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Caught in the War Pool from ABC

This week on the Media Report we take a look at censorship and war. As the last Gulf War showed, once conflict starts the images we see and words we hear are heavily controlled by the military.

Just what effect does the "pooling" of footage have on our perception of war? We talk to a former Gulf War reporter about the difficulties in getting to the truth when you're a long way from the frontline and under military control.

The Media Report: 6 February 2003 - Caught in the war "pool"

[This is the print version of story]

Mick O'Regan: Hello, and welcome to The Media Report.

Last week on the program, we spoke to the Australian journalist and author, John Pilger, who raised a number of issues relating to the Australian media and the impending war in the Persian Gulf. One of his key points concerned media pooling and the censorship of reporting during conflict.

This week on the program we'll hear first-hand from an ABC-TV journalist about his experience of working under the US military pooling arrangements during the last war against Iraq.

But first this week we're going to turn our focus to the ABC Board and the issue of political appointments.

Now on Monday, Michael Kroger's period on the Board came to an end. Because of his high profile position in the Liberal Party and his publicly-stated criticisms of the ABC, Michael Kroger's appointment was always newsworthy. Now of course this issue cuts both ways. In the past, other leading political figures such as the former Labor Premier of South Australia, John Bannon, have been appointed to the Board of the national broadcaster as well.

According to the Communications Minister, Senator Alston, there's no immediate decision going to be made about Mr Kroger's replacement, but rumours have been circulating about other political candidates, such as the former Federal Liberal Ministers, Peter Reith and Tony Staley.

So it seems a good time to review the question: should overtly partisan political identities be appointed to the ABC Board?

To get us started, here's a reminder of some of the controversy which marked Mr Kroger's appointment.


CAFF presenter: The Liberal Party heavyweight and businessman Michael Kroger has been appointed to the vacancy created by the departure of Ian Callanan for the High Court on the ABC Board.

Reporter: Senator Alston says Michael Kroger is simply the best person for the job and the appointment is not Mr Kroger's consolation prize for failing to deliver Fairfax to Kerry Packer.

Richard Alston: Well no, the bottom line is that he's got very important financial and commercial skills which I think will certainly add to the quality of the Board.

Michael Kroger: I fully accept there's a large body of opinion that don't want anyone involved in politics on the Board of the ABC or even involved in the ABC. Everybody knows that I'm a Liberal, a Liberal Party member, I don't apologise for that; I think it's good that we have people that try and get some balance into the ABC, because I don't think it's balanced, as I said. So I'm sorry about that.

Reporter: A fortnight ago, Mr Kroger went on the attack, with his views of left-wing bias in the ABC and the slowness of filling the Managing Director's job.

Michael Kroger: The ABC lacks diversity in its News and Current Affairs output in Sydney, in my view. I may be alone in that view, I don't think so, I don't think the ABC accurately reports John Howard, and I think that's something that the management of the ABC has to work on.

Michael Kroger: I hope that one thing that my appointment will do Mark, is try and convince people that the national broadcaster is independent, and is not some Labor Party shopfront. A lot of people have said that over the years and now I think what they'll be able to say is 'Well Kroger's on the Board, so if they've got a complaint, perhaps their complaint is not well-founded'. So whilst many people will see my appointment as political and be unhappy with it, what I'm hoping is that it will bring a sense to many people that the ABC is not a biased institution but is an institution which represents the diversity of Australian opinion, and I think that's very important.

Mick O'Regan: Some moments from the period of Board membership of Michael Kroger.

Now in the debate over this issue, the Australian Democrats have been consistent in their criticisms of political appointments to the Board. So with me to discuss the Democrat position is their Communications spokesman, Senator John Cherry, and he's speaking to me from the ABC's Canberra studio.

Senator Cherry, welcome to The Media Report.

John Cherry: Thank you, good morning.

Mick O'Regan: Good morning to you. Is it just wishful thinking to say that the ABC Board should be free of political appointments?

