Martin Shaw

The Kurds five years on: TV news’ finest hour

From New Statesman, 5 April 1996

In January the fifth anniversary of the Gulf War was commemorated in TV series and newspaper articles, as though this ‘successful operation’ was an emblem of post-Cold War Western power. This month, however, sees a rather different fifth anniversary. The Kurdish refugee crisis in the aftermath of the Gulf represented the other side of this success - a new world disorder in which Western statesmen covered themselves in ignominy before television embarrassed them into limited face- (and life-) saving measures.

The general failure to remember the Kurdish anniversary reflects how we represented the Iraqi wars at the time. Virtually everyone accepted that ‘the Gulf’ was ‘the war’ and that the main conflict was between Saddam Hussein’s regime and its Western adversaries. Even opponents of George Bush’s war took his definition of the situation at face value. And yet Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait grew out of the crisis of the Iraqi state resulting from his earlier wars - the genocidal campaign against the Kurds as well as the war with Iran - for which British firms were arming him with the Tories’ connivance. And the 1991 wars did not stop with Bush’s ceasefire on 28 February.

On the contrary, that was when the bloodiest wars started. The Shia of southern Iraq, followed by the Kurds in the north, rebelled. Although they fought heroically with inferior weapons, they were crushed amidst appalling carnage by the Republican Guard - which Bush’s ceasefire had allowed to escape. The plight of Kurdish refugees on the mountainsides, where the West’s Turkish allies confined them, was only one part of the terrible human disaster which the defeat of the insurrections brought to the people of Iraq.

The only voice allowed to speak about the Kurds in this January’s BBC series, The Gulf War, was that of John Major presenting himself as the conscience of the West. This was the same bold Major who said after over a month of repression, ‘What is happening in Iraq at the present time is very distressing, and it is malignant, I agree entirely with that thought. But it is also wholly within the borders of Iraq, and we have no international authority to interfere with that.’ But, asked a reporter, hadn’t the West encouraged the Kurds to rebel? Major responded by washing his hands: ‘I don’t recall asking the Kurds to mount this particular insurrection. There is a civil war going on ... We hope very much that the military in Iraq will remove Saddam Hussein.’(ITN, 4 April 1991)

If we can salvage anything of Britain’s reputation in the Kurdish crisis, it is little thanks to Major. Nor is it to the credit of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Labour politicians, soft and hard left, front and back bench alike, were so concerned to stop the coalition’s attacks on Iraq that they hardly bothered to think that restricting war aims to Kuwait would leave Iraqi rebels exposed to Saddam’s army. Nor, with honourable exceptions like Ann Clwyd, was Labour particularly vocal for the Kurds. Similarly the anti-war movement was caught off guard: CND leaders and their Marxist critics alike found it difficult to demand the only thing which would actually help, Western military protection for the victims. Many British Muslim leaders were also too compromised by pro-Iraqi sympathies vis-á-vis the West to campaign for their Shia and Kurdish co-religionists.

Only two kinds of institution emerge with any credit from my study of British responses to the ‘other’ Iraqi wars. Although some humanitarian organisations had initially seen the Gulf War as a distraction from their agendas (‘Don’t Forget Africa’ ran Oxfam’s adverts), many jumped quickly and effectively on the Kurdish bandwaggon, mobilising substantial public support in the UK and aid for the freezing, starving refugees. The momentum came, however, from television. This was TV news’ finest hour. The same media which had been so thoroughly managed in the Gulf campaign were gloriously liberated in its aftermath.

It is a depressing comment on the academic industry that amidst all the books on the Gulf and the media, there is virtually nothing on the insurrections and the refugee crisis. Academics accepted Bush’s cut-off date and with it - however critical they were - too much of his agenda. Nobody has actually looked at the TV coverage of the Kurds: archivists at Leeds University’s Institute of Communications Studies, where I examined British TV news from March-April 1991, had virtually to dust off the videos before I watched them. And yet what I saw was dramatic evidence of the difference TV can make to the plight of global victims.

