Spring 2002

ISSN 1473-219X





David E Morrison: Television and the Gulf War, Luton: John Libbey & Co, ISBN 0956 90577, 100pp, out of print.
David E Morrison et al: Defining Violence: The Search for Understanding, Luton: University of Luton Press, ISBN 1 86020 568 2, 152pp, £14.50.
Richard Keeble: Secret State, Silent Press: New millitarism, the Gulf and the modern image of warfare, Luton: University of Luton Press, ISBN 1 86020 512 7, 256pp, £14.50.

Violence is communication, indeed violent acts can be seen as paradigmatic or exemplary cases of communication. Shannon & Weaver’s (1949) transmission model can be as easily applied to an assault or a bombing raid as to a conversation or a broadcast. Transmitter, receiver, message and noise are easily mapped. Equally one can see that Lasswell’s (1948) model (‘Who says what in which channel to whom with what effect?’) needs only the substitution of ‘does’ for ‘says’ to enable it to function as the basis of an analysis of fighting as banal as that of speaking to which it is usually applied. And from the verbal insult to the Tomahawk missile, McLuhan’s (1964) conflation of medium and message seems unarguable.

Violence can be the rhetoric of the inarticulate. In Gary Oldman’s (1998) Nil by Mouth, the abusing husband looks at the eponymous injunction over his brutalised wife’s hospital bed and acknowledges that the roots of his violence are in his father’s inability to communicate other than physically. Violence is also the oratory of the excluded; a scream of pain directed at an ignorant or insensitive persecutor, the origin and rationale of terrorism as the voice of the oppressed as we witness repeatedly in news reports from Israel and occupied Palestine and saw spectacularly on September 11.

‘Violence’ seems a prohibitively broad category, yet people have little difficulty in acknowledging and responding to any of its manifestations generically. David Morrison et al’s Defining Violence sets out to investigate 'reactions to the televised representation of violence in a range of contexts and specifically to investigate... the subjective meaning of violence'. How, in other words, did people classify some acts as violent and other acts, though ostensibly violent, as not really violent? Did people, furthermore, have a common definition of violence, or were there many different definitions.

The intention, then, is to produce a taxonomy of mediated acts, classified according to their level of violence as subjectively judged by the viewing participants. The investigators employ a range of stimulus material including British and American TV drama, news and documentary footage, cartoons, comedy and children’s TV. They sampled the reaction of twelve sample groups selected for internal commonality of experience, including a group of young men, and another of young women, familiar with violence in everyday life, another of police officers, one of combat veterans, one of ‘women with a fear of crime’, etc.

The selection of these particular groups, while not exactly arbitrary (does it make more sense to divide people up in terms of their experience than, say, occupation or social class?) is not given any particular rationale. The Hard Men group is balanced by one of Hard Women but the Women with a Fear of Crime group has no such counterbalance of males. An interesting aspect of the research approach is the use of ‘editing groups’. Rather than simply being asked to comment on the material shown to them, the groups were invited to decide exactly what parts of it they would cut or censor. The writers assert that this '...allows respondents to act as their own editors. By making, or suggesting, cuts or other alterations, respondents helped us clarify exactly what they mean by violence’, Their aim is to achieve a definition of ‘violence’ appropriate and acceptable to all groups within the audience. There is a noticeable, indeed remarkable, consistency across the groups as to what counts as violence, what is unacceptable on TV and what is appropriate. Such a consistency ought to have prompted some consideration of whether the results are contingent on the material or the method used, and it is regrettable that little recognition of this is made and that no checks are included to clarify the situation. An even greater unanswered question, however is: what is this definition for? What use can be made of it?

The transcribed data from the groups is fascinating and convincing. A more discourse-based approach could have yielded more telling results, although they might be rather less universalisable which, despite a rather disingenuous disavowal, seems to be what the authors are after. This raises the problem of its purpose in another context – the issue of complicity with censorship. Participants were invited to discuss which images were acceptable and which not, and to formulate this in terms of what should and should not be cut out. This sets up a framework of discussion in which the principle of censorship on grounds of popular acceptability is imported from the initial premises.

There are similarities between this approach and that of Morrison’s sole authored Television and the Gulf War (1992). Both studies work by showing stimulus material to participants in order to elicit a response. Whereas the television study is qualitative and avowedly not universalisable, the Gulf War text is quantitative and produces figures from a statistically representative sample. Once again the issue is about what is considered acceptable to be shown on TV but here the focus is much more specific in that it looks only at the coverage of one event, the Gulf War.