John Cherry: Look, I think we're slowly moving in that direction, and you see that with the Labor Party changing its policy position now to say that they will now support an 'appointments on merit' process. The BBC in the UK has shifted to an appointment on merit process as a result of the Nolan Committee recommendations, and the Democrats have been pushing for that sort of model to be applied to public appointments in Australia right across the Board.

Mick O'Regan: Now look, just let's take up that issue of the Nolan Committee recommendations in Britain, because they had an inquiry into the standards in public life, and it came up with seven principles, that all appointees to public boards should be measured against and held to. Now those standards include selection based on merit, as you've indicated, and understanding of the body concerned, so in this case, the national broadcaster; independent scrutiny, probity, openness and transparency. Yet despite those principles the Blair government was still accused of cronyism over the appointment of the Vice Chairman to the BBC in 2000 because of his allegedly close relationship with New Labour. So is it ever possible to escape this perception of bias?

John Cherry: Well I think at the end of the day somebody's got to make an appointment, and I think the approach which they've tried to adopt in the UK is that the Minister is presented with a shortlist of names which meet those criteria, and out of that shortlist which is developed on the basis of merit, the Minister then makes a final selection. And that's still a reasonable process. The Democrats have put up a Private Member's Bill here in the Senate, to suggest that we try to get rid of the politics of appointments to the ABC by making appointments disallowable by the Senate, so that would basically say that if the Minister put up a name which was unacceptable to the other side, to the other parties, then that name wouldn't go forward, and I think that sort of approach, that sort of final check would actually encourage a Minister to put up a political name to the ABC.

Mick O'Regan: Now a cynic might say, Senator Cherry, that all that system does is to sort of lock out the two major parties by a sort of veto roll which actually enhances the position of your own party, the Australian Democrats, and the Independent cross-bench Senators.

John Cherry: Well I think what you've got to ask is at the end of the day that the government is still responsible to the Parliament, and the Parliament should have a say in something as fundamental as public broadcasting. But all we're saying is if you gave the right of either House to disallow an appointment to the ABC Board, then that would basically ensure that the Minister would not put up a name such as Mr Kroger, which would be controversial and likely to be knocked over. You would see names put up who were people likely to attract support from both sides, people beyond repute in any respect. And that's the sort of approach the Democrats would like to see happen.

Mick O'Regan: But that almost seems to punish people because of their political engagement. I mean basically, don't we want people, especially prominent people, to take an active role in Australian politics, and the fact that they have taken an active role in Australian politics shouldn't necessarily be seen as a block to their involvement in the national broadcaster, should it?

John Cherry: Well if that's the approach you're adopting and you're going down the Italian approach of making all appointments to the Board a political appointment. In Italy the government gets to nominate three people, and the opposition gets to nominate two people to the national broadcaster, and I don't think that approach would be helpful, because then it becomes very partisan. At this stage, listening to the comments from Mr Kroger before I came on, it struck me very strongly that he felt he was there to do the party's bidding, to represent the views of Liberal Party members. There's nobody on the Board doing that for Labor views or Democrat views, and I'm quite comfortable with that, I'm quite happy to have no-one doing my bidding on the ABC Board, but I do want the ABC Board to be doing the bidding on behalf of the entire community.

Mick O'Regan: Can I just get you to clearly outline exactly how the Democrat proposal would work?

John Cherry: Well the Bill we currently have up is very simple. It says the Minister still reserves a right to actually nominate somebody to the ABC Board, but that appointment would be disallowable by either House of Parliament. So if, hypothetically, the Minister put up someone like Peter Reith, then that instrument of appointment would come before the Senate and the Senate would have the right to disallow that appointment, in which case that appointment couldn't be made. And I think that sort of process would be a final checking process to make sure that the Minister didn't put up names which were excessively controversial, which weren't going to add anything in terms of expertise to the Board.