Perhaps it was because TV journalists had been so manipulated that they found such a strong independent voice. The BBC and ITN developed a sustained campaign over weeks for the Kurdish refugees. Each day brought new film, new images - broad-lens canvasses of refugee columns, camps and scrambles for food together with close-ups of a suffering child, a pregnant mother, a helpless old person. But what made the campaign effective was not just the images. There was a relentless commentary pinning responsibility for the victims’ plight on Bush and Major. Without once editorialising in the manner of the press, virtually every bulletin made it clear who the refugees themselves and the journalists thought was responsible. It was a simple message strengthened by constant repetition. Western leaders had encouraged Iraqis to overthrow Saddam - now they must help those who had rebelled and were suffering in consequence.

The dominant voices were the journalists’. Refugees themselves got to say simple things, often in broken English - ‘We are very need helps’ - which emphasised their helplessness and needed, of course, authoritative interpretation by the networks’ men (they were nearly all men) on the spot to make the political point effective. Political representatives of the Kurdish people got virtually no look in. Indeed it was only when the Kurds ceased to be protagonists - let alone combatants - in their own cause, and became helpless victims that the TV campaign really got under way.

Both BBC and ITN had made real efforts to cover the Iraqi revolts from the end of Bush’s war. Western reporters couldn’t actually get into southern Iraq to cover the Shi’ite rebellion, but both British networks carried hearsay and speculative reports, without film, on a remarkable number of occasions. Certainly they covered the revolt as fully as any newspapers except the liberal broadsheets. When the Kurds also rose up, there was some film from independent sources, but neither network had people and cameras on the ground until the revolt was threatened by Saddam’s forces.

Thus the arrival of fully-resourced TV reporters coincided with the transformation of the Kurds into pure victims. It was easier politically for TV to represent them as victims than as combatants. It was also only possible for TV to campaign for the Kurds when it had cameras, satellite dishes and its own voices from the situation. Most telling here was that, as John Simpson acknowledged, ‘By comparison with the Kurds, the predicament of the Shi’ite people has had very little attention in the outside world. That is not surprising; there have been no pictures of the suffering of the Shi’ite refugees’ - although the Shi’ite rebellion ‘was far greater and cost many more lives than the Kurdish uprising’.

There is no doubt it was TV which caused Major’s U-turn, leading eventually to Bush’s endorsement of a limited ‘safe haven'. The press, in contrast, was shamefully reticent: the Independent was the Kurds’ only strong editorial champion, and the tabloids and Tory broadsheets jumped on the bandwaggon when TV had made them a big issue. British TV news could therefore claim to have contributed to a crucial precedent in international politics - when the West decided to put human rights before sovereignty and non-intervention.

The limitations of this example, which were instantly apparent in the neglect of the appalling suffering in southern Iraq, have been all too evident in subsequent crises. The nexus of responsibility, through which TV caught Major and Bush over Iraq, did not extend to Bosnia, Somalia or Rwanda - let alone the many other murderous wars which TV hardly reported. At times, TV has pushed atrocities onto the world agenda, and fed the attitude that ‘something must be done’. This has embarrassed complacent governments into modest measures to protect civilians and deter aggressors.

In no case, however, has TV news campaigned as long, hard and consistently as it did for the Kurds in 1991. And in no case has the mode of protection been as strong even as the ‘safe haven’ in Kurdistan. The UN’s ‘safe areas’ in Bosnia, for example, although stimulated by TV film of the Serbian siege of Srebrenica in 1993, collapsed in ignominy with the brutal sacking of the same town two years later. While TV has assisted the investigation of this massacre (witness Panorama, March 11) it has not generated the campaign for IFOR to arrest Mladic, Karadzic and other war criminals which is sorely needed. But neither has anyone else in Britain.

How then should we commemorate the Kurdish refugee crisis, five years on? We could start by urging media and governments to remember the Kurds - and all the forgotten people of Iraq. Iraqi Kurdistan remains unbowed, although divided by its own politicians, but still in the political and economic limbo to which ‘Operation Provide Comfort’ consigned it. Saddam’s brutal regime remains a real threat. Nationalist politicians in Turkey, still repressing Kurds within that state, are trying to pull the plug on the residual Western operation to protect the Iraqi Kurds. We need to rescue the Kurdish people from the neglect which fell quickly upon them once TV’s attention moved elsewhere.

TV journalists can learn from this episode the real power they have to represent people in zones of crisis. We can all learn, however, that a TV campaign is not enough. It is up to all of us, in the press, in humanitarian movements, in the Opposition parties, to think about a new agenda to represent those who are fighting against as well as suffering from violence and genocide. And not just those who manage a bit of airtime on mainstream news programmes.