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29 October 2014
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Rageh Omaar

BBC Correspondent

The Huw Wheldon Lecture - The Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention

18 September 2003
Printable version

The Royal Television Society: Huw Wheldon Lecture given by Rageh Omaar will be broadcast on BBC TWO on Monday 22 September at 11.20pm

Not checked against delivery

What do 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?

No? How 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:

<Clip - 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 and animated.

But it 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 whole story'.

During 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.

If they 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 history?

This is my chance to give my side of the story - to say what I really saw - sometimes televised, sometimes not.

Firstly, it's important to remember that Iraq was a dreadful story in terms of lost colleagues.

One amazing 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 coalition soldier.

Why then, 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?

And most 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 whole story?

Don't forget, 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.

<Background images>

Let me 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.

Iraq had 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.

From then 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 was inevitable

Of course Iraqis never told their true feelings to foreign TV crews - they still lived in fear of the regime.

The regime put together orchestrated shows of defiance, and in August last year I witnessed one such display

<Clip - Iraqi military march>

But this 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?

Seriously though, anyone inside Baghdad knew how much of a military mismatch the war would actually be.

<Background images>

How could it be otherwise? This was the kind of military machine being assembled by Britain and America in the Gulf during the Summer of 2002.

Meanwhile in Baghdad I was filming Iraqi military hardware.

<Background images>

Which was obsolete. Much of it dating from the 1980s.

These 'shows 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.

Ordinary 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.

<Clip - ordinary Iraqis in tearoom and in market>

This was the real image of how ordinary Iraqis watched the slide to war. It was one of resignation, fatalism and powerlessness.

I'd go 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.

Can you imagine what the scenes would be like in London or Manchester if they were threatened with a massive aerial bombardment?

News means the dramatic, the sudden, the 'out of the ordinary'. It is difficult to make a news event out of nothing happening.

But in the run up to the war in Iraq, the eerie normality, the lack of panic at the time was the story.

It got 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.

No Iraqi would speak their mind in the presence of our cameras. But I had to report what they said more frankly in private.

<Clip - Iraqis prepare for the festival of Eid>

The sentiments 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.

But this was the story, and the only way of getting these views across - was by editorialising, by putting the comments in my mouth.

Let's remember this was a brutal dictatorship - and those who opposed Saddam or criticised him openly were either in prison or exiled.

It was not reporting in the normal sense of the word. It placed a lot of responsibility on us as journalists.

As you 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.

God knows what would've happened to those Iraqis working in the BBC office in Baghdad.

By editorialising 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.

Embedded 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.

It forces reporters to strain a key relationship based on trust - the one with their audience.

Our viewers, 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 possible.

Whereas 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.

And by 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.

It was 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?

My friends, Clive Myrie and cameraman Darren Conway, were sitting in the Kuwaiti desert with the Royal Marines when they faced the question.

<Clip - taking the antidote>

Darren Conway, or DC as he's known, decided not to take the medication.

A thousand 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.

But we did have other worries - notably how the Iraqis were going to deal with us as western journalists once the war started.

You have to build up relationships in this kind of scenario in order to survive and do your job.

Getting 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.

It's not like covering an EU conference - where your camera position is pre-arranged, phone lines are supplied and packed lunches are provided.

So being 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.

But in order for all this preparation to be relevant - one had to take the personal decision of whether to stay inside Saddam's city.

The decision 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.

Even now - 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.

One American TV technician said he'd seen large amounts of rope being brought into the Ministry of Information where we had to be based.

Of course 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 started falling.

The reality was these rumours just didn't reflect an image of Iraqis that I could recognise from years of having reported from the country.

Of course 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 bombardment.

But the 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.

Furthermore 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.

<Background 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.

The deadline 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.

Everyone 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 took cover.

<Background images - first day of war skyline>

We also 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.

In the days that followed, the Iraqi leadership began to believe that things weren't going to be as bad as they must've feared.

Like most 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.

And so - enter this man talking about the invading armies.

<Clip - cuts of Comical Ali>

He began 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.

Of course 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.

His performances were being seen from two entirely different points of view.

And let's 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 with dread?

There's 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.

The war 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.

And that's 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.

<Clip - RO puts question to Comical Ali>

Nothing captures the false facade that was the Saddam Hussein regime more than this image;

<Image - Sahaff no hair dye>

This was 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.

But the 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 history.

<Clip - Shock and Awe bombing>

The difficulty 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.

One of 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.

<Insert - trying to call London>

It was at such moments that we tried to establish video and audio connections to London. It didn't always work.

<Clip - RO dialling up>

The bandwidth 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.

With the hum of generators already running as possible back up - Baghdad was finally plunged into darkness.

As the 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.

<Clip - report of the Al Shaab bomb>

The city 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.

The initial reports that it was a coalition bomb were later confirmed.

Having filmed these scenes - we had to get the story out. And that presented its own problems.

<Clip - bad weather conditions>

As happened 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.

The bombing 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.

We didn't have long to wait before the inevitable happened to the Ministry of Information.

<Clip - The Ministry of Information is hit>

But our predicament was as nothing compared to the plight of ordinary Iraqis.

The bombing 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.

Only by going to the civilian hospitals in Baghdad during the war could you get an idea of what was 'shocking' about 'Shock and Awe'.

The next clip is footage I and BBC cameraman Duncan Stone filmed at the Al Yarmouk hospital, which was not broadcast.

<Clip - Yarmuk hospital>

Let me 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?

For much 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.

<Background images - explosions>

Early that 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.

<Clip - US arrive in Baghdad>

<Images - Iraqis fleeing in underwear>

I remember 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.

And there 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.

In the 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

<Clip - the Palestine hotel is hit>

This was 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.

Of course 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.

It took only two more days before the image that summed up what was happening in Baghdad was captured.

The American 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.

And this brings us back to that iconic moment I referred to at the beginning.

<Clip - 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.

It's a 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.

It's just that the TV cameras were there at that moment, at that place.

People always comment about the statue coming down but hardly anyone has commented to me about this report.

<Clip - looting of Saddam's palace>

<Background images - Rageh walking through house of senior official as it is being looted>

For me 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.

<Background images - looting>

If the 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.

<Clip - Al Kindi hospital>

This is 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.

Let's think 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 facilities.

Personally that's something I'll never forget and is a more powerful symbol of the issues we're seeing in Iraq right now.

The statue 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.

There were 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 accusation today?

The looting 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.

The images of the fall of the Berlin Wall didn't tell us about the painful and long process of German re-unification.

The release of Nelson Mandela couldn't tell us about the long struggle to bury apartheid and give birth to a new South Africa.

But they 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.

But what 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?

It would 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 circus.

And it 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.

<Clip - BBC Breakfast News>

Thank God, 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.

As I've 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.

What I 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.

Looking 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.

Well one 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 are different.

This war was different from any other from the point of view of television.

Peter Arnett, 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.

Well this 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.

It led 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.

Images were streamed into people's homes live - from Baghdad, Basra, Nassariyah.

And so 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 journalism'.

But there's a danger that there is no thread, there's no narrative and therefore no analysis.

It's just a thought - but we could be losing something here.

And this 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.

It's not less dangerous there, as I found out when I returned a few weeks ago. The story if anything is becoming more complex.

Iraqis 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.

Reporting the conflict was difficult and frightening. Reporting the peace is, if anything, even more so.

It's not 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 over yet.

The Royal Television Society: Huw Wheldon Lecture given by Rageh Omaar will be broadcast on BBC TWO on Monday 22 September at 11.20pm.


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