The first part of the study considers the perceived accuracy of TV war reporting. Viewers are reported to be reasonably trusting of the news, particularly the BBC, but most people have some reservations, recognising that no news source is perfect and that in war there will inevitably be some distortion. More interestingly, the survey indicates that a great many viewers complained not about the accuracy of the news but about the fact that there was too much of it. For many viewers, TV is principally a source not so much of information as of entertainment and so news coverage was criticised because it ‘disrupted normal programmes’. One is reminded of the complaints from British TV viewers when the live coverage of Nelson Mandella’s release from gaol delayed the broadcast of the Antiques Roadshow.

Also interesting is the finding that the majority of respondents disagreed with the view that journalists’ impartiality should be suspended during time of war to allow them to present the British side (what might be termed the ‘support our boys’ option). This held true across all newspaper readership groups and across political preferences.

The study goes on to consider perceptions of the need for war. This is an interesting section since it unmasks a contradiction in the thinking of respondents. Although virtually everyone (by 95% to 4%) thinks war is justifiable in self defence – to resist invasion – far fewer (47%) supported using force to stop another country from threatening its neighbours and a mere 28% would justify war on economic grounds, even extreme one (‘to protect its own economy from collapse’). As the writers point out, this conflicts with the finding that 85% of British public opinion supported the Gulf War when hostilities started.

What is still more significant in the current climate of morally justified interventions to impose the civilised standards of the West on recalcitrant if sovereign nations and the rhetoric of righteousness pursued by Western politicians in respect of both Kosovo and Afghanistan (as though Bush and Blair were motivated to act by a commitment to equal educational opportunities for Afghan women), is the finding that the second most widely accepted justification for going to war is ‘stopping a country’s leadership from attacking its own people’. Given the sophistication of public opinion monitoring and propaganda practised by the UK and US Governments, this offers an explanation of much about the timing and rhetoric of those campaigns.

The first part of the study concludes by considering the level of violent imagery that people think appropriate or acceptable in war reporting. Essentially this implies that TV news companies have got it about right in their assessment of what is acceptable. No consideration is given to whether this is in fact the case or whether, on the contrary, people are taking their lead in making these aesthetic and moral judgements from the journalists’ actual practice.

The study also notes a common trait of war reporting, and disaster reporting generally, namely that white deaths are 'more news' than black ones and British deaths are more news than foreign ones. The sympathy felt by viewers for victims is shown here to be positively correlated with the victims’ similarity to the viewer. The more like us people are, the harder it is to watch them suffering. One key indication of being ‘like us’ is the display of emotion. If people from emotionally expressive cultures want sympathetic coverage from British media they should restrain their emotions and keep a stiff upper lip for the cameras.

The book continues with a survey of children’s reactions to war reporting which confirms the commonsense notion that despite frequent concern expressed in the press by parents, teachers and others that their exposure to such images would traumatise children was unfounded. Anyone who watched schoolchildren playing at being planes crashing into buildings on the morning of 12 September will be unsurprised.

Although the intention is commendably scholarly, it is apparent that this book works very well as a manual for how to present war as acceptable to the TV audience. It will be valuable reading for UK and US governments seeking to present military adventures in a positive light. It will, however only confirm that their present practice is correctly targeted. The two key rules for governments engaged in such adventurism as the Gulf, Kosovo or Afghanistan, as they emerge from this study are firstly to personalise the leader (Saddam, Milosovic, Bin Laden) and depict him as power mad, ruthless, fanatical or insane and secondly to present the war as one of self defence – audiences are much happier to accept that their own forces inflict collateral damage (even friendly fire) and cause accidental damage to the innocent if the war is seen as unavoidable.

The presentation of war by Western governments is the subject of Richard Keeble’s Secret State, Silent Press. Although grounded in a scholarly study of the Gulf War coverage, the ambitions of this book are much wider. Keeble sets out to articulate a theory of the ‘New Militarism’ that places it in the context of US foreign policy since Pearl Harbour. This feels oddly prescient since the World Trade Centre attack. The ‘day that will live forever in infamy’ analogy was on the lips of politicians and journalists from the moment of the second plane crash. More eerie still was the way that Tony Blair’s rewriting of history ('...we must stand shoulder to shoulder with the Americans who stood beside us in the Blitz') exactly corresponded to that of the film Pearl Harbour (Bay, 2001) released only months before. (‘A film that will live forever in infamy’). The Prime Minister and Hollywood conspired to deny the fact that far from standing shoulder to shoulder, the US sat by and watched rather unconcernedly as London burned.

