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Reporting restrictions

Ceri Thomas | 15:58 UK time, Wednesday, 25 October 2006

BASRA: Visiting Iraq is a sobering experience but, as we get ready to leave after two editions of Today (which you can read about here), one particularly sobering thought lingers: once UK forces pull out, as they say they will "sometime soon", will any reporting from here be possible?

The Today programme logoAll of us would prefer to be here without the help of the military but, at the moment, that’s very difficult to envisage. In a land where some policemen are also members of the death squads which terrorise this city, where patrol cars are found carrying roadside bombs, where the long arm of the law may also be the strong arm of religious extremism or a criminal gang, the risks that local journalists run are terrifying. Without the military safety blanket, the risks to outsiders would be incalculable.

The Today programme's John Humphrys broadcasting from BasraSo we’re with the armed forces, and grateful for the protection they offer. But, at the same time, it’s hard to ignore the limits they impose. As journalists, we spend too much of our time glimpsing Basra through razor wire fences or the bullet-proof windows of a Land Rover. We get out of the fortified bases into the city and the villages beyond as often as we can, but each trip is immensely labour-intensive – and much more dangerous for the soldiers who accompany us than it is for us.

Maybe those who believe that the presence of British troops and diplomats here exacerbates the situation are right. They’re certainly a lightning rod. I’ve lost count of the number of mortars and rockets that have landed on the base where we’re staying in the past four nights – perhaps it’s 40 or 50 – and each one runs the risk of falling short and landing instead on an Iraqi house much less able to withstand the impact than the breeze-block bungalows where we sleep. So, certainly, some daily acts of violence happen because the British are here. But, at the same time, we’ve heard stories of lives that have been saved by their presence. And however appalling the state of the Basra police, is it really possible to imagine that they’d be better without the efforts of ex-coppers from Northern Ireland, South Wales and every other corner of the UK to train and improve them?

It’s too early for any final accounting of the British mission here, but the army is certainly one very strong thread in the fabric of what little security remains in Basra. If we pull it out, will what’s left support a society where foreigners can come and go in peace?

In Baghdad, of course, BBC colleagues do manage to move around the city independently – but the level of protection they need means it’s a fiercely expensive business. And even an organisation with the resources of the BBC couldn’t afford to do that everywhere.

Let’s be optimistic for a moment. Let’s assume that when the UK withdraws from this corner of southern Iraq the situation doesn’t get worse. Let’s assume that it even gets marginally better – that there are fewer death squads roaming the streets, that the police are less well-infiltrated by members of the violent militia. Even then, it will be far too dangerous to travel here independently.

And while Baghdad – the centre of everything in this country – continues to grab the headlines and catch the eye, the risk is that this city of nearly two million people slips from view.

In one sense, no surprise: there are plenty of cities of that size around the world that we barely hear from. But, without in any sense wishing more suffering upon this place, it’s possible that some pretty awful things will happen here in the years ahead – and it would be tragic if we didn’t know about them.


Iraqi troops and policemen should be fully trained as soon as possible to take over from British and American troops. By staying indefinitely in Iraq, British and American forces will only exacerbate the whole situation as Iraqis in general are uneasy with the presence of foreign troops in the country. Iraqis will have to govern and protect their own country without further delay with a proper judicial system. Iraqi leaders should take pride in the proper administration of the country and should stop petty squabbling amongst themselves if they are to succeed.

  • 2.
  • At 06:41 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

Perhaps in its analysis of the news, BBC would do well to invite experts to speculate about the likely consequences for not only Iraq or the US and Britain, but for the entire world if the coalition leaves abandoning Iraq to become a failed state ruled by terrorists. President Bush has weighed in on this issue again today. BBC has spent inordinate time on speculation of the dire consequences if the world doesn't act to arrest global warming. But those consequences are likely decades away. The dire consequences here may be only a few years away. How about it BBC, use your bully pulpit to provoke real thought and debate instead of just endless parroting of bashing the governments in Washington DC and London.

  • 3.
  • At 07:02 PM on 25 Oct 2006,
  • Mary wrote:

Does it not occur that maybe the media and their attendants are fuelling the fire just as much as the army?

Getting the priorities right. But hope springs eternal: we have got to promote democracy in every conceivable way in Iraq in spite of the mayhem and abject suffering. Iraqis have got to come together and learn to deal with their own problems rather than being dictated by foreign forces. The American and British forces could help by giving essential logistic support. But what is crucial is education for children and young school-leavers who are the future: if their needs are neglected, Iraq could be in for a torrid time.

  • 5.
  • At 09:24 AM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Tim Coulson wrote:

That's a pretty unfortunate picture of John in Iraq. He looks like he's about to have a photo taken for the cover of a disreputable video.

  • 6.
  • At 09:25 AM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • J Westerman wrote:

You are pulling our collective legs.
Since when did journalists' creative imaginations fail to fill a gap?

  • 7.
  • At 11:47 AM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Brian wrote:

Hearing the programme come from Iraq was really interesting - it created a sense of event around the subject, when all too often Iraq has become a story it's easy to ignore. So well done - and ignore the usual malcontents. If you did the programme standing on your head, they'd only say you were showing bias against feet.

  • 8.
  • At 01:50 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Spufidoo wrote:

Who cares? The only reason there's so much media coverage of Iraq is because Our Boys are out there. Bring home Our Boys, and the media will follow. Let the Iraqis fight thermselves and leave us out of it.

  • 9.
  • At 07:13 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Adam, Wraxall wrote:

Why on earth do we persist, in the face of all the evidence, in believing that Democracy works and is best for everybody? If the country called Iraq (manufactured by Westerners drawing lines on maps)wishes to perpetuate what we call corruption but they may see as a perfectly normal and effectve way of governance, why are we banging our head against the wall? It is arrogance in the extreme to propound democracy to others when we no longer pay more than lip service to it ourselves.

  • 10.
  • At 08:36 PM on 26 Oct 2006,
  • Al Stevens wrote:

I would like to thank Mark for his comments. I have not heard anyone project what might happen if we pulled out of Iraq. The only people I have heard is from this documentary:
about a hospital in Baghdad.

(Please please show it again)

They are Iraqis and they have all said that it will be a disaster if the British and Americans pull out.

We are their last hope. They are fighting a hidden enemy. Please BBC - can you not show the world how desperate the situation really is?

Violent militia, death squads. These are pretty strong words by the author. Would Spufidoo like to see his own people have to face such a fate on their own?

  • 11.
  • At 03:34 PM on 27 Oct 2006,
  • Akber A. Kassam. wrote:

I think, comes at a time when it is very important for all the leaders around the world to realise that the world is not their private play ground to do with as they please and destroy the world in the process of their thrist for dominance and power, there are millions of innocent lives being sacrificed for the selfish motives of the ones at helm of affairs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, the world cannot simply accept this. !!!!!!

  • 12.
  • At 10:05 AM on 28 Oct 2006,
  • Dave Parker wrote:

Journalists are likely to be paying the price for their 2003 "embedded" relationship with the invading armies for years to come. It was a shameful episode in media history which unfairly tarred reporters as adjuncts of the military machine. Next time the BBC should just say no.

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