So much for the government’s whingeing about “biased” media coverage of the Iraq war. New research suggests Tony Blair et al might have got off lightly: academics who have analysed coverage of the war have found that many media reports filed during the conflict favoured coalition forces – with more than 80% of all stories taking the government line on the moral case for war. “Our findings fail to offer strong evidence of media coverage that was autonomous in its approach to the official narratives and justifications for the war in Iraq,” the report says.
The research, from the universities of Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds, also finds that government accusations of BBC anti-war bias were unfounded: Channel 4 News was least likely to report coalition good news, with Sky News and ITV most likely. The BBC’s coverage fell in the middle ground.
Dr Piers Robinson, who led the study, expressed some surprise at the findings. “Given the controversy surrounding the war, there was probably an initial case to be made that the media would be more aggressive,” he said. “But in the end most media outlets tended to fall into line once things got under way.”
“There is an unwritten norm in terms of what happens when you go to war. The idea that one should get behind the troops is probably the most significant factor. Prior to the conflict we found much higher levels of concern about the war – coverage of the anti-war movement was largely positive. But once the war began, it was increasingly marginalised; two to three weeks in, speakers like Robin Cook were heavily criticised in the media.”
Anti-war and humanitarian voices found themselves sidelined, but coalition officials were featured in at least 80% of television and newspaper reports during the conflict: the coalition was responsible for more than 50% of direct quotations across TV channels and 45% across newspapers. While the Iraqi regime was often featured, it was only quoted in 6% of stories.
Of course, such results are unsurprising. Despite the best efforts of war-mongers everywhere, the “liberal” media is in fact remarkably compliant and happy to generally accept “official” perspectives on war and peace (case study number one.) The equation may have slightly changed now – simply because the Iraq war is going so badly, not because of its immorality – but this doesn’t change the initial premise.
When the usual suspects talk about “bias”, what they really mean is: “why does our media have to even occasionally show the effect of our deadly weapons on civilians? We’re liberators, not invaders, already!”