Is conspiracy too strong a term for this? Conspiracy theories have a bad name and are routinely dismissed as fanciful, yet, as Keeble points out, there are secret meetings, there is a secret state, the secret police in Britain and America do intervene in politics and seek to manipulate public understanding and policy. Anyone who was previously in any doubt about this could remain so no longer after the publication of Spycatcher (Wright, 1987). The CIA and State Department were notoriously and routinely implicated in the creation of a number of regimes and despots who later became their enemies.

The strength of Keeble’s analysis is that he is able to confront these facts and make sense of them without becoming trapped within a general conspiracy theory. What merges from his book is a picture of war and foreign policy in which there are conspiracies but no overarching conspiracy; there are plots, secrets and hidden motivations, but no single all-explaining motive.

This is important because, in the New World Order proclaimed when the Soviet Union was defeated, increasingly powerful and sophisticated information and disinformation machines are deployed alongside increasingly powerful and sophisticated war machines. If we hope to make sense of the ‘War Against Terrorism’, we need to be able to contextualise the behaviour of the postmodern states of the UK and US. In so doing we will need to tread a path between the soi-dissant cynicism that considers all actions in human affairs to be simply the outcome of chance and mistake and the swivel-eyed certainty of those who know that behind it all stands the Bolshevik-Jewish conspiracy, or the Freemasons or the lizard people of Venus (as delineated in Them – Jon Ronson’s entertaining work on conspiracy theorists). Keeble’s clear-sightedness may be what gets us through that.

He begins by demolishing the idea that the Gulf ‘War’ was, in fact anything other than a massacre and one, at that, conducted largely for the purpose of providing propaganda for consumption at home by the TV viewers of the West. These new kinds of war are contrasted with the mass-conscription model of World War Two which was essentially a democratising form of warfare, involving the active participation of the population. The new militarism is inherently elitist and counter-democratic. The fighting is done by elite forces and immensely expensive machines and the population are reduced to the status of observers.

One of the strands that links Keeble’s work to Morrison’s emerges from his discussion of the theoretical nature of the Gulf War in respect of the need of the secret state to manufacture enemies. This is undertaken both in the sense that particular regimes or individual rulers (Taleban, Saddam) are bankrolled and installed by the West before being demonised and also in the post-situationist formulation of Debord (1998), whom Keeble cites on the matter of ‘a sophisticated system of allowing people to believe they are actually ‘in on the secrets’ (21). In this model, we are wound into the conspiracy precisely by being partially included within it through both espionage fiction and the supposedly factual accounts and memoirs of ex-special services and intelligence operatives.

The new US military consensus develops from Pearl Harbour to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and on to the cold war. That war is fought largely unreported. UK and US forces have been engaged in numerous ‘low level’ conflicts more or less continuously from the end of the World War Two until now, only occasionally emerging into the public sphere and often then disappearing again below the media’s radar (as, for example in the continuing bombing of Iraq for more than a decade after Desert Storm).

We may, indeed, say that there are not many small wars, mostly hidden but rather that there is one continuing war, only occasionally emerging into our mediated consciousness. This is a war fought not for victory, but rather as a state of routine, a permanent conflict, a war without end. The war is sustained by the manipulation of public opinion through the manipulation of opinion statistics (Keeble offers a penetrating analysis of the use and abuse of statistics in ‘silencing the peace option’ (104), as well as by the direction of reporting through the pool reporting system that leaves journalists dependent on the military for their stories and induces identification by the journalists with the military.

It is also sustained by a succession of myths which Keeble systematically deconstructs, concluding (192) with the ‘myth of the end of war’. Within this permanent war regime, dissent is constrained by intense pressure from popular sentiment, orchestrated by the secret state through the silent press. At least since the death of the late Princess of Wales, we have been aware of the real and physical danger one may place oneself in merely by publicly stating dissent from such popular sentiment, but at that time it did not seem a duty to make oneself unpopular when silence would avoid it. No such option seems ethically available in respect of the emotional tide of war created in the wake of the World Trade Centre incident, which is merely the latest phase of this unending war. Keeble’s book should be read by everyone seeking to understand that phenomenon.



Debord, G (1988) Comments on the Society of the Spectacle (translated Malcolm Imrie), London: Verso.
Lasswell. H (1948) ‘The structure and function of communication in society’ in Bryson, L (ed.) The Communication of Ideas, New York: Institute for Religious and Social Studies.
McLuhan, M (1964) Understanding Media, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Ronson, J (2001) Them: Adventures with Extremists, London: Picador.
Shannon, C and Weaver, W (1949) The Mathematical Theory of Communication, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
Wright, P (1987) Spycatcher; the Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer, Viking: New York.

Will Barton Catmur,
University of Coventry

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