The Huw Wheldon Lecture - The Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention
Royal Television Society: Huw Wheldon Lecture given by Rageh Omaar will
be broadcast on BBC TWO on Monday 22 September at 11.20pm
people remember from the war in Iraq? The images of shock and awe bombing,
the saving or rather, staging of the saving of Private Jessica Lynch?
about the eerie images of the world's most advanced armies stopped in
its tracks by ferocious red desert dust storms?
If I had
to guess, I'd wager that the first image that springs to people's minds
about the war in Iraq is this:
- statue falling down>
I will come back to that moment later, because it was the most
powerful 'edited highlight' of the war which I now believe may have
ended up confusing, or even misrepresenting the wider narrative at the
heart of the war.
If I was
to witness that moment again, I'm sure I would feel just as exhilarated
was just a moment, one instance. It should inform us about the wider
issues of the war - not come to define it. It shouldn't be seen as 'the
the course of this lecture I want to look at my own experiences of the
conflict and see whether they match the picture of it accepted by you.
don't match, what does this say about us as war reporters? Did we fail?
And what does it say about our medium, Television, as a means to record
my chance to give my side of the story - to say what I really saw -
sometimes televised, sometimes not.
it's important to remember that Iraq was a dreadful story in terms of
statistic - and it's worth repeating here - is that statistically you
had more chance of being killed in the war as a journalist than as a
did people like me stay on in Baghdad? How were we able to operate amidst
such upheaval - with the war quite literally on our doorstep and on
top of our heads every night?
importantly did we tell our audiences anything that they simply would
not have known if we had not been there. Could we even tell them the
we could only see the war from inside Baghdad. That was the extent of
our perspective. Events literally exploded in front of our eyes, live
on air. It was, quite frankly news to us, let alone the viewer for whom
we had to explain the detail and significance of what was unfolding.
It was history as a very, very rough draft.
take you back to the beginning. It's 2002. With the Afghanistan war
barely over, President Bush says his government wants "regime change"
in Iraq, and news organisations begin to plan for a possible new battle
in the War on Terror.
I and a
small BBC team, including bureau chief Paul Danahar and cameraman Andrew
Kilrain, decide to focus on Iraq and to try to get in.
allowed very few western journalists into the country after September
11. But in March 2002 - exactly a year before start of war, we became
the first British TV team in Iraq.
on we plotted every twist and turn of the run up to the conflict. By
as soon as the summer of 2002, the atmosphere in Baghdad was that war
Iraqis never told their true feelings to foreign TV crews - they still
lived in fear of the regime.
put together orchestrated shows of defiance, and in August last year
I witnessed one such display
- Iraqi military march>
was just going through the motions. Did you see the massed ranks of
housewives in the militia? The portly civil servants that would fend
off the Chieftan Tanks?
though, anyone inside Baghdad knew how much of a military mismatch the
war would actually be.
it be otherwise? This was the kind of military machine being assembled
by Britain and America in the Gulf during the Summer of 2002.
in Baghdad I was filming Iraqi military hardware.
obsolete. Much of it dating from the 1980s.
of defiance' said much more about Saddam Hussein's state of mind - one
of 'No capitulation - whatever the cost to Iraq' - than it did about
the military ability of Iraq to withstand the onslaught.
Iraqis knew exactly who the victor would be. The question for
them was - what would be the price of victory for them, and what future
would it lead to for their kids.
- ordinary Iraqis in tearoom and in market>
the real image of how ordinary Iraqis watched the slide to war. It was
one of resignation, fatalism and powerlessness.
out onto the streets of Baghdad virtually every day in the months before
the conflict - and I'd come back with reports of a sense of complete
normality - of people going about their ordinary business, of no rise
in prices of essential goods in the markets.
imagine what the scenes would be like in London or Manchester if they
were threatened with a massive aerial bombardment?
the dramatic, the sudden, the 'out of the ordinary'. It is difficult
to make a news event out of nothing happening.
in the run up to the war in Iraq, the eerie normality, the lack of panic
at the time was the story.
to the heart of an essential point about the Iraqi people and the war.
The truth is they were utterly powerless and voiceless. Trapped between
a dictator who'd never asked them their views - and western powers who
didn't have access to ordinary Iraqis; their concerns, fears and misgivings.
would speak their mind in the presence of our cameras. But I had to
report what they said more frankly in private.
