BOB GARFIELD: Also in England, an argument over how to frame what's going on in Iraq. On both side of the Atlantic, the battle for opinion and policy ultimately of history itself is waged with conflicting narratives. For example, Britain's withdrawal this month from the southern Iraqi city of Basra is a heroic victory, or, depending on which media you consume, a shameful retreat.
Here's Prime Minister Gordon Brown trying to tell his version to a profoundly skeptical journalist on the BBC. PRIME MINISTER GORDON BROWN: We are able to re-intervene. We are able to give training - [OVERTALK] MALE JOURNALIST: Re-intervene? We're not able to re-intervene. PRIME MINISTER GORDON BROWN: We're able to re - MALE JOURNALIST: We couldn't go back into the City of Basra. PRIME MINISTER GORDON BROWN: We're able to re - [OVERTALK] MALE CORRESPONDANT: We'd get slaughtered. PRIME MINISTER GORDON BROWN: Sorry. We're able to re-intervene in certain circumstances. The purpose of this has been to hand the security over. BOB GARFIELD: Brendan O'Neill is editor of the online magazine Spiked, and he says that the government is keenly aware of the power of negative images. BRENDAN O'NEILL: Well, prior to the withdrawal, The Times newspaper here leaked a story which said that military leaders were thinking desperately of an image that would not look like a Saigon moment, as they called it, which is obviously a reference to the last helicopter leaving the American embassy in Saigon in 1975. They were desperate to avoid that kind of image.
So they actually took part in a very cynical exercise to try and control media representation of the withdrawal from Basra. They did not allow any journalists in to witness the withdrawal, except for one, a guy called Tom Newton Dunn, who is the defense editor at The Sun newspaper. The Sun is a tabloid here in Britain, usually a quite gung-ho pro-military tabloid, so I guess the military leaders realized that they would get a good deal from this guy if they let him in. So they let this one journalist in to take photos and to speak to soldiers.
And the British military also took some video footage itself and distributed this video footage to news channels here in Britain. And the video footage consisted largely of soldiers waving happily as they were walking through the streets or waving a Union Jack, the British flag as they were kind of leaving their barracks, and it was all very happy, smiley, nice kind of imagery. BOB GARFIELD: So did they get their wish from The Sun? BRENDAN O'NEILL: They definitely got their wish from The Sun. The Sun seems to have kept up its side of the deal. The headlines were along the lines of "The Lions of Basra" and "Our Boys Leave Basra." The interviews with the soldiers were very positive, all discussions about how brave they had been and how they had liberated the city, and now they were handing it back to Iraqis.
What The Sun didn't point out, one example is that, in fact, it took 16 hours for the British Army to withdraw 10 miles from Basra Palace to the Basra airbase because they had to check along the way for improvised explosive devices. This is apparently the city where British troops have brought peace and stability where it now takes them 16 hours to go a 10-mile journey because they're worried about being blown up by the locals. So there were certain elements of the withdrawal that The Sun conveniently looked over. BOB GARFIELD: Okay. But "Lions of Basra", that sounds pretty good. What about the rest of the press? Did they buy into that line? BRENDAN O'NEILL: It was very mixed, actually, the press coverage of the Basra withdrawal. You could pick up one newspaper and it would say it was a victory. British soldiers have brought peace and now they're going home. You could pick up another newspaper on the very same day, on the same shelf in your news agent's, and it would say that it was a defeat. It was a sad day in British military history and it was really insulting and degrading.
Some newspapers tried to get to the truth of the story, for example, by revealing the extent to which British troops had pretty much been much imprisoned in their barracks for months previous to withdrawal because of the threat from insurgents.
But generally there was a state of confusion about it, both within the media and, I think, within the British public. BOB GARFIELD: With the Iraq occupation having devolved into the catastrophe that it is, was there really any way that the British troops could withdraw from Basra? And, by the way, they actually haven't left the country. They've just pulled back from the city to the British airbase nearby. Was there any way to frame this particular withdrawal as anything positive? BRENDAN O'NEILL: I think that was the really hard task that the British government and the British military had. Basra's really interesting here, because if you look back to before the war was launched in March, 2003, and shortly afterwards as well, both British and American military officials talked about Basra as the place where they would get the defining image of the war.
Their plan, if you look back to their early plans, including Rumsfeld's plans, were that they would go in in the south, they’d go to Basra, a city which has historically despised Saddam Hussein, they would be welcomed as liberators, people would throw garlands of flowers around their necks and everything would be over quite quickly. And they explicitly talked about getting the defining image. It was very much a P.R.-driven war from the very start.
So I think there's something actually quite cynical in a conflict which started out looking for a convenient image of the West as liberator and now looks for a convenient image of a pretty exhausted and uncommitted West as actually being victorious. BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one more thing. As the British public tries to make sense of what to make of its military, how much of a role does Guantanamo play and to what extent does the image nightmare that the Bush administration has experienced there tarnished the British military as well? BRENDAN O'NEILL: A quite strange obsession with Guantanamo has emerged in certain sections of the British media because they discuss the prison very separately from what created it, which was obviously the war on terror, and, more specifically, the war in Afghanistan.
So what's happened is that Guantanamo's become siphoned off as this kind of single issue, this kind of moralistic symbol, this kind of image of evil America. And I think lots of journalists in Britain, particularly in the liberal broadsheet media, use Guantanamo as a way of distancing themselves from the Bush administration and its excesses but without really criticizing the underlying war on terror, whereas I think it would be better to challenge the war on terror itself, which is the real problem here. BOB GARFIELD: Well, Brendan, thank you so much. BRENDAN O'NEILL: Thank you. I enjoyed it very much. BOB GARFIELD: Brendan O'Neill is editor of the British online magazine, Spiked.