Keeping the Rabble in Line

Banging on about representation: The would be media lens

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

More4: Ah...righto, THAT's the reason is it?

So More4 are showing a series of programs this week apparently examining the reasons for the Iraq conflict. We're promised a critical examination of the reasons for going to war and the truth of the matter. What do you think we'll end up with? At this stage, it seems only fair to point out that we've only had the first of the series. However, tonight [Tuesday] Peter Oborne's documentary already discussed on these very pages makes a return to our screens. More on Oborne later.

Firstly to Why We Went to War broadcast last night. The programme's very first images are of tearful relatives waving goodbye to their loved ones on some unspecified dock side. We then cut to a quick montage of sexy clips of missiles being fired, fighter jets roaring off into the distance on their 'humanitarian mission'. Absent from the imagery is the destruction wrought by these missiles, but that's not the focus of the TV program. "This film provides the most detailed examination of the political process that took Britain to war" is what we are told. Settle down then, this will be a searing endictment of the political establishment...Blair's in for a bumpy ride no doubt! Not quite. After the introductions and the sexy shots, the programme proper begins:

The sea in half light [at dawn, glinting in the early morning sun], a Union Flag fluttering in the breeze, Brighton Pier, fishing boats viewed through fishing lines, a "bobby", a single boat cast in early morning shadow bobs on the water, the sea gently lapping at the shore, seagulls faintly calling out, a single gull sweeps accross the clear blue sky, the Grand Hotel with Union flag billowing -- all to a gentle but vaguely haunting piano. Fade to Blair [an actor], statesmanlike going over the finishing touches to his speech for conference. The voice over informs us that "It started on a perfectly normal late summer's day". Remember, this is about Iraq. Blair's first words in this broadcast are as follows: "We share the same goals, and the same values....". Back to the voice over/narrator: "Tony Blair was in Brighton preparing to confront angry trade unionists......and then, the world changed"

Let's go over this again shall we? The visual imagery is carefully montaged and provides a particular narrative drive. The images of boats, sea, the sound of seagulls, the half light of the dawn is calm and beautifully [filmically] shot. The seagull[s], shingle beach, and bracing breeze are so demonstrably British. Everything is calm and instantly recognisable, this recognition provides a sense of familiarity and comfort. Then the verbal signifiers provide further clues as to how we are 'supposed' to read this scene. The emphasis being on "...a perfectly normal day" and then of course "the world changed". The entire world changed from this vision of placid normality to one of unforseen and unprecedented danger[s] -- Where Saddam Hussein figures in this new vision of the world is not clear, what is clear though, is that over the next 18 months of real time, 1 hour and 30 minutes of the documentary, the representational apparatus of the various media will insert Saddam into the narrative as chief villain --Blair's first words are also significant. "Sharing the same values" in the context of this particular story fits in with US/UK "shoulder to shoulder" policy, but also positions Blair as a compassionate leader, with a shared set of values with his labour/union activists. He is also a strong leader. As the voice over informs us, he is preparing to "confront" [stand up to and not back down against] the trade unionists. Of course the trade unionists are encoded in a rather inflamatory position as "angry"...but I digress. "Then the world changed" is the key point here. In "Why We Went to War" the next shot is of the assorted Blair aides and Blair himself turning to the TV to see the planes hitting the second of the Twin Towers. Alert readers will of course see that this particular representation sustains the myth that this single event provides the trigger for everything that follows [all other geo-political and historical possibilities are repeatedly ignored -- by all news media not just this documentary]. What's more, it makes this case dramatically and emotionally; as such, in the narrative of this documentary, under the guise of a "searing endictment" it attempts to provide a legitimation of this particular course/chain of events. The following wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are to be understood through the prism of this world view and as a "reasonable" response to the brutal act on 9/11 [let us be in no doubt that the terrorist act of 9/11 was brutal]. So, the point is not that September 11th 2001 provides the trigger for everything that follows, but that it provides a justifiable trigger for everything that follows. Just for good measure, we see the planes hitting the tower more than once.This piece of analysis is drawn from the opening 3 minutes and 19 seconds, and already one can see the construction and narrative put to work. So in the first 3 and a half minutes of the broadcast, viewers are encouraged to locate themselves in the familiar and familial surroundings of a peaceful and harmonious Brighton with all its attendant beauty. These images are cut against the brutal murderous act in New York - the most unspeakable shattering of the familiar harmony and beauty. One might go so far as to say: that viewers are interpellated to stand "shoulder to shoulder".

Suffice to say, the entire programme was a classic exercise in dramatic and emotional licence. To begin the broadcast with 9/11 was an interesting, highly calculated and perhaps dishonest narrative device. The chief [westerns] protagonists or "actors" were encoded as earnest, thoughtful, ethical, benign but misguided. Strong men standing up "shoulder to shoulder" in the face of an unprecedented threat to "our values" -- oh how I despise the rallying call to "our values". As ever no mention of oil or geo-political strategising, no mention of "The Project for the New American Century", no mention of power and influence in the region as possible motivating factors. The denoument of the programme shows Blair, ashen faced, earnest, even mournful, a sad, thoughtful and tragic figure. Perhaps mistaken or misguided, ill advised but never calculating. Always depicted as on the side of the angels. If the battle must be fought on binary territory -- Good Versus Evil -- [of course simplistic media representations sustain this idiotic outlook] then let us be in no doubt as to where Blair is positioned in this ideological territory. Now, these final images of Blair may well be an accurate portrayal, I don't believe he's an evil monster bent of murering Iraqi's, but its insertion into the narrative of this program humanises him in a way that is denied the "emeny" protagonists. Blair is always human and occasionally remorseful. His *"sincerity is never in doubt"..."just like a fighter pilot, Blair was locked on to a target"*
Via a carefully constructed set of images, drawing on traditional narrative and heroic representations of character, Blair represents "us" and all that is good about "us". This continued good guy persona -- flawed but essentially caring and motivated by benign intentions -- may even reify the rational west V irrational 'Other' position.

*actual quotes from "Why We Went to War"*


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