- Iraqis prepare for the festival of Eid>
and views I reflected in that report were based on interviews and discussions
with ordinary Iraqis. But we were not able to film these interviews.
this was the story, and the only way of getting these views across
- was by editorialising, by putting the comments in my mouth.
this was a brutal dictatorship - and those who opposed Saddam or criticised
him openly were either in prison or exiled.
not reporting in the normal sense of the word. It placed a lot of responsibility
on us as journalists.
may remember my reports were also preceded by a caveat saying I was
being monitored. That didn't mean that any of my reports were censored
- what it meant was that if I had got on TV and said Saddam Hussein
was a mass murderer - I would've have at least been kicked out.
what would've happened to those Iraqis working in the BBC office in
the views of Iraqis I spoke to off camera, I was basically saying to
audiences back in the UK, you have to trust me, this is what I know,
but I can't tell you how I know it.
journalists faced a similar dilemma. They were told of military plans
in advance but were not allowed to reveal them. They too had to find
their way around this problem.
reporters to strain a key relationship based on trust - the one with
readers and listeners expect us to bring them the views of people directly.
They want to see the Iraqi man or woman saying: "we are powerless,
there's nothing we can do about the war, etc…" But whether
you're in Baghdad, or embedded with the US army, it's sometimes not
all Iraqis could do effectively was to wait for the war - the westerners
remaining in Baghdad - journalists and diplomats could actively prepare
for the war.
February of this year, as the diplomatic means of resolving the crisis
through the UN collapsed, we faced a choice of whether to stay or leave.
a fearful time with choices and decisions to be made everyday. The use
of Weapons of Mass Destruction (remember those?), was an issue. We'd
all been given training, equipment and antidotes to use in such an event.
But…should we take the medication?
Clive Myrie and cameraman Darren Conway, were sitting in the Kuwaiti
desert with the Royal Marines when they faced the question.
- taking the antidote>
Conway, or DC as he's known, decided not to take the medication.
miles to the north of him, we'd made the same decision - because we
calculated the regime was unlikely to gas themselves and the inhabitants
of their capital city.
did have other worries - notably how the Iraqis were going to deal with
us as western journalists once the war started.
to build up relationships in this kind of scenario in order to survive
and do your job.
into dangerous and closed societies ruled by dictatorships is one of
the most difficult and challenging things in journalism. You have to
become half reporter - half hustler. You have to adapt to every situation.
Being aggressive and difficult at the border - then being friendly and
smiley in the General's office. And so on. That's what war correspondents
do, day in day out.
like covering an EU conference - where your camera position is pre-arranged,
phone lines are supplied and packed lunches are provided.
accused of writing fawning letters to an official seemed weird to me.
Of course I wrote fawning letters. I also told many lies to officials,
covered up the fact we'd smuggled in bits of equipment, and so on…I
met six foreign editors from America and British news organisations
who'd come to Baghdad who'd come to meet and schmooze the same officials
I had so outrageously fawned to.
order for all this preparation to be relevant - one had to take the
personal decision of whether to stay inside Saddam's city.
to stay was ours. My BBC News bosses were initially minded to pull us
out. And I couldn't blame them. In the two days before the war began
- the international press corps went from being at least 1,000 strong
- to a little over 100.
- it's difficult to capture the level of paranoia that gripped journalists.
One rumour said that on the first night of the war, western journalists
in the city would be rounded up and tied to bridges across the Tigris
River as human shields.
TV technician said he'd seen large amounts of rope being brought into
the Ministry of Information where we had to be based.
nobody knew what the rope was actually for - but in that atmosphere
the sense of fear and foreboding was leaving everything to one's imagination.
Which of course begs the question, if we were susceptible to such paranoia,
how were we going to get a grip on reality and report it, once the bombs
was these rumours just didn't reflect an image of Iraqis that I could
recognise from years of having reported from the country.
we were taking calculated risks by staying. The main thing on our minds
was that we were going to be on the receiving end of a massive aerial
risks from the bombing campaign were one thing - but notions of being
garrotted by hotel bell boys, or being tied to an Iraqi flagpole on
top of one of Saddam's palaces were more Hollywood than Baghdad.
