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Control Room

Truth is a greasy pig.

Control Room is a documentary on the media coverage of the US action in Iraq which examines the Al-Jazeera network through the perspectives of Al-Jazeera reporters, producers, the US military press liaison and the western media. I've watched the film and the hour or so of deleted scenes but not yet heard any of the three (!) audio commentaries on the DVD.

One of the Al-Jazeera producers talks about how he sees the network as a democratising force in the middle-East. (This is probably why the network is banned in a number of Arab countries.) Ironic given that one of the Bush administration's justifications for the Iraq invasion was to spread democracy in the region and how stridently that same administration (mainly, it appears, via Donald Rumsfeld) condemned the network as a supporter of Saddam Hussein. The contrast between democratisation via force and democratisation via education is stark.

There's a number of such ironies evident, though the film makers generally don't juxtapose the pertinent scenes in order to highlight these hypocracies: Rumsfeld's rant accusing Al-Jazeera of lying to the world in order to further a cause, cautioning how the truth will come out eventually. President Bush talking about how he expects the American soldiers captured in Iraq to be treated humanely, just as humanely as the US would treat its own POWs. Bush stating in his address to the world how "I was just following orders" would not be a good enough excuse for Iraqi soldiers to escape retribution, only to see later in the film multiple US prisoners use that exact phrase.

Al-Jazeera's journalists see themselves as - to use an ironic phrase - "fair and balanced". (Many of the network's founding staff were ex-BBC.) A telling scene has a journalist berating his producer for putting to air an American interviewee vehemently critical of the American regime. The network's role, he argues, isn't broadcasting opinion (even one that would pander to the target audience), but rather analysis and balance. They want guests capable of seeing all points of view.

On the other hand the network is criticised for the selective images it shows - shots of US forces followed by shots of Iraqi women and children; vision of Coalition tanks rolling into a city but not the people who are there to greet them.

On the third hand the film shows some blatant examples of the US military stage managing such celebrations, most notably the seminal vision of Saddam Hussein's statue being pulled down in the Bagdad square.

One of the points an NBC journalist makes is that Al-Jazeera is a relatively new network and as such is still finding its way in how to best express itself in a region which does not have a strong tradition of objective journalism. This commentator I think sees the network as revelling too much in its own independence whereas in the United States, with its 200 year history of media indepence, the media is more mature and restrained.

It strikes me however that while the media may be more mature, and possibly sophisticated, in the US (and the western world generally), so are the governments and subjects that the media covers. Media savvy works both ways.

One of the film's themes is how media (or propaganda) has become such a powerful weapon in war, today more so than ever. Undoubtedly the Bush administration with its policy of embedding (and therefore controlling) media within its forces was a master manipulator of the message during those first weeks in Iraq. Terrifying - but sadly in line with other policies of the administration - is how anyone not directly under their influence was characterised as the enemy... to the extent where - undoubtedly in my opinion - three "unsympathetic" media outlets were deliberately attacked by US forces (on the same day no less), resulting in the death of a an Al-Jazeera reporter. President Bush's "You are either with us or with the terrorists" dictum carried its cold-blooded conclusion.

The most fascinating and sympathetic character in the piece is Lieutenant Josh Rushing, a US Marine media liaison. At first glance he comes across as just another mouthpiece for the Bush administration, but as the film progresses he is revealed as an intelligent, articulate, passionate man capable of insight and introspection. He appreciates the complex shades of grey inherent in the situation he is placed in. He makes the most compelling case for the ultimate democratising good that may result from Iraq invasion I've seen. Not because his arguments are particularly new, but because he himself conveys them with earnestness and humility and just the right amount of doubt - in sharp contrast to other Bush administration spokespeople or defenders.

Rushing sees Al-Jazeera as being biased (personally I don't know if it is or isn't, I haven't seen enough of it, or read enough about it to form a strong view) but he understands why it is biased, and understands also that all outlets are biased to various extents. His comments about his personal reaction at seeing the bodies of dead and wounded Americans on screen, compared to his reaction at seeing dead and wounded Iraqis, is particularly touching. Not only is he capable of seeing bias in others, but also in himself.

Obviously my opinion of this documentary is coloured by my views of the Bush administration's foreign policy misadventures in Iraq and elsewhere. However it does strike me that the film makers did strive to present as many different aspects of Al-Jazeera as feasible, letting the subjects speak for themselves and refraining (other than that which is inherent in the subject selection and editing) from blatant editorialising.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on April 7, 2005 2:47 PM.

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