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.
is communication, indeed violent acts can be seen as paradigmatic or exemplary
cases of communication. Shannon & Weavers (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 Lasswells (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, McLuhans (1964) conflation of medium
and message seems unarguable.
Violence can be the rhetoric of the inarticulate. In Gary Oldmans
(1998) Nil by Mouth, the abusing husband looks at the eponymous
injunction over his brutalised wifes hospital bed and acknowledges
that the roots of his violence are in his fathers 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 als 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 childrens 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 Morrisons
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 Mandellas release from gaol delayed the broadcast of the
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 countrys 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
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 childrens 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
Keebles 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 Blairs 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 Keebles 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
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 Ronsons entertaining
work on conspiracy theorists). Keebles 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 Keebles work to Morrisons 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 medias 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. Keebles 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 &
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,