Byline by MJ Akbar: A date in Basra
Ever wondered about the difference between light and highlight? Information is softly diffused light across a flat surface. Highlight is the little bits we journalists select and treat as news. Information has no dimensions. It may not be totally accurate, since deadlines are the soot that nourishes the fog of fact; but it is more objective. News is subject to the journalist’s assumptions, convictions and prejudices even when he (or, increasingly, she) tries to be carefully neutral.
Patriotism leaves a natural and even understandable tint across the telescope when you view distant events. When you are British, sitting in London, and two British soldiers have clearly messed it up in spades, the heavy weight of the media elbow dams and diverts the free flow of information towards preferred contours.
So let’s take a test. What do you remember of the dramatic events in Basra this past week, in which two British soldiers were stopped, arrested and later rescued by units of the British force but not before two tanks were lost to petrol bombs, and their occupants pelted with stones as they fled in flames?
Do you recall that:
A: The British soldiers were disguised as Arabs?
B: That there was a substantial cache of arms in the car they were driving?
C: That, when questioned, they refused to show their documents to the police (which, of course, might have ended the whole fracas before it blew up into a crisis)?
D: That the Iraqi police were only doing their duty: it is their job to stop cars being driven by "Arabs" who look suspect (the British disguise may not have been totally clever)?
E: That no explanation has been given by the British authorities as to the nature of this undercover operation; nor has the press probed to find out, although soldiers have been given permission to grant interviews to convey their side of the story?
F: That the British soldiers shot and killed an Iraqi police officer who was doing his duty, and that this murder was unprovoked since there are no reports of the Iraqi policemen opening fire on the disguised British soldiers?
G: That the initial attempt to suggest that the arrested soldiers were handed over to some dreaded militia (very useful, that Moqtada al-Sadr) was quietly forgotten after it had served the purpose of muddying the sand, to reposition a phrase?
H: That the British blasted open the jail in which the soldiers were held, and in the process permitted over a hundred prisoners at the very least to escape, doubtless strengthening the insurgents thereby?
I: That the justification offered for this illegal invasion of a country’s prison was that "75%" of the Iraqi police had become loyal to anti-Occupation militias, and therefore could not be trusted with the lives of British soldiers? And that if it is indeed true that 75% of those who are meant to fight alongside the British forces in Basra have turned, then Britain and America are arming, training, feeding and building a force in which 75% are ready to turn their weapons against the British and Americans. Even Vietnam cannot boast of a somersault at such speed. I quote from a conservative British newspaper, reporting from Basra: "The two men were held in a building belonging to the shadowy internal affairs department." Hullo. The official internal affairs department of the Iraqi government in Basra has become "shadowy"? Where’s the light then, Brother Blair?
J: That, by the rules laid by George Bush, who has said that anyone not in uniform is an illegal combatant and therefore not entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention, the two British soldiers could not claim the status of prisoners of war?
I could, as you might imagine, go on. I dwell on the chiaroscuro of journalism not in an accusatory spirit, but as self-criticism. All journalists privileged to work in the few nations with genuine press freedom are prone to such lapses. We in India hardly deserve the right to accuse. But the strength of free media is that even if the details are sometimes wrong, we almost always get the big picture right. And that is what, in the end, matters.
In London, the first reports of the Basra incidents were drowned out by the power of the image, particularly on television. The sight of two British tanks in flames in the heart of Basra was stirring enough, but was eclipsed by the shot of a soldier leaping from his burning Warrior armoured vehicle, his uniform in flames; and a third picture of a British soldier being pelted with stones as he escaped from his private hell. All around were young men, their faces wracked with anger against the tanks and soldiers, each face condemning the British as invaders and occupiers rather than liberators.
Those images, in a profound sense, shaped the big picture that emerged for columnists of all persuasions. Boris Johnson, the Tory MP and editor of Spectator, concluded in the Telegraph: "Whatever we achieve in Iraq, we will not have made our world safer, or make the risk of terrorism less likely: quite the reverse… That claim (that the Iraq campaign was part of the war on terror) was a lie, and whatever good may come out of the Iraq war, we should never forget that it was based on a lie." Above his column was a brilliant cartoon by Nick Garland. The official photograph of the two British captives had blurred their faces to protect their identity. In Garland’s blur, you discern the faces of Bush and Blair, who have become the two great captives of the Iraq war.
Deborah Orr in the Independent, ruing the many "bad reasons why this country was occupied", notes, "People continue to be dragged from their homes, just as they were in Saddam’s day, to be executed in the squares and public places of frightened cities." Patrick Cockburn reports from Baghdad how the credibility of their so-called sovereign government is collapsing. He quotes a goldsmith, Abdul Hamid: "People here have seen that our government has no authority in Iraq. The British did not respect them when they smashed into the jail, so why should we respect our own leaders?" The political class is no longer afraid to demand a phased return of British troops from Iraq. Ken Clarke, frontrunner-aspirant for the Tory leadership, has called the invasion a major mistake. Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats thinks it is the worst foreign policy fiasco since Suez. His deputy, Menzies Campbell, writes, "This was an illegal war, on a flawed prospectus, without the authority of the United Nations… The misjudgement of war has been matched by the mishandling of occupation… Now the insurgency threatens the unity of Iraq. The risk of dismemberment of Iraq increases, civil war is in prospect and instability threatens the whole region."
One answer that Tony Bush-Blair has found is to up the ante at home so that fear can remain his chief weapon. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian exposed the faultlines of a law that threatens to lock up — for five years! — anyone who "glorifies, exalts or celebrates" a terrorist act committed in the last twenty years. Master Blair’s government intends to list a series of "historic terrorisms" and the punters are waiting anxiously to see whether Stalin and Mao are included in the Gospel according to Blair. Irish terrorism has been deleted from the ambit of the proposed law, the better to concentrate upon Muslims I suppose. Jenkins describes this pithily as the "New Orwellianism". Boris Johnson’s headline summed up the mood in Britain: The war in Iraq was based on a lie — and policing Basra is an illusion.
Tony Blair, caught out, survives by shifting the goalposts. Once weapons of mass destruction were assiduously sold as the reason for a war ordered by Bush; and now the world is being saved from terrorism. The latest, and crumbling excuse for remaining in Iraq is the old excuse trotted out by the French king before the revolution: After me, the deluge. Amend that to, after we leave, chaos. Except that chaos is already there. Common sense suggests that a force will be needed to help Iraqis restore order, while they set about creating a law for their future. A joint force of Arab countries as well as units from nations whose credibility has not been destroyed, working under the UN flag, can help fill the breach for the limited period needed to calm the country.
George Bush and Tony Blair are the problem in Iraq. They can no longer be the solution. I am not alone in saying this. This is written on every Iraqi face in Basra.