17 March, 2006

36 months

Thinking back, hostilities had been openly anticipated for months, and tacitly predicted for at least the previous two years. But when war finally began all it seemed possible to take away from the wall-to-wall TV coverage, at least initially, was a feeling of something rather remote unravelling without anywhere near as much immediacy, or power, as you were expecting - and fearing. Because this caught me off guard, and felt wrong, it made for an acutely difficult relationship with the conflict that only began to make some kind of sense a week or so in.

In part this was down to the fact that establishing a few basics wasn't as swift a process as it should have been. Somewhat distractingly, there were a variety of attempts at giving the hostilities a name. The BBC switched between branding all their coverage as 'War On Iraq' and 'Iraq War' several times during the first 48 hours, eventually plumping for the latter. Over on Channel 4 Jon Snow opted for the more guarded 'War with Iraq', while my own efforts at catching the start of the conflict by setting an alarm for 2.00am on the Thursday morning revealed that the World Service had dubbed the campaign 'The Second Gulf War'.

As time went on, however, responding to the war became conditioned by memories and associations with what the World Service would call 'The First Gulf War'. Recalling the way hostilities were reported first time round back in 1991, it was near impossible to feel the same sense of imposing impact and domination that the coming of war inspired. Back then just the way the TV schedules fell to pieces was enough to set the pulse racing. Language, imagery, presentation - everything suggested that you were present at a once in a lifetime occasion, the defining moment of a generation. Quite simply, that war's significance seemed to be rendered on such a giant scale (literally, in the case of that ubiquitous colossal cardboard head of Saddam Hussein which decorated the BBC's studios). It left a residual impression in the senses, still strong today, that the whole world was turning a corner.

All of this was naturally to do with events being so unusual, even a bit exciting, at an age where teenage cynicism quite properly had the upper hand over any of your unwelcome, no-nonsense grown up pragmatism. And besides, there were only four channels, rather than four hundred, upon which to follow the campaign; accordingly, its character and capacity seemed all the more compelling.

The overriding and lasting impression of this second war remains a multiplicity of media offering up dozens of different, often conflicting, outbursts of 'breaking news' at any point during the day or night. It's also felt as if all the networks have adopted the belief that sheer cumulative quantity of coverage alone will deliver both audience and integrity. The upshot has been a nagging impatience with the coverage when you are tuned in, watching the same pieces of film and speculation be trotted out time and again, but (chiefly in the early days) a terrible feeling of isolation when you're not tuned in, for fear of being away from television for those vital ten minutes when something absolutely incredible goes down.

Amidst all the rush of information and insinuation, however, there've been times where the entire sprawling conflict unexpectedly resolved into moments of utter clarity that left me spellbound by the TV set. One moment in particular sticks in the mind: the first Sunday afternoon of the war, when for two solid hours BBC News 24 carried near continuous pictures of a search going on along the banks of the River Tigris in the heart of Baghdad. The footage arrived from out of nowhere, unannounced: a group of military personnel, bolstered by an increasing number of civilians, seeming to be hunting for something amongst a crop of tall reeds at the water's edge. The implication was all too clear, but the confidence to admit as much deserted the team in the News 24 studio, and their uneasy countenance became dangerously infectious. Proceedings ended up a deeply macabre yet almost infantile guessing game, as the ensemble of reporters and experts fumbled for a vocabulary to do justice to both what was happening, but also what might very well be about to happen.

To be a witness at that precise moment when a news story breaks is of course the chief criteria of a rolling news channel; yet to be present for those turbulent few seconds, minutes, even hours when just such a story appears to be about to unfold - and an all-too gruesome potential realised, at any moment, beyond anyone's control - is alien territory. Nobody knew what was going to be pulled out of those reeds. In any other circumstances to acknowledge and be swept up by the heightening melodrama would've felt undignified, or flippant, or foolish. But the tension was addictive.

Three years on, and the conflict has become wallpaper in the background of everyone's lives, sporadically calling attention to itself by spooling, tattily, into our eyeline, its morose countenance demanding attention and repair. Thousands of Allied troops have been killed. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis have been killed. And still TV feels like it's unable to accept that, while it may be able to effectively pre-empt the battle, it can only be confounded by the war.


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