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PR and prejudice

The US strategy of embedding journalists in combat units appeared as an unprecedented watershed in media history, writes Nayanjot Lahiri.

india Updated: Apr 25, 2008 11:30 IST

What does the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the 1857 uprising in India have in common? The fact that both were marked by the presence of embedded journalists and photographers. This may not seem immediately evident. For most, the US strategy of embedding hundreds of journalists in combat units appeared as an unprecedented watershed in media history. This propaganda campaign was apparently championed by top Pentagon spokesperson Victoria Clarke, who had been planning it before the war started. Whether the embedded accounts were more reliable than those of ‘unilateral’ journalists is still being debated as is the bias and collusion inherent in cozying up to the military, inevitably an integral part of such reporting.

But is this an entirely unprecedented innovation? We know, for instance, that in Europe, even before World War II began, Joseph Goebbels, German Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, conscripted more than 1,000 cameramen whose role was “to influence the course of the war by psychological control of the mood at home, abroad, at the front, and in enemy territory”. Even the US during the Vietnam war had allowed the press to get fairly close to the arenas of action. It is another matter that the reports chronicling the shocking agony that the war wrought are known to have made the government regard the press access that they had granted as an enormous public relations failure.

More recently, during the 1999 Kargil war, images of reporters who were taken to the war zone and briefed about operations by the army, are easy to recall. Of course, NDTV’s Barkha Dutt tells us that “information had to be cajoled and coerced out of the top brass”. Surely, in this instance, the Indian military should learn from our politicos. The co-option of the media by national parties during elections — as bitterly contested as Kargil was — is palpable in the ‘first person’ accounts of journalists hopping around in party-organised helicopters to election meetings and ‘roadshows’.

How far back, though, can State-sponsored opportunities for reporting on wars and campaigns be traced? The practice of kings and conquerors inviting scribes and writers to accompany them on campaigns has a surprisingly distinguished lineage. Alexander the Great is known to have appointed Callisthenes, a nephew of Aristotle, on his Asiatic expedition as a professional historian. Alexander was the kind of person for whom Greek public opinion was exceedingly important. It was so important that he used to go over each instalment of Callisthenes’s running account of the campaign before it was sent back to a waiting Greek world. Again, of the companions of Alexander to India, at least three of them were entrusted with various commissions. They wrote accounts about his campaign, and enriched the Greek conception of India. One was Aristobulus, who, on one occasion, was sent by Alexander to a region that had become a desert because of the Indus river having shifted its course. There he is supposed to have seen the remains of over 1,000 towns and villages once full of men. Such inflated figures remind us of Iraq when embedded correspondents reported a large troop movement when, in fact, this movement was really of just 14 tanks.

If embedded accounts of campaigns have a long antecedence, when did embedded photography make it debut? This was broadly around the 1850s when the British government sought out Robert Fenton. Fenton was the honorary secretary of the Royal Photographic Society and was sought out to cover the war in the Crimea. The idea of sending Fenton on such an expedition was to produce a definitive photographic record that would counter the despatches of William Howard Russell, the Times correspondent, which had powerfully highlighted British military incompetence there. Fenton was fairly loyal to his brief; he desisted from taking any photographs that would suggest British failure, although he is known to have regularly complained about it in his correspondence.

The other cameraman in the Crimea was Felice Beato, an Italian-born British photographer. A specialist in photographing architecture among other things, he documented the destruction wrought by Allied siege batteries on the Sebastopol fortifications. His career as a war photographer continued in India where he arrived in February 1858, after being informed on the events of the rebellion. Like Fenton in the Crimea before him, Beato was given a clear brief. It was the same kind of documentation that the British army had required of him in the Crimea — the impact of different types of ordnance on buildings at the scenes of action. This resulted in a dramatic series of photographs of the physical destruction of buildings in the pacified areas of north India. Naturally, the ‘Mutiny’ sites of Delhi were among those that were recorded in great detail by him. Arriving much after the suppression of the revolt in Delhi, Beato nevertheless produced vivid images of the ridge sites that functioned as pickets during the siege — Hindu Rao’s house, the Chauburja mosque, the ‘Sammy’ House picket and the Flagstaff Tower. That the signs of bombardment and fighting that pockmarked many of those pickets are captured by him, must have helped the British army to do a post-mortem of the impact of various kinds of firepower.

Largely missing, though, are two elements that formed an integral part of what transpired during the revolt in Delhi in 1857 and in the aftermath of the defeat of the rebels. In May 1857, the rebels had squarely targeted symbols of British authority. Interestingly, there are no photos of many of those bulwarks — including the treasury that was plundered, the jail whose prisoners were all released or the main powder magazine on the banks of the Yamuna that was also successfully wrested by the rebels. Again, when the city was stormed by the British, there was widespread plundering, both indiscriminate and sanctioned. Following the example of medieval invaders, who had marked their victory over the Mughals by carrying off treasure from their palace, British soldiers plundered whatever they could find in the Red Fort and in the Walled City — jewels, weapons, clothes of the royal family, even in situ marble slabs and inlay work. Beato must have seen the destruction that had been wreaked by the victors, but he didn’t choose to photograph all that he had seen.

In the wake of the 150th anniversary of the Uprising of 1857, Dilliwallahs have been treated to the power and drama of Beato’s images. Our appreciation of them, though, must be tempered with a sense of the selectivity exercised by him as also perhaps, the censorship that was imposed on his photographs. Whichever way one looks at them, his work must certainly have pleased his commissioning patrons. The very quality that probably pleased his patrons then make us realise now how consistently officially sanctioned opportunities to report on action as it happened, has impacted on the tone and tenor of reporting. This is as evident in Beato’s arresting images as it is in the embedded coverage of the invasion of Iraq.

Nayanjot Lahiri’s work on 1857 has been published in World Archaeology. She teaches at Delhi University.