The Guardian April 2, 2003


Memo to Miranda: get the full picture

by Tom Pearson

Ms Devine, in your Sydney Morning Herald column last week ("Lofty 
moralists blind to stark truth") you accused universities, and certain 
media and institutions of the "so-called intellectual classes", of 
preventing Australians from making "the choice between right and wrong in 
the most important conflict most of us have faced". This, you said, was due 
to something called "the philosophy of moral relativism, or situational 
ethics" .

Well, I don't know the philosophy you refer to, but I do know that 
everything is relative, as in your comparison of the treatment of prisoners 
by the Iraqis with the behaviour of US soldiers; "former [US] POWs from the 
first Gulf War have reported torture, beatings, broken legs and dislocated 
shoulders, burning cigarettes pressed into open wounds, and worse."

On the other hand, ethically the situation with the American troops is pure 
as the driven snow, or sand in this case. "By contrast, you have the 
photograph which appeared on the front pages of this newspaper on Saturday: 
of two US soldiers, one cradling the head of an exhausted Iraqi soldier and 
pouring water into his mouth, while the other soldier prudently holds a 
rifle to the Iraqi's head. I know which side I'd prefer to be taken 
prisoner by."

I am compelled to point out that the same photographs, the same images of 
the war, appeared in all the mass media. Pictures in the Fairfax press are 
printed in the News Ltd papers: that Herald front page you sermonised 
looked exactly the same as the front page of The Australian.

Seen relatively one can only conclude that this homogenous reportage is the 
result of all information coming from the one source  the US military.

There's the "embedded" journalists travelling as captive reporters with US 
forces, and the official US media centre in Qatar, all dishing out a stream 
of carefully orchestrated disinformation. Those images of the invading 
troops with swaddled babies and beautiful, sad-eyed children  should we 
tolerate such cynicism, such manipulation, such hypocrisy?

Miranda, we know that what is happening in Iraq is the slaughter of the 
innocents. And as this war continues the horrors will inevitably be 
revealed: the things being done to the Iraqi people in the name of 
"democracy and freedom" by the Australian, British and American militaries 
you and I could not conjure up from even the darkest recesses of our 
imaginations.

Yet, when it comes to diversity of information you trained your sights on 
two of its sources, Al-Jazeera and the ABC. You were even outraged at the 
national broadcaster giving the Iraqi Information Minister some airtime, 
miniscule relative to the blanket coverage of the invaders' version of the 
war. Clearly you believe that "balanced" reporting is old hat.

In fact, it was on the ABC Radio National program The Media Report that we 
had a glimpse of the extent of the censorship taking place, and it came 
from the Herald's picture editor, Michael Bowers.

One photo, of an Iraqi girl being taken off the back of a truck by her 
father, was cropped by the Herald to hide the fact that both her 
feet had been blown off. Asked about the way images of death and 
destruction are dealt with, Mr Bowers said "I don't think you need to get 
those really gory images out there."

It would certainly upset readers, to the point of rage and outrage against 
the war. I suggest such anger would be directed against those who sent the 
troops there, and the troops themselves.

After all, you and I know what soldiers are trained to do. The promotion of 
Australia's military forces as some kind of humanitarian aid agency may 
have succeeded in lulling some people into a false sense of security.

But we know that soldiers are trained to obey orders without question; that 
their fundamental, their overriding reason for existence, is to kill. And 
when it comes to politics you and I also know the abiding rule: to be duped 
or not to be duped  that is the question.

That child's feet  that is war, and Australian troops and the Prime 
Minister who sent them are responsible.

Some might say that in the battle of ideas, for hearts and minds if you 
will, columnists in the mass media are a tiny brood whose cacophony of 
clucking is amplified out of all proportion by their prominence on the 
opinion pages of the daily press.

Am I accusing you of firing off your pro-war salvos from behind the 
censored photos of the maimed and the dead? Would that be moral relativism, 
or situational ethics?

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