Keeping the Rabble in Line

Banging on about representation: The would be media lens

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Saddam Hussein: Trial by repetition of signifiers

A Preface

What follows is not an endorsement or a defence of Saddam Hussein, merely an analysis of the casting of Him as today's Hitler, and the televisual techniques employed to do this job. In short; what visual and verbal signifiers are put to work in the circuitry of representation?

With a nod to Stuart Hall this post begins by suggesting that there is no such thing as an ideologically neutral sign system. Signs function to persuade as well as to refer. As discussed previously on this blog, sign systems help to naturalize and reinforce particular framings of 'the way things are', although the operation of ideology in signifying practices is typically masked. If signs do not merely reflect reality but are involved in its construction then those who control the sign systems control the construction of reality. This last italicised sentence is the launch point so to speak. I do not mean to be conspiritorial, nor do I adhere fully to the hypodermic model but am interested in how the high modality form of Television News attempts to position the viewer[s] and the methods employed to do so.

Chasing Saddam's Weapons

The BBC Panorama program named above is an interesting case. Note the title: The existence of the weapons is not in dispute, nor is their ownership...and it is up to "us" to "chase"/track them down, in hot pursuit of the fleeing evil Saddam. Within the program itself, there are a number of visual, aural and verbal signifiers designed to cast Hussein in the role of chief villain. In becoming Saddam [the media’s version of this man] a significant process of characterisation has to take place. The single name sobriquet denotes a universal familiarity appropriate for a demon [think Blofeld, Scaramanga, Jaws or Goldfinger from the Bond films]. He is probably the most demonised leader of the Television age. The globally iconised visual image of Saddam was that which was lifted directly from Iraqi TV broadcasts. These defined the dictator in various guises, often in military uniform, presiding over meetings of officials, and being enthusiastically greeted by the Iraqi public. These images are doubly or even trebly bound in that, they further demonise him because he is always represented in Military fatigues and therefore encoded as non democratic -- which of course is true, but tacit and overt western support of the non democratic dictator is conveniently airbrushed from history -- he is also lauding it over a [perhaps cowering, terrified] public and if this represented public are not terrified, then they are complicit, as such, they are an othered community, fit for slaughter in the theatre of good V bad conflict. Although there is much footage of Saddam recorded and broadcast over many years prior to his capture, the staple of the Panorama broadcast and from most news broadcasts are mostly derived from relatively few images. The repeated use of ‘stock’ images of Saddam seamlessly inserted into the mix of live and other TV coverage simply reinforce overly simplistic Western political representations.

The dominance of the stock image[s]

One of the consequences of the dominance of ‘stock’ images is that through their instant, repetitious and global dissemination they inhibit access to alternative frames of reference for the viewing audience[s]. Stock images are significant in view of their familiarity for audiences…in effect this is how we effectively ‘know’ Saddam. None of this is to claim that the man is not despotic, unrepresentative, undemocratic and murderous, it’s just that the perpetuation of these images is in direct inverse proportion to the threat “He” posed – even to his own people or peoples in the immediate area. He truly is to be read as the Hitler of our times.

Other key issues with regard to stock images/footage are the fact that they are infrequently dated, so that audiences can be oblivious as to the time and context of their recording; secondly, their very repetition acts reflexively to promote their recognition and even greater circulation [they are used precisely because of their status as instantly recognisable images on which to draw]; finally, they might bear little or no resemblance to what or whom they depict today. In this respect, stock images constitute a false media memory. They represent a past without signifying it as past.


An overly simplistic western media representation of Saddam – one that has been drawn upon by Television drama and Hollywood film – helps to sustain this demonic/evil/Bond Villain characterisation…it constitutes the dominant cultural memory. It is a highly selective and pervasive mode of representation. So, Saddam is very clearly cast as the villain, in the Panorama broadcast there are various other strategies put to work. The soundtrack used is "Eastern" and "mysterious", so amateurish it is in its construction, it's like Orientalism was never written, Said and his ilk never existed. Of course, any appropriation of dramatic techniques must include a "good guy" in stark oppostion and contrast to the villain. In Panorama and the most recent news broadcasts, these roles are variously filled. In Chasing Saddam's Weapons, Hans Blix plays the role well, his soundtrack is the classical music score, signifying class, taste and an appreciation of lifes finer things. If he were any more Inspector Morse, it would be ridiculous. Morse et al and the player[s] cast in that particular role in the news drama narrative are of course encoded to represent everything that is good, considered, careful and rational about "our values" here the news is doing the job of Blair et al, sustaining the ridiculous position of "US = rational/normal" versus "Them irrational/abnormal". Just in case we're still in doubt, Jane Corbin's voiceover calmly refers to Blix as "the quiet Swedish diplomat", the quietness described, Corbin's soupy voice and the reference to diplomacy are all in stark contrast to the characterisation of Saddam, cut against this are images of the remains of dead bodies, had these figures been mutilated and scorched by "our" guns, rest assured they would have been absent and invisible.

Saddam as the personification of evil is significant. Again, it returns us to the bad apple theory, in so doing it implores the viewer to overlook systemic failings and instead suggests all will be well once the abberation is defeated. So the “enemy” as personified in the evil, ruthless Iraqi leader [at the expense of geo-political context] increased his standing in the Middle East and in the wider world far beyond the real threat he posed. Still, never mind eh...job done!

So the mixing of stock and recent footage has a deleterious effect in furthering a necessarily complex and broader understanding of the “conflict”. The mixing of quickly retrievable archive footage to forge instant visual narratives is a standard feature of Television news. The emergent frames of the stock footage – from the 91 Gulf war and since – primarily serve to anchor media and political representations of Saddam in a context of “pure evil” personified [and as such worthy of our attention and “valiant”, “heroic” intervention as the antithesis of this evil representation] to an extent that few other alternative visions of him are available. This is what is know as an “image history”. Whether it is of places, people, events or all three, a key problem is their apparent irrefutability, particularly when strengthened through repetition on TV and remediation across other media. Television news is the ideal medium for such constructions as often no further contextualisation or explanation is required when an image or set of images supports news narratives. Television news therefore can be seen to promote an essential inhibited and oversimplified view of the past and people, not just through its paucity of detail and brevity of language, but because it is increasingly dependant upon the visual image for its direction and narrative drive.

*For a more detailed analysis of Media Memory, please do see: Andrew Hoskins: Televising War*


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