Mick O'Regan: Well that's an important point too, because one of the issues that arose under Michael Kroger's appointment that he actually brought with him business acumen, and the ABC has undergone a series of major business decisions such as the relocation of its TV base in Sydney to combine it with Radio; isn't that a useful thing, that even though he has political association, a whole other area of Michael Kroger's expertise concerned business and finance which in fact was very useful to the ABC?

John Cherry: Well that certainly picked up in the criteria for ABC Board appointments in Section 12 of the Act. But the problem is, the entire ABC Board membership appointed by the government has been drawn from a very, very narrow group. You have a pastoral company director, you have Michael Kroger as a company director, you have the Chairman of the Stock Exchange, you have a lawyer who's an expert in property law, you have a conservative Professor of Labor Economics, and when you look across that range, they're all drawing from the same very narrow pro-business perspective. There's nobody there who has a long history of experience in broadcasting, with the possible exception of the Chair himself, Donald Macdonald. You have nobody who has any experience in terms of community work or other activities or communications, and so you have a very narrow sort of perspective, and I think that results in a very narrow perspective coming out of the Board.

Mick O'Regan: Senator Cherry, thank you very much for joining the program.

John Cherry: Thank you.

Mick O'Regan: Now to take this discussion further, I'm joined by Professor Pat Weller:, and he's from the School of Politics and Public Policy at Griffith University in Queensland, and he joins me from the ABC's Brisbane studios. Professor Weller, welcome to you.

Pat Weller:: Thanks very much.

Mick O'Regan: What's your response to the model put forward by the Australian Democrats?

Pat Weller:: Well I think the first thing is the ABC, I know it's very important, but it's not the only statutory appointment that governments make, they make several thousand a year to a whole range of really quite important Boards, Ambassadorships, if you want, heads of departments. So the question I think is not should the ABC be a special case, it's should there be a continuing check if you want, on the appointments by governments to a whole range of statutory bodies or official appointments. That in a sense broadens it out so it's not just one a year we're talking about, it's a few hundred.

Mick O'Regan: Right. So is there a best practice model for the appointment of people to public boards?

Pat Weller:: No, I don't think you can say that. You can look across the world. Of course appointments to substantial positions in the United States have to be confirmed by the Senate, often after hearings, and that includes Supreme Court Judges and of course you know on a couple of occasions the Senate's knocked back Supreme Court Judges, it's knocked back Secretaries of Defence and other substantial appointments.

Mick O'Regan: So that process though, that intense public scrutiny that accompanies the selection panels for appointments to major US institutions, would you see that as a part of the appointment in Australia?

Pat Weller:: Well it's a different system of course, with the separation of powers, but if we are seriously saying that we want to check that the people have the right qualities, then that's one way we could go. All appointments would have to be approved by Parliament. I don't think it's likely to happen, it's rather alien to our traditional way of doing things. The British have gone a different way; you mentioned the Nolan inquiry. But they appointed a Commissioner for Public Appointments. Now the role of the Commissioner is not to check on every appointment, but to comment after the appointments about whether or not these were appropriate or whether there are trends in government appointments of the many appointments. And indeed the Blair government has been accused of trying to stack National Health Service Boards in various places. And this in a sense keeps Ministers honest, or it attempts to keep Ministers honest, with them knowing that somebody's going to be there looking over their shoulder after the event and say, 'Hey, are they going too far down one track or other?'

Mick O'Regan: Is there enough evidence to suggest how that system is working in the UK?

Pat Weller:: The only evidence I suggest, is listening to Lord Nolan talk about them himself, and he suggests that it's making them cautious, a little more careful than they might have been or they were in the past. But of course in the last resort in these cases, if the Executive decides to make an appointment, it's going to do it, and I agree with your earlier comments; we don't want to disqualify people. Most of these Boards are meant to represent community opinion. That's the whole range of community opinion. We don't always want people with expertise, we want people with robust views, and I think there's a danger that if you have everything which is disallowable in the Senate, you end up with people who haven't had public commitment perhaps in some places, and perhaps an even narrower range of expertise. You know, they've got to be experts in broadcasting or they've got to be experts in this or that. I would prefer to see Boards with a fairly robust exchange of views, robust set of opinions about them.

