The build-up to the tenth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq has featured a lot of media coverage about media coverage. Dodgy dossiers and sexed-up briefing reports have been dusted off with something like affection, while the key players are wheeled out to reprise what have inevitably become hackneyed condemnations and rationalisations, former Prime Minister Tony Blair with that look of stark incredulity that has become his default countenance. There’s nothing unusual about any of this: journalists like to talk about journalism, and the added whiff of nostalgia makes this particular temptation irresistible. It’s true also of war reporting in the post-modern era, with British and American news reports often focussing explicitly on the PR tactics surrounding the toppling of a Saddam Hussein statue or George Bush’s Mission Accomplished jamboree. But there’s a broader problem here, one which I would describe as a kind of ironised distance between our elites and the public, with journalists hovering uncertainly in between.
Iraq didn’t break British politics. Disengagement has many origins, and this was just one of a series of fruitless attempts to find political meaning or even national identity through military intervention. But the prevalence of media management in both political decision-making and as a central preoccupation of journalists gives audiences an easy opt-out, enabling a reflex scepticism about foreign and domestic policy alike. David Cameron was never going to find his Falklands in Libya, not because we’re unsupportive as a nation of the uprisings of the Arab spring, but because any sense of investment in a political system that makes decisions about foreign intervention has been hollowed out.
The atrocities of Abu Ghraib, awful as they were, gave journalists a chance to atone for what is now widely acknowledged as a collective loss of nerve at the beginning of the war. Those images became a kind of functional evil, a way of ‘othering’, as we say in the trade, responsibility for all of the nihilism, politicking and casual dehumanisation that any war entails. But however many of us chanted “Not in my name” on a bleak afternoon in Hyde Park, Iraq was and remains our war. Susan Sontag put this well, describing the photographs depicting abuse of Iraqi prisoners as representative of what we condone, however implicitly, our governments doing: “Considered in this light,” she wrote shortly before her death, “the photographs are us”.
Much has been said about the need for journalists to report war responsibly and humanely, avoiding both the reduction of conflict to spectacle and the blanket victimisation or demonisation of those caught up in it. It would be helpful too if journalists could find a way of covering the politics surrounding military intervention that avoids the feedback loop of jostling egos, sanctimonious moralising and pious outrage.
But the generalised disavowal of political responsibility for what a nation does runs deeper than how it plays out in the news. If editorial responses to military intervention range narrowly from cheerleading to sulking, and with a sardonic knowingness now the chief marker of journalistic professionalism when it comes to foreign policy and domestic politics, then this is only symptomatic of a broader, festering culture of world-weary yet instinctive withdrawal.