Tuesday, July 04, 2006

losing arab hearts and minds

Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham was the British Royal Navy spokesman during the invasion of Iraq. In his book “Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al-Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion” he brings his experiences to bear on the question of how the Coalition handled the Arab media during the Iraq war. The book, published recently in London by Hurst & Company, has just been published in the US by Front Street Press.

Tatham is both a serving officer in the Royal Navy, and a corporate communications specialist. He was awarded an Iraq Campaign Medal in October 2004, but admits he has become “more and more opposed to the events of March and April 2003”.

His book is a lively, thorough and fair-minded account which ranges widely over its central themes. Among those he has interviewed are senior staff of Arab and Western TV channels, scholars, media practitioners and diplomats.

The Arab media were accused of bias (“the new four letter word”) during the Iraq war. But Tatham points out that the US media, particularly the ardently pro-war Fox Television, were hardly unbiased in their reporting.

Tatham asks: “How did the world’s most powerful country, which after the horror of 9/11 had the sympathy of the world, and its small coalition of military partners so convincingly lose the battle for Arab hearts and minds?” He notes that many observers believe that America had lost the battle for Arab hearts long before the Iraq conflict, especially over its policies towards Israel.

However, it was thought before the invasion that the battle for Arab minds might be worth fighting, given that “Saddam was generally seen by the Arab intelligentsia as a despotic and evil dictator. While his removal by force was unpopular, US ideals of democratic change for the region enjoyed some critical support”.

In contrast to the 1991 Gulf war, the Arab world had by 2003 a range of satellite TV channels, notably the pan-Arab Al-Jazeera, Abu Dhabi TV and Al-Arabiya. The US and Britain saw information campaigns and media coverage of their operations as vital in gaining support. But the Coalition’s Arab media campaign failed.

Rather than launch an imaginative and targeted media campaign, the Coalition was mainly concerned with its own domestic market, especially the “hugely patriotic” US market. The few Arab media that did embed with US troops left after a few days, complaining they had been cut out of the briefing process and put in danger.

“Not only were the Arab media hugely under-represented in comparison with their Western colleagues but it is clear that there existed a predisposition to be hostile towards them in general and Al-Jazeera in particular,” Tatham writes. This hostility “seems to have been based on perceived reputation rather than on personal experience.”

James Wilkinson, who was responsible for the overall US media strategy at the Coalition Press Information Centre in CENTCOM’s Qatar headquarters, admitted that the US had “no idea” how to communicate with the Arab world. He declared that Al-Jazeera was “absolutely biased” and broke contact with it after it showed images of dead and captured US troops.

Tatham points to the paradox that while the US at the outset led the effort to engage the Arab media, it appeared to give up as the conflict began and as the war continued. Britain, on the other hand, engaged poorly with the Arab media at the beginning, but as the war went on “many corners of the British government seemed to recognise that Al-Jazeera and other pan-Arab channels needed to be listened to.”

The relationship between the Coalition and the Arab media is as fragile as ever, Tatham says. The BBC and CNN have lost appeal and credibility in the Arab region as a result of the Iraq war. Al-Jazeera is now launching an English service, but Tatham predicts it will face a struggle in getting distribution across the US.

Susannah Tarbush
Saudi Gazette 27 June 2006