BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week in England, early reports of a study of the British media, just completed by academics at the University of Leeds in Liverpool. They examined six weeks of coverage, beginning just prior to the war in Iraq, through shock and awe, and ending soon after the toppling of Saddam's statue in Baghdad.
The study, called Media Wars, looks at virtually all of England's national newspapers and at the four main TV news programs. And it found that 80 percent of media followed the government's line in regard to the war and less than 12 percent challenged it.
Peter Goddard is a lecturer at the University of Liverpool and one of the study's authors.
PETER GODDARD: What we were surprised about was that we saw this as being a very different kind of war to many of the ones that have been studied in the past, because in Britain, at least, there was a very substantial public opposition to war in Iraq – more than 50 percent of the population shortly before the war began.
So we expected to find more evidence that that viewpoint had also been represented in the media. But by and large, it hadn't been. Mostly, the news reported in line with what, I suppose, we would say the coalition would have wished for, what was good news for the coalition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Did you find much diversity within the findings?
PETER GODDARD: Well, in the press, we did. We're able even to group them into pro-war and anti-war newspapers. But we found that the agenda that the newspapers followed was broadly similar, regardless of their positions. They all reported the same stories, broadly speaking.
By far, the most substantial part of the coverage was taken up with coverage of the battle itself. We found very event-driven coverage. As soon as the conflict began, much of the discussion of the rights and wrongs of the conflict disappeared, and both press and television were really concerned only with what had happened in the previous 24 hours, whether the coalition had been successful or had failed, how much opposition they'd faced and so on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You had the phenomenon of embedded reporters. You had pictures from the field. Naturally, the coverage would be event-driven, because, for once, and for the first time in decades, there was such an abundance of images from the theater of war.
PETER GODDARD: Oh, naturally. The problem, of course, though, is if you have too much focus on events and too little context in which those events can be understood, there's the danger that the events themselves crowd out any explanation of why governments or the military is behaving in the way that it is, or of what consequences, in the wider sense, you might have, say, for Western relations with the Middle East or for the people of Iraq themselves or whatever.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You said that 50 percent of Britons oppose the war.
PETER GODDARD: Slightly over -- in the weeks shortly before the war.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Talk to me about the coverage of dissent. Was there anything surprising about that?
PETER GODDARD: There was very little coverage of dissent compared to the extent of dissent in the British population. We found, for example, looking at the kinds of people who were accessed in television news, that 55 percent of those people who spoke on TV news were coalition representatives of one sort or another. The U.K. anti-war representatives amounted to about four percent of people who were accessed.
It was slightly different in relation to members of Parliament, for example, who disagreed with the war. A couple of prominent members of Parliament were featured quite heavily in the early part of the conflict period, but by and large, their appearances only coincided later on with reasons to dismiss their arguments.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You noted that Channel Four News was the most successful at maintaining its autonomy from the government, especially with regard to the war's justification.
PETER GODDARD: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How and why do you think that is?
PETER GODDARD: Well, I should probably put this in context, first. We felt, in designing this study, that autonomy was an important issue here; that the journalists should be allowed to tell their own stories and to inform their audiences in an independent way about the war – which is not the same, necessarily, as being critical of it – simply not taking on trust what the government says or what the military says about the war.
So we were looking for autonomy. And this is a particularly important issue, because, as you probably know, the BBC was very heavily criticized during and after the war by the government for apparently having been biased against the government or the coalition position. We found little justification for the criticism of the BBC. We found the BBC had been very neutral in its coverage of the war.
Channel Four News was the most anti-war, as you say. And the reason for that, I think, is partly because Channel Four News is aimed at a different audience. It's a news program which is concerned with in-depth information rather than gaining high ratings. It runs for nearly an hour, which gives it the scope to probe behind the stories that are in the headlines more than shorter news bulletins on BBC or ITV, which is the other major broadcaster in the U.K.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter, thank you very much.
PETER GODDARD: It's been a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter Goddard is a lecturer in media and communications at the University of Liverpool and part of the team that produced the study called Media Wars.
John Pilger is a London-based journalist, author and documentarian. He doesn't find the results surprising. In his column this week in The New Statesman, he wrote that the British study echoes the findings of Daniel Hallin's book, The Uncensored War, about the way the media covered the war in Vietnam.
JOHN PILGER: I mean, they both had this in common, that whereas journalists famously covering the Vietnam War – and I'm talking about American journalists, Western journalists, but critical of the U.S. conduct of the war -- they rarely seriously challenged what the war was really about, the motives of the war. It was almost always dressed up, as the current Iraq one often is, as well meaning.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: These were the findings in the book, The Uncensored War.
JOHN PILGER: Yeah. And it was quite an unusual study, because it challenged the whole idea that the liberal media had been so uniformly opposed to the war that it helped to lose it and undermined the war effort. That just simply wasn't true, this idea.
But it was an entrenched one, and it went into the military consciousness in the United States, and you saw the invasion of Panama, which was George Bush, Senior's invasion, you saw that being very, very media-controlled. And that was really the first of its kind post-Vietnam. And they've all since been, in varying degrees, media controlled. Of course, you can't control. I don't think there's anyone in this country, anyway, that doubts what a total disaster and horror the Iraq war is. They shake their heads.
But the motives, the underlying motives, I don't think, are still seriously challenged, as they should be.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: When you look at the British press, though, you don't see it as a monolith, do you?
JOHN PILGER: No. It's not monolithic as such. There's no conspiracy. There doesn't have to be. You know, it's like Mr. Murdoch famously saying, you know, I never tell my editors what to do. Well, he doesn't have to. Spanish Civil War, the invasion of Iraq, Vietnam, Kosovo – I mean, there's nothing new about the media playing a compliant role, because although we live with the romance, if you like, of the media, the press being a fourth estate, it isn't. It's an extension of established order.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Language, as you've noted, plays a big role. You wrote about the language the press uses in describing the intentions of Western governments.
JOHN PILGER: Yeah. Language, clichés, jargon – you know, it's like "war on the terror." What on earth is terror? You know, is it a country or what? Well, no, it isn't. I mean, so if that's not in quotation marks, then it's propaganda.
"Collateral damage" appeared in an editorial in The Guardian the other day without quotation marks. Now, as I remember, I'm pretty sure that was invented in the Vietnam War to describe killing civilians.
There's other, more subtle, jargon – the use of noble words, if you like, like democracy. Well, what does it mean? In these buzzwords, that I think the advertising industry call them, they are loaded. And it's not the journalist's role to propagate loaded terms. We should explain as well as report.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you very much.
JOHN PILGER: Alright. You're welcome. Thank you. Bye-bye.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: John Pilger's columns and documentaries can be found at johnpilger.com.