Hard News by Russell Brown

This just in ...

All weekend, as CNN reporters respectfully pointed their microphones at US Army PR men, al-Jazeera was showing a very different image: the body of a child with the back of its head blown off, absent brain.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the Arab world is seeing a very different war than are the consumers of American-based media. That dead child became a signature image of the war without ever being seen by Western audiences. It's hard to know where this will go but it is probably not anywhere good.

CNN's coverage is not, as some would have it, propaganda - it's a bit more complex than that. But what is clear already is that CNN, with its omnipresent but anaemic coverage of the war, is losing the journalistic battle. It presents the strange combination of a constant flow of information and a raging lack of curiosity.

Half-hourly bulletins routinely begin with unchallenged statements from the Pentagon or the Whitehouse; presenters in Atlanta throw to correspondents in Kuwait who throw to reporters "embedded" with army units. Few of them say anything worth hearing - indeed the embedded reporters have sign up and agreed not to report without the permission of their military hosts. Meanwhile, there's a war on and Arab television is getting all the best pictures.

Analysis is wretched: retired generals point at interactive maps and dutifully explain White House battle plans without a breath of scrutiny. Coverage dives further when the hapless Aaron Brown - never without a homily, a kind word for the troops or a bit of patriotic commentary - is on watch in Atlanta. It is simply embarrassing journalism.

Ironically, the most punchy, concise and useful strategic analysis I saw all weekend was delivered on the officially charter-friendly TVNZ flagship, Sunday. Hosking, having assembled some good questions for a change, spoke to Auckland University's former US Defense Department analyst Paul Buchanan and it was positively lucid. Indeed, the whole programme was good. (I'm kind of fascinated by Sunday, because I can see what they've tried to do and I wonder how they've managed to underperform so often.)

The Arab stations eventually replaced their pictures of dead children with pictures of killed and captured US servicemen - pictures that several US channels quickly declared they would not show. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld invoked the Geneva Convention - which "indicates that it's not permitted to photograph and embarrass or humiliate prisoners of war" - as did Bush.

"Needless to say, television networks that carry such pictures, I would say, are doing something that's unfortunate," Rumsfeld warned.

Not one of the US networks that dutifully carried these admonishments was inclined to point out that the US continues to deny even the most basic Geneva Convention rights to more than 650 men it captured in Afghanistan and still holds in legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay.

The British Court of Appeal described the detention without charge of those prisoners - at least some of whom appear to have been innocently scooped up - as "legally objectionable" and "in apparent contravention of the fundamental principle of law".

They're not only still there at Camp X-Ray, the US is continuing to shift new inmates there, still without charge or Geneva Convention rights. And the White House is complaining because US Marines are appearing on television?

Iraqis, much as they wish to be freed of Saddam's rule, cannot be expected to enjoy seeing their soldiers surrender to an invading army either. As the Baghdad blogger Salam Pax put it this weekend:

"On BBC we are watching scenes of Iraqis surrendering. My youngest cousin was muttering 'what shame' to himself, yes it is better for them to do that but still seeing them carrying that white flag makes something deep inside you cringe."

(Incidentally some people are having trouble reaching Salam's blog, Where's Raed?. This is because of the underscore in the URL, which is not a permitted character in the protocol used by many Squid caches, including the one at Ihug. There doesn't seem to be a workaround, although you could try turning off proxies in your browser setup.)

We can expect quite a bit more officially-sponsored tosh in the next few weeks: much talk of "human shields" and Iraqi dirty pool. In Baghdad, Republican Guards will surely disguise themselves as civilians and stage sneak attacks. But this was always going to happen - it is their only sensible strategy. War is not nice and the Iraqi Army is not going to obligingly march out into the desert so that it can be conveniently incinerated without its civilians.

Meanwhile, the neighbouring Arabs the neocon fantasists insist will roll over and embrace democracy once Iraq is conquered are protesting in their tens of thousands, staging firefights with their own police forces and, in the case of an 11-year-old boy, joining the list of victims. This presumably was not in the plan.

PS: Mediawatch's Web-only feature Wide Area News this week covers the curious case of the Dominion Post's big apology to the Bushes.