Mick O'Regan: How would that work though? Say if we could imagine a discussion on the Board, and there are people who've been selected who because of their community involvement and the robust views they hold about issues to do with how the community should be served by public institutions, they end in discussions where another board member might have really detailed knowledge and experience of broadcasting in this case. Isn't that latter person going to overwhelm the uninformed, if you like?

Pat Weller:: Not necessarily. I think that yes, you say these are the technical details, but you sit back and say 'That's fine, but let's get away from technical sides and who are we representing? Are we getting to country areas? Are different sets of views which might be expressed, being expressed?' I think the point of community Boards is not to have technical detail, that's why we have the ABC General Manager there providing the input on the technical side. The Board is meant to represent a much broader range of views than that.

Mick O'Regan: So in that sense you say, to come back to the example of the ABC, the Board is more about the general orientation of public broadcasting and the broad cultural role of the ABC as much as it is about the minutiae of broadcasting and television.

Pat Weller:: Well I hope so, because if I thought the Board gets down into too much of the detail of the minutiae, it sort of will both get lost in the detail. I don't know how often the Board meets, but these of course are part-time jobs. But that's for the professionals. The whole point about Boards on these occasions, is to bring different perspectives and a cautious eye over what they're doing, or perhaps occasionally a not-so-cautious eye over what they're doing. After all, the staff has an internal appointment who also gets up and represents the staff view there.

Mick O'Regan: Professor Pat Weller:, thank you very much for joining the program.

And that was Professor Pat Weller: from the School of Politics and Public Policy at Griffith University in Queensland.

Next up: censorship and war.


Mick O'Regan: Now to the question of censorship and the military control over the media during war. Last week on the program we spoke to John Pilger who raised the issue of media pooling during the last Gulf War. Pooling means that all TV networks share footage taken by one or two cameras, selected by the military. Now this is what John Pilger had to say about the implications of this arrangement.

John Pilger: Well the implication is very simple: this was the most covered war in history and pretty well everyone missed the story. That's how organised it was. It was organised to the point that journalists ceased to be journalists. They became functionaries. And the few journalists who were able to escape this pooling system, and to escape this organisation, did so at their peril. Robert Fisk has told me of his rather precarious adventures in trying to get away from this iniquitous pool system. They missed the story, because the story was something like 200,000 Iraqis were killed, and many of them were killed at night, and many of them were buried alive in their trenches. There was the most awful carnage, but at the end of that war we came away with the idea, or rather the public, I can be excused for coming away with the idea that casualties were light, that it was something of a kind of high tech surgical strike type war, and that it was a great victory. But in fact it was a great slaughter, and the documentation is voluminous now on that. But that ought to have been reported at the time, and it wasn't reported at the time, because the powers who were running that war succeeded in managing and in controlling the news that came out of it, of tailoring it often to their lies.

Mick O'Regan: Journalist, John Pilger, speaking on The Media Report last week.

My next guest is Trevor Bormann. These days Trevor is a producer for the ABC's Foreign Correspondent program, but in 1991 he was in Saudi Arabia, where he was part of the media pool covering the Gulf War for ABC-TV.

Now based on that experience, I asked him for his response to what John Pilger had to say.

Trevor Bormann: Well I think it's very sound. I mean in situations like that, the media are caged in a sense, if I can draw upon my experience of the Gulf War. We were in Saudi Arabia in a 4-star hotel. The only source of information we had were the Generals that were wheeled out several times a day to give us information. We had no chance to corroborate what they had to say; we had no alternative sources, and we were very effectively caged by the Americans and the Allies to make sure that we had the right spin and had no choice but to spin that line.

Mick O'Regan: So how did it work exactly?

Trevor Bormann: Well the Americans argued that in a war in the desert, for your own safety you need to be contained and fed information. They weren't keen to see renegades racing through the desert to see the story and cover the story first-hand. They would argue, as they always have, that when you're not under control of the military, you're exposed to the danger of their enemy, but that's quite true, and it was(n't) safe to attempt any first-hand coverage of the war, but of course the real reason why they spun that line and tried to contain you, was that they wanted to control you, because the media war was as important as what was happening in the battlefield.

Mick O'Regan: Now how did that control actually work? What if you decided that you didn't want to stay in the pool, what were the implications of that?

Trevor Bormann: You would be cut out basically. What happened is that had the briefing several times a day that became your main source of information. As well, the American and the British were formed into pool situations. They would go out and they'd actually be attached to battalions and various military groupings, and they would have the opportunity to report the war first hand, but their pictures were censored, in the case of print journalists, their work was censored too. So there was no clear opportunity to cover the war as you saw fit.

Mick O'Regan: Now the fact that you were in a hotel, are we talking about hundreds of journalists, thousands of journalists? Give me a sense of how many people were actually there trying to report the situation.

Trevor Bormann: We're talking at least hundreds, and they're from pretty well every country of the world. And what happened is that to appease the Americans, the Americans would accept certain pool camera and reporters and take them to the field for opportunities. For the other minor countries involved in the war or not involved in the war, there weren't any opportunities at all. On the first day of the ground offensive, they did submit to pressure from the Australian crews that were there, and they allowed a pool to go into Saudi Arabia, and they drew up a list of countries A to Z, Australia was on the top, so we actually had that opportunity. I drew the short straw, I became the token, or the represented Australian journalist and the sound recordist was Austrian, and I figured the camerman was, that he came from a country starting with A as well.

Mick O'Regan: Did it have a surreal quality? I mean it sounds to me as though you're obviously reporting a war, but without any tangible sense that you're in a war. There are various stories that emanate from these pool arrangements. One is that people were able to stay in bed all day and watch the military briefings beamed on CNN. I mean is that true, or are these things that just grow out of the sort of mythology of war reporting?

Trevor Bormann: Well I was staying on the 12th floor of a hotel in Riyadh. The briefings were happening four floors below: Schwartzkopf and the British and the Saudi Generals. I really didn't have to get out of bed if I didn't want to go to the briefings. I mean I did, because I wanted to ask questions but a lazier journalist than I could have lain in bed and watch the briefings live on CNN rather than take the lift two floors below.

Mick O'Regan: So you could actually just tune in to CNN and see live coverage? Because they were actually beaming that around the world, so viewers at home in suburban homes in America, in Australia, were actually seeing the same reportage that the journalist in the field was seeing?

Trevor Bormann: In a sense, they had the same access to the information as we did, except we had the benefit of asking questions I suppose. But it was very well orchestrated. We depended really on visuals, television being a visual medium, and of course we saw the shots through the sights of cameras of the bombs that hit, but of course we never saw the bombs that missed and caused what the Americans call 'collateral damage'. We were fed this diet of great spin terms, terms that sounded very impressive. We were told about 'collateral damage', which meant that the bomb missed and hit a house and probably killed a few kids. We heard about 'target-rich environments', which meant that they had plenty of things to shoot at. All of these terms served to desensitise war to a certain extent. Before we know it, it becomes part of mainstream journalistic language, and we think that in 1991 as it was then, and coming into another war perhaps in 2003, that we're too smart as journalists to be seduced by this kind of language, but it very easily becomes part of our language, to our own peril I think.

Mick O'Regan: So do you get a sense that you're reporting the truth?

Trevor Bormann: You just don't know. So what you have to do is qualify everything that you report. You need to give attributions to the Generals, but you have no alternative sources of information, so you just have to qualify everything you report.

Mick O'Regan: What happens when journalists want to get the Iraqi perspective? If you're in this pool situation and you're in contact with editorial people back in your home base, in your case, Australia, and it becomes apparent that there are things emerging from the other side of the story, is that simply beyond your capacity to find out that information?

Trevor Bormann: CNN were there, a couple of other networks were there, but it was pretty thin on the ground. But those who were there I guess were victims of Iraqi spin on the other hand. They were taken to the sites that the Iraqis were keen to show the world, they were taken to situations where stray American bombs and misguided bombs fell onto civilian areas, and of course there was the dreadful situation of the shelter that was bombed that led to the loss of hundreds of lives. So it was spin of a different kind on the other side, but at least there was a presence there, and you're seeking that kind of balance in covering any war.

Mick O'Regan: Now can I ask you a personal question: was it frustrating to be in that situation? Did you actually feel as though you were constrained from doing the sort of job that you're trained as a journalist to do?

Trevor Bormann: Yes, you felt like almost that you were trying to be cultivated into a branch of the military. They were trying to instil these military terms in your journalistic language, you were given no opportunities, you were confined to a hotel. It was very effective containment, and we all realised that this was the case as the legacy of Vietnam. Vietnam was a situation where journalists were relatively independent, they had free rein through the jungles, they reported images that didn't go down well in terms of the political agenda of the day. It made that war very unpopular. The lessons of that, as far as the Americans were concerned, is that that wouldn't happen again, and in a desert theatre of war, journalists are much easier to contain and that's exactly what happened.

Mick O'Regan: Now I understand that you're on your way to Baghdad, possibly as soon as this weekend. What preparations have you made actually to go to Baghdad?

Trevor Bormann: The ABC has ensured that everyone exposed to that kind of risk and that kind of coverage goes to a course where you learn certain skills. In the last few days I've been receiving tuitions in everything from the likely war scenarios from the Iraqi and the American point of view, things like battle survival techniques, to first aid, to minefield awareness, and just tuition in trying to cut through the militaryspeak that we're likely to encounter. Now these are skills that may not in the end be useful or valuable, but they're certainly good skills to have so that you're prepared for hopefully any situation you're likely to confront.

Mick O'Regan: Indeed, but does your experience of the first Gulf War, should there be a second, but in the early 1990s, does that make you think that in a way you're wasting your time, that what you're going to experience is going to be a sort of homogenised, hygienic experience of a controlled situation, rather than any risk of really being exposed to danger?

Trevor Bormann: I think so, but I think this war might be completely different. The key issue here is just how much latitude the Americans will give the media if they do invade Iraq. The first Gulf War was slightly different, there was an air war that seemed very remote to journalists. They could contain journalists in Saudi Arabia. The only true journalism happened after Kuwait was liberated and then it was a free-for-all in Kuwait. This will be very different, in that the Americans, if they control Iraq, one would assume they can control the media fairly well. So what's crucial is just the extent to which they can have a heavy rein on journalists.

Mick O'Regan: And just a final question: in your experience of the first Gulf War, did you ever find the situation that there were journalists there eager to push the line that the war shouldn't have been prosecuted in the first place? Did questions arise in that pool situation actually questioning why the war had gone ahead?

Trevor Bormann: I think there was a distinct lack of critical thinking and assessment when it came to that. I think because it had a broader mandate, perhaps journalists didn't push that to the extent that in hindsight they might have otherwise done. I think this is different. Clearly the challenge for the Pentagon and indeed the government of the United States is to win the media war, because this time they can't claim the high moral ground, public opinion seems to be against them in this war. So that will make their challenge every more important to win over hearts and minds and the media is the device by which they will do that.

Mick O'Regan: Trevor Bormann, former Gulf War reporter who is now on his way to Baghdad for the ABC-TV program, Foreign Correspondent.

And that's the program for this week. My thanks to producer Caroline Fisher, and to technical producer, David Bates.

Guests on this program:
Senator John Cherry
Communications spokesman for the Australian Democrats
Professor Pat Weller
School of Politics and Public Policy, griffith University, Qld.
Trevor Bormann
Journalist and Producer for ABC TV.

Presenter: Mick O'Regan
Producer: Caroline Fisher

© 2003 Australian Broadcasting Corporation

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