I and my
six other expatriate BBC colleagues decided to stay because we believed
that we could stay safe and do our jobs.
nearly fifty thousand of our fellow citizens had been sent to fight
and possibly die in Iraq.
I and my
other British colleagues had a duty to inform their relatives about
this war from all angles - and that of course included Baghdad.
images - empty streets>
By 19 March,
we weren't going to be able to change our minds. The time for dithering
was over. This is what Baghdad looked like on the last evening of peace.
set by the USA and UK for Saddam Hussein and his two sons was due to
expire 7 hours after these pictures were taken. Baghdad felt like it
was cut off from the rest of the world and no-one knew how long we'd
end up having to stay in the city.
was expecting a ferocious start to the war in Baghdad - especially given
all the leaked reports in the previous months talking of more cruise
missiles being used in the first 48 hours than were used in the entire
1991 Gulf War. And so the streets were empty and deserted as people
images - first day of war skyline>
hunkered down that night - and like the Iraqis we thought it was going
to begin with a massive thunderclap. But at dawn we looked out from
our balconies in the Palestine Hotel and saw what even Washington described
as a limited strike.
days that followed, the Iraqi leadership began to believe that things
weren't going to be as bad as they must've feared.
ordinary Iraqis, I thought that the Saddam Hussein regime would be militarily
overwhelmed within a week. But with each passing day, with Basra stubbornly
refusing to fall to UK forces - the Iraqi regime resorted to customary
defiance and braggadocio.
- enter this man talking about the invading armies.
- cuts of Comical Ali>
as he meant to go on through the war. The initial ad hoc press conferences
in the first few days of the war - kicked off at 11.00am each day -
The 11 O'clock Follies as they became known to some of the journalists
in Baghdad. But they became a regular feature.
for us, he is now - as he was then, a figure of amusement. But this
was to miss the real point of what he represented. Whilst speaking in
broken English to a bemused western audience, he'd speak Arabic when
addressing Middle Eastern audiences who were overwhelmingly opposed
to the war.
were being seen from two entirely different points of view.
ask ourselves what we in the West found so funny about him. Were we
just laughing at his poor English? What if Tariq Aziz was saying these
things - with his flawless English and knowledge of how the western
media worked? Would we have been laughing, or would we have been filled
one other point about the Information Minister. Whatever he said or
claimed was not the point. The fact he was appearing on TV screens was.
was about regime change - and every day a member of the regime appeared
on television spitting defiance and insults (however ludicrous) this
was their chance of saying 'regime change ain't happened yet - and screw
you'. It was as simple as that.
why he kept appearing even when US soldiers were in Baghdad - less than
half a mile from where he was giving a press conference, which was the
last time I saw him.
- RO puts question to Comical Ali>
captures the false facade that was the Saddam Hussein regime more than
- Sahaff no hair dye>
how he looked two months after I'd last seen him. Giving his first interview
after the war, without uniform, sitting on chintzy furniture and no
longer dyeing his hair, he looked more like your old uncle than the
bogeyman we were led to believe he was.
war eventually came to Baghdad in earnest. And the balconies of our
rooms at the Palestine Hotel gave us ringside seats at this moment in
- Shock and Awe bombing>
of reporting this event didn't just lie in the danger and ferocity of
the bombing. There were severe technical problems. Every evening - about
an hour before the bombing began each evening, it became almost impossible
to get a connection to London on our satellite phones.
my abiding memories about the prelude to the start of the bombing was
hearing the sound of howling dogs across the city. It'd start about
20 minutes before the first explosions. I'm told it's because their
hearing picks up the high pitched sound of missiles before they arrive.
Anyway, it became a sort of eerie and bizarre early warning signal.
- trying to call London>
at such moments that we tried to establish video and audio connections
to London. It didn't always work.
- RO dialling up>
of the satellites was being closed down by the US military ahead of
that evening's attacks. And so getting reports out was technically very
difficult. And just as we had feared - and prepared for. The power across
the whole city went down.
hum of generators already running as possible back up - Baghdad was
finally plunged into darkness.
war continued in the city, there came something we all knew was going
to happen at some stage; the deaths of innocent Iraqis. Something I
witnessed in the first week of the war.
