according to the Foreign Secretary of a government that invited us to judge Saddam's mindset on the basis of a plagiarised PhD thesis. The First and Second World Wars might never have been won, Jack Straw mused, if they had been covered by 24-hour news channels.

It is true that war reporting has speeded up since AD 106, the year that Trajan commissioned the column offering a picture chronicle of his Romanian campaign. The Bayeux Tapestry, many years in the making after the Norman Conquest, could not compete with any factual embroidery confected between Channel 4 News and The World Tonight .

But reporters have been embedded since Crimea and before. The Dunkirk spirit would almost certainly have withstood those images of conflict fit to be shown on Sky. In fairness, Mr Straw acknowledged the merits of front-line news and deplored delay and censorship that once 'helped governments to suppress the truth'.

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