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Qatar war briefings were 'a waste of time' by Rebecca Allison and Ciar Byrne,3604,985186,00.html

Qatar war briefings were 'a waste of time'

Rebecca Allison and Ciar Byrne
Thursday June 26, 2003
The Guardian

The media operation at Central Command in Qatar did too little to put the events of the Iraq war in context, the head of communications planning at the Ministry of Defence admitted yesterday.
David Howard blamed lack of "context setting" on the fact that central command was run by the US military and said the British would have done things differently.

"Central command in Qatar was clearly an American-led operation. We admit there are issues arising out of Qatar. That's what we're looking at at the moment. If we'd been a UK command we would have given context-setting briefings," Mr Howard told the MediaGuardian forum on war coverage.

"We believe there are lessons we need to learn from the way that operation ran and we need to look closely at it. There are issues about the quality and make-up of our media personnel," he added.

His comments were backed by the head of Sky News, Nick Pollard, who described the briefings as "poor" and dominated by spin. "One of our big problems was the poorness of central briefing. What we were crying out for and never got was a sensible, clear, coherent picture about the general campaign from the military high command," he said.

Michael Wolff, the media commentator and New York Magazine columnist, who was based at the million dollar press centre in Doha, Qatar, went further, saying he and other journalists had been entirely cut off from events and might just as well have been in Florida. There was nothing. There was no one to talk to. It was embarrassing.

"There were hundreds of reporters. People had spent huge amounts of money getting there and we were getting nothing."

Delivering the keynote speech yesterday, he said journalists who were promised access to General Tommy Franks were forced to become Jayson Blairs - a reference to the New York Times reporter sacked for having made up stories - because of pressure on them to provide news when they were being starved of information by the US military.

He claimed the decision to allow embedding had been a "moment of sheer brilliance" on the part of the Bush administration and suggested the move had turned reporters in such positions into little more than public relations people.

Describing the principle as "intrinsically dangerous", he went on: "I do not think we should be attached to military forces. There is no way you will not become an adjunct to these forces."

Mr Wolff put forward the "semi-conspiracy theory" that major media companies in the US meekly followed the flag-waving agenda of the Bush administration in order to persuade the Federal Communications Commission to change its regulations.

"Ass-kissing has gone on to a profound degree. It's pervasive throughout all these news organisations."

Mark Damazer, deputy director of BBC News, told the conference he believed the broadcast media had to rethink its approach to images of war.

"I think the industry has landed in the wrong place and we have a very significant problem. We need to open up a debate about just how far you can go and whether the current practice is right or not."

The BBC became embroiled in a later row after arguing that it was in the public interest to broadcast images of two British soldiers killed in the war, despite pleas from Tony Blair and bereaved families to reconsider.

Mr Damazer, one of the panellists at yesterday's forum, said he was content that despite the effect on the relatives, in the context of the Correspondent documentary, the corporation had taken the right decision.

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