- report of the Al Shaab bomb>
had been plunged into a fiery orange fog by the worst sandstorms in
living memory. All of us who were there as western journalists knew
immediately the importance and ramifications of this story. The need
to say and describe exactly what we saw with our own eyes was critical
- and we also conveyed what eyewitnesses told us.
reports that it was a coalition bomb were later confirmed.
filmed these scenes - we had to get the story out. And that presented
its own problems.
- bad weather conditions>
everyday - we had to pack up our whole satellite dish by late
afternoon and take it back to our hotels. All
TV organisations did this.
was most intense at night so staying in a government building was not
an option. We'd have to return the next morning rigging up the whole
satellite dish again - and getting it ready for broadcasting again.
have long to wait before the inevitable happened to the Ministry of
- The Ministry of Information is hit>
predicament was as nothing compared to the plight of ordinary Iraqis.
of the Ministry was very much a textbook 'surgical strike'. The coalition
could tell we'd left because there were no satellite signals emanating
from the ministry at that time so that's when they chose to bomb the
building. This was the awesome part of the bombing. The shocking part
was the mistake we'd witnessed at the Al Sha'ab market district.
going to the civilian hospitals in Baghdad during the war could you
get an idea of what was 'shocking' about 'Shock and Awe'.
clip is footage I and BBC cameraman Duncan Stone filmed at the Al Yarmouk
hospital, which was not broadcast.
- Yarmuk hospital>
put the question I did at the start - what do you remember about Shock
and Awe. The dramatic explosions across the Baghdad skyline? Or the
scenes from hospitals of dead and injured civilians?
of the war, civilian casualties from the bombing was the main story
of the war as seen from Baghdad. All that changed on the morning of
7 April when the Americans finally arrived in the city. From that point
on Baghdad became the focus of the whole war.
images - explosions>
morning I was woken by what I thought was just more muffled sounds from
anti-aircraft guns. Barely had I registered this when my colleague Paul
Danahar phoned me from his room a few floors beneath and said: "Rageh
look outside your window - it's 'effing' unbelievable". I did -
and this is what I saw.
- US arrive in Baghdad>
- Iraqis fleeing in underwear>
watching this scene, transfixed. Seeing the Iraqis fleeing in their
underwear was breathtaking. These weren't any soldiers - these were
Saddam's elite of the elite. The Special Republican Guard who protected
the top member of the regime, the men whom weapons inspectors said were
at the heart of the concealment of weapons of mass destruction and who'd
led them a merry dance for 8 years.
they were, in front of my eyes, disorganised and fleeing. At that moment
they didn't look like the kind of soldiers who could deploy the deadliest
weapons in 45 minutes.
coming days, the threat to us as western journalists was not the Republican
Guard - as described in the paranoid fantasies before the war. The threat
was from the young, American military might who'd arrived in Baghdad
armed to the teeth. A painful lesson we learnt on that very day
- the Palestine hotel is hit>
a terrible mistake. But the reports we filed on the killing of journalists
by American troops didn't justify accusations that we were drawing out
some kind of moral equivalence between Saddam Hussein and George W Bush.
there was no moral equivalence. But on the ground, in the heat of the
moment - you faced many dangers. It's just that on that day - the greatest
danger to us as journalists was from young, scared and pumped up American
soldiers in a city where people were shooting at them.
only two more days before the image that summed up what was happening
in Baghdad was captured.
soldiers drove up to the front door of the Palestine Hotel where the
foreign journalists in the city were based - to show the world, live
on TV - that they did indeed now control Baghdad.
brings us back to that iconic moment I referred to at the beginning.
- statue of Saddam Hussein>
The pulling down of the statue of Saddam Hussein by American marines
has in my mind, come to overwhelm many of the other images of what was
a complicated historical event.
measure of just how much live television magnifies and dramatises such
moments. The image of the statue was iconic. But it was just
one symbol of what was going in many different places in Baghdad that
day. That's all. It wasn't the most important statue or symbol of the
regime to be torn down, neither did it have the largest crowds.
that the TV cameras were there at that moment, at that place.
always comment about the statue coming down but hardly anyone has commented
to me about this report.
