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How long will the pop press stomach the horrors of Iraq?

The Bigley kidnap has forced reluctant editors to put the war back on the popular agenda

By Peter Cole

26 September 2004

The sickening accounts of the ordeal of Ken Bigley have brought home to everyone the true wretchedness of the present situation in Iraq. More than a year after the war "ended", much of the media, particularly the popular press, is providing coverage from Iraq notable only for its absence. The cases of the two American and one British hostage, particularly Mr Bigley, have returned Iraq to the mass press.

One can be critical of this and bemoan the trivial nature of the papers with the largest circulations, or one can be more down-to-earth and say that human nature for many people does not include constant and continuing interest in rising anarchy and chaos in a faraway country, to which most of them have never been.

So the mass-selling tabloids long ago returned to their daily diet of celebrity, soaps, sex and sport, mentioning Iraq only when the news was very great or very dramatic, and of course the threshold for that moved higher as time passed. Even this last week, with the three hostages already in captivity, the death of Brian Clough dominated Tuesday's papers, while even the Daily Mail saw "cuts in sentences for murderers" and "It's your duty to have babies" as the most important stories on Tuesday and Wednesday. That was their judgement about their readers.

"Human interest" is a term used by journalists, but not others, to describe stories which connect with readers because they are about people, people like them. They are telling stories through people, reporting issues or policies through the way they affect people. It used to be the case that serious papers talked about issues, while popular papers concentrated on human interest. Today the serious papers also want human interest, even if it is different humans and a different tone.

The horrendous human interest of the plight of Mr Bigley, the agony of his family and the grotesque power of TV, drove the story on to the tabloid front pages, in the way that the taking of about 30 other hostages, the murder of many of them, and the hundreds of civilian deaths in Iraq did not. They were talking about a man from Liverpool, one of us, alone and terrified, with a family subjected to an unimaginable ordeal. Who would not connect with that, share some of the pain?

The situation in Iraq has not improved over the months - it has got worse - but even some of the serious papers have had problems maintaining interest when there has been so much more of the same. Anti-war papers such as The Independent on Sunday and The Independent have maintained their commitment to the story, providing graphic reportage of life today on the ground in Iraq and continuing to ask the questions it knows will never be satisfactorily answered about the politics leading up to the war. Those opposed to the war are inevitably more passionate, more likely to want to keep reading about it, and more likely to maintain that passion than those who supported it. There was a decided lack of pro-war demonstrations.

It has been harder for those papers such as the Telegraph and Times which support the war. (The equally pro-war Sun can ignore it when it chooses, a lot of the time). In the case of the hostages there has been a brief respite because although there are a variety of views about Iraq "policy", there has been unanimity about the impossibility of dealing with hostage-takers. From the pro-war Sun - "The answer is sad and stark: giving in to fanatics never works. If we did they would just come back next time and ask for more" - to the anti-war Independent - "All the governments concerned, our own included, are right in their public insistence that they will not deal with terrorists" - the line has been consistent.

But, as public opposition to the war and occupation has grown, the tone and extent of comment on Iraq has lacked the certainty of, for example, this passage in a Times leader on 8 August last year, 100 days after the cessation of war: "Iraq is a better place today than it was 12 months ago. It is highly likely, despite inevitable difficulties, that it will be better still a year hence."

The confident opinion came from their leading columnist, Simon Jenkins, who takes a different line from that of his newspaper. Only last Wednesday he wrote: "It is clear that nothing short of retirement will ever drive Mr Blair to admit that he has been party to one of the great errors of modern statesmanship." And Blair's announcement that we had entered a "new war" in Iraq against terrorism was dismissed with contempt. "This new war can only be one of extraction, of discreet withdrawal. It is an exercise somehow to save Mr Blair's premiership ... The brave recourse now is to realism, to admit that a war that cannot be won should soonest be abandoned. Britain should leave Iraq in January."

The Government does not mind at all when the war is off the agenda of so many papers. There are few votes in the apparently insoluble situation in Iraq today, and they would rather concentrate on the domestic issues they believe will determine the outcome of the coming election. And the last thing they wanted was Iraq dominating the media, all the media, in the run-up to their party conference. But horrifying events have so ordained. The kidnappers, showing a sophisticated understanding of media manipulation, have taken Iraq back to the top of the agenda in Britain, and focused it on the Prime Minister himself.

The Bigley family, in their desperate plight, also appealed directly to the Prime Minister, and the hostage-takers. They had to do everything they possibly could, as everybody would understand.

The popular press will withdraw from Iraq coverage again soon, judging that its readers have little interest in the continuing convoluted politics and violence. Within days of the bloodbath in Beslan the tabloids had little more to say about that atrocity in southern Russia.

One can only ruminate, because this is the way it is, for better or worse. But the centrality of the media to modern terrorism grows all the time. Bin Laden passes his videos to al-Jazeera. The cameras roll constantly outside the Beslan school full of child hostages. Ken Bigley pleads for his life through the internet. His family plead on television. Hostage executions are announced through the same medium.

The internet has the advantage of lacking location. The medium is the modern message of terrorism, and the sophistication of the terrorists in using the media advances constantly. It is far mightier than the gun. That puts a huge responsibility on the media, who might argue that you cannot uninvent the technology, but who cannot claim that they are not participants, however reluctant, in events.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield