London, Asharq Al-Awsat- Public opinion in Britain was divided over the News of the World’s publication last week of pictures showing British soldiers allegedly abusing Iraqi civilians. The tabloid printing a number of still photographs, taken from a video recording, where Iraqi young men appeared to be assaulted by British soldiers, dating back from 2004.
The pictures were immediately re-produced in other newspapers and several television stations aired excerpts from the footage. This latest controversy was unfolding as the row over the cartoons of Prophet Mohammed continued to grow worldwide.
Roy Greenslade, the media columnist at the Daily Telegraph, wrote on Tuesday 14 February, “Hats off to the News of the World” . He described the exclusive report as “both interesting to the public and of public interest, a rare combination in the popular press nowadays.”
Others saw the reports as unpatriotic and hostile to the British troops currently serving in Iraq who should be supported. Criticism of the photo also appeared in The Sun newspaper, a sister publication of New of the World. John Gaunt wrote on Tuesday 14 February, “It makes me angry when they (journalists) get on their high horse and start condemning real men who are doing a dangerous and vital job in Iraq .” Gaunt did ask for the “army thugs” to be punished, but he also reminded his readers that the Iraqi young men who appeared in the photos were not entirely innocent as they had been “throwing stones and grenades” at the soldiers.
Stuart Kuttner , managing editor of New of the World, told Asharq al Awsat the decision to publish the controversial photos was not reckless. “We did not publish the pictures without careful considerations… But the option of not publishing them was unthinkable”. Kuttner adds that his paper “doesn’t apologize for publishing the pictures”.. while re-emphisizing on his paper’s official position, published in an editorial on Ferbuary 12th, which labels British troops as the “best in the world”, and explains that the decision to publish this material wasn’t done in haste… “but with regret”
Meanwhile, a number of commentators linked the latest pictures to the Abu Ghraib scandal which dodged the US military two years ago, after pictures showing US soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib jail were printed worldwide. But, Counter-terrorism and security analyst Colonel Mike Dewar argues that “The comparison is incorrect. It is wrong to compare systematic torture of detainees with the British troops situation. Adding that “The [apparent] assault of Iraqi boys by British soldiers was not torture and did not leave permanent injuries.”
Professor Adrian Monck, who is head of journalism and publishing at City University , in London , told Asharq al Awsat that “the publication of the photos demonstrates one of the most important features of a free press; that a newspaper can bring to its readers – and the wider world – a story that needs to be told”. Monck argues that the “these pictures tell their own story but what they demonstrate is a public revulsion for such behavior and a concern that it be dealt with effectively”.
News of the World (as well as The Sun newspaper) is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch who is a vocal supporter of the war in Iraq . Conspiracy theorists, Monk pointed out, “should note he didn’t censor or suppress that story – nor could or would he”.
As for the source of the footage, Kuttner indicated that the source of the video footage from which the pictures were taken had been questioned extensively and that the tape was shown to military experts before extracts were published. The newspaper had also coordinated with the British Ministry of Defense and taken additional measures which would remain secret for security reasons.
The News of the World exclusive from Iraq raises another important issue, namely the competition between different types of media. The scenes from Iraq captured on video would have been the specialty of television and not newspapers, despite the absence of any fixed rules on the subject. certain TV stations have risen to fame based on its exclusive broadcasts of videotapes of Osama bin Laden and his deputy.
A number of professionals have questioned whether airing these kinds of videotapes sent to particular organizations by a certain group could be classified as journalism, given that the journalist was not involved in obtaining the footage. Instead, his role was to simply provide a platform for the footage. Questions have also risen about the nature of these videotapes: are they a journalistic work or propaganda material, since the speaker is able to provide his opinion unchallenged.
Why did the Arab media and Arab TV stations fail to obtain the latest videotape showing alleged abuse by British soldiers? Jihad Ballout, spokesman of Al Arabiya satellite TV said his station had aired the tape as soon as it has obtained a copy. The tape was originally delivered by a British soldier who “resented the actions of his colleagues to a British media organization which showed it online. It was later broadcast by all Arab and international media.”
It is worth noting that Britain is known for its “check book” culture, where newspapers pay considerable sums of money in return for exclusive pictures and stories. Kuttner indicated the News of the World obtained the footage from a whistleblower with connections to the British army but refused to divulge the amount of money it paid for it. In some cases (stressing that he is not referring to this current one), he said, the paper has paid hundreds of thousands of pounds for exclusive stories and photographs.
Also last week, Australia’s SBS also uncovered horrific pictures from scandal-hit Abu Ghraib prison, while ABC news announced it had acquired a 12 hour long recording of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his associates proving his regime seeked possession of weapons of mass destruction. The Arab media, closer to the scene of events, was notably absent from all these unfolding controversies.
Additional reporting by Salman al Dossari from Manama