- looting of Saddam's palace>
images - Rageh walking through house of senior official as it is being
this shows what regime change meant for ordinary Iraqis better than
the image of the statue coming down. People who once feared the man
who owned this house - now making off with his furniture and belongings.
images - looting>
looting of houses of senior regime members symbolised the end of the
Saddam Hussein regime, its development into uncontrolled looting sprees
affecting ministries and public institutions came to symbolise the beginning
of American rule in Baghdad.
- Al Kindi hospital>
how the era after Saddam began. Nothing better represented the sense
of chaos than what I saw at a civilian hospital two days after the fall
of Baghdad where medical staff were battling looters.
about that for a moment. What could speak more eloquently about the
tragic and chaotic start to Iraq's new future than the image of young
doctors carrying guns to protect their patients and critical medical
that's something I'll never forget and is a more powerful symbol of
the issues we're seeing in Iraq right now.
coming down was, to be frank, a useful and easy to comprehend image
that was put on for the media to show the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
And to have the chance to witness it was exciting. But it's been elevated
to more than it deserves.
criticisms of journalists in Baghdad, accusing them of overplaying the
sense of chaos in the city after it fell to US forces. Who'd make that
and disorder was not a footnote to the fall of the statue and the toppling
of Saddam. I believe all the evidence suggests the opposite. The tearing
down of the statue now seems almost irrelevant to the crisis in Iraq
we're now seeing.
of the fall of the Berlin Wall didn't tell us about the painful and
long process of German re-unification.
of Nelson Mandela couldn't tell us about the long struggle to bury apartheid
and give birth to a new South Africa.
stay with us, and become reference points - snapshots of historical
events that change our world. The same is true with the pulling down
of Saddam's statue.
would've happened if the picture that day had shown a wide shot of the
statue, revealing the banks of photographers and cameramen trying to
capture the image of ordinary Iraqis jumping up and down on the face
of the toppled dictator?
still have been a meaningful image, but not the one it carries today.
Instead, many people would have said the whole event was just a media
was only a week later, when I left Baghdad to go home that I realised
what it felt like to be right in the middle of a media circus - where
flak jackets were of little help.
- BBC Breakfast News>
the rest of the BBC team who'd been with me in Baghdad weren't around
when all of this was going on. If they were, it would've been open season
to take the mickey out of me.
said, we existed in a tight bubble in Baghdad and I didn't have a clue
about all the attention that had built up around me during the war.
actually wanted to talk about was what was happening in Baghdad, a city
I'd know for six years, where I had many friends and where there was
a real crisis. But instead, much of the media wanted to know about my
grotty red fleece.
back now, do my recollections match with the images you retained about
the war? If I had to guess I'd say that a lot of things that I remember
and you remember differ.
point is obvious. I can't take a whole day's experience of being in
Baghdad - everything I saw and felt - and express it in a three minute
TV news report. But even with this proviso - I bet that our recollections
was different from any other from the point of view of television.
at the end of the first Gulf War resorted to a bit of journalistic licence
when he called his book about his experiences Live From the Battlefield.
war was live from several battlefields simultaneously. Technology has
moved at such speed that a reporter and cameraman travelling with a
military unit can go live as fighting is taking place.
one of my BBC News bosses to say he was really worried that in this
war there would be a death of a coalition soldier live on air.
were streamed into people's homes live - from Baghdad, Basra, Nassariyah.
the picture we're giving to viewers is of a series of powerful snapshots
from the battlefield - what one of my colleagues memorably called 'keyhole
a danger that there is no thread, there's no narrative and therefore
a thought - but we could be losing something here.
is not a case of quiet hindsight. These lessons matter. They're relevant
for us now in reporting the enormous story of Iraq's ongoing crisis.
less dangerous there, as I found out when I returned a few weeks ago.
The story if anything is becoming more complex.
have freedoms they never had under Saddam but at the same time many
people are frightened to go out onto the streets because of lawlessness.
the conflict was difficult and frightening. Reporting the peace is,
if anything, even more so.
just the Iraq war that is changing the nature of TV news - the whole
experience of Iraq may transform TV news - and that experience isn't
Royal Television Society: Huw Wheldon Lecture given by Rageh Omaar will
be broadcast on BBC TWO on Monday 22 September at 11.20pm.