Hard News by Russell Brown

Humming 'Que Sera Sera'

"Jesus!" exclaimed Peter Arnett as the dull whoomp of an explosion sounded. Then, whoomp, again.

Arnett was in a media centre in central Baghdad, waiting to deliver a report by satellite to someone called Eric. I know, because he was near a live microphone that was somehow feeding through the German webcam I was watching, late last night.

I had watched the webcam before, seen cars and buses circling a big public plaza and smoke crowding the horizon, but it had never had sound before. I could hear horns honking from the traffic, then, at one point, the sirens of two fire engines as they rushed through.

"I'm waiting for IFB," said Arnett to someone off-mic. "I'm waiting for IFB."

I hooked up my MiniDisc recorder to the computer, hopeful that the controversial correspondent would pass the time by saying something out of order - perhaps a those-bastards-at-NBC rant.

But he didn't. He hummed a tune. I'm pretty sure it was 'Que Sera Sera'. He did his first piece, then hummed 'Que Sera Sera' again, then finished with a rap about how the media technology trained on this war was unprecedented, and how it was the job of him and other reporters to show and tell whether the US forces were conducting the fighting as they had promised, with due regard for civilian life.

And then he thanked everyone - the people at the destination broadcaster, his local crew - repeatedly. See you at this time tomorrow, he said.

An Italian TV reporter moved in range next. She talked a lot, and was possibly dissing her bosses, the war, the Iraqis, the Americans, her hotel staff, whatever. I couldn't tell. Her cigarette lighter was almost empty - I could hear the wheel turn six or eight times in quick succession every time she lit up. She made the kind of noise people make to themselves when their lighters run out.

After the Italian reporter finished, the screen went black. When it came back, it wasn't the familiar picture of the plaza and the cars, but raw Reuters video, for a story about a Baghdad hospital.

A group of people pushed a wheeled bed bearing a man with leg injuries across a courtyard and into a hospital. The video still had its incidental sound; a clatter of nervous, urgent, scared noises in the background. It struck me that we never see hospital pictures on our television without a booming voiceover steering the context. We see short, sharp edits, then it's onto the next item.

This part of this hospital was not overcrowded and seemed clean. The beds held men with fresh and grievous injuries; some apparently missing limbs, another with terribly burned hands. One man had an abdominal injury and his head forced back at an angle in some kind of neck brace. I couldn't see uniforms on any of them, but it was hard to tell.

The sound was the worst thing. Men, agitated, moaning in pain, some apparently delirious. It made it seem much more real and disturbing and I wondered who they were and whether their families knew they were in hospital. War correspondents see this all the time and presumably get used to it.

The shots for that item finished. The next batch were Baghdad street scenes, clearly from the same day. A woman in a traditional black gown was shouting something to two men, her hands raised. People milled at the side of the street, looking nervous and confused. A lot of people were armed: two teenagers stood, one of them clinging to what I took to be a grenade launcher. They weren't "crack" Republican Guards, or Fedayeen "death squads". They just looked like folks, scared. Nobody should have to go through this.

The Reuters pictures will presumably have screened somewhere by now; edited, voiced-over, mediated, minus their incidental sound. For all the talk of unprecedented coverage, we get little enough of a look at what war really looks like.

The friendly fire incident captured by the BBC in Northern Iraq this week gave us a little window on hell. That's what it actually looks like when "Iraqi positions" are "taken out" or "shut down" or "neutralised" or any of those other phrases. How many hundreds of times has this happened out of our sight? Part of me wants to see CNN's gung-ho cavalry rider Walter Rogers in a scene like that, pissing his pants with fear.

War coverage would be different if everybody had cameras. If everybody had cameras, maybe we'd know what hideous event led to the truckload of corpses of women and children seen by a Red Cross worker in Hilla. Maybe that's the next step in war coverage - unmediated cameras, everywhere; robots that don't make editorial choices and can't be intimidated by governments. But you can't make people watch, can you?