OPINION: Behind the PR, there are real stories being told

Iraq parading American prisoners on TV may have been a PR disaster for Saddam, but as PR disasters go, the US troops hoisting up the stars and stripes in triumph following their first little skirmish in Iraq must rank right up there with the best.

I bet Alastair Campbell will have been fuming at this crass act, even though the Yanks did see the error of their ways and took the flag down again pretty quickly. By then, though, all the damage had been done as the photograph winged its way around the world via the wire services.

So far the Americans have not been doing very well on the PR front - in fact they have been doing disastrously. They do at least realise that precision bombing is necessary to avoid too many civilian casualties, but that's about as far as it goes. While British politicians, on orders from Campbell, have wisely refrained from giving a running commentary on the war, this is not the case in America.

Motormouth Donald Rumsfeld went on air seconds after early reports that the British and American troops had taken the port of Umm Qasr to crow about it. Three days later fierce fighting was still raging, as witnessed by the whole world live on CNN. In just one silly unnecessary statement Rumsfeld had destroyed the trust anyone had in what the Americans were telling us.

Just to make matters even worse, the Americans shot down a British Tornado fighter. Is it any wonder that this week, when I interviewed a mother whose son was fighting in the Gulf, she told me she wished Tony Blair had not decided to go it alone with the Americans. Not that you would know that it was just the British and Americans involved, because many in the media have been persuaded by the MoD to refer to them as 'coalition forces', conveniently forgetting that most countries are not part of the coalition.

Some broadcasters seemed so keen to join in with all the MoD propaganda about Iraqi poison gas that they initially did live TV interviews with their gas masks on. One presenter was actually seen putting his mask on just as the cameras were ready to roll. The MoD may have thought that this was a big PR coup, but the presenters all looked so stupid in their masks that they soon abandoned the practice.

Many journalists, though, are risking their lives trying to give us a real picture of what is going on and some, like ITN's Terry Lloyd, have tragically paid the price. They have done so because they refused to be part of the so-called embedded hacks, who can only do and say what their protectors allow. Even with the embedded journalists the MoD has produced its own videos of action, which some of the broadcasters have shamefully used, no doubt arguing it's OK because they give a clear indication of who gave them the pictures.

The battle to control what we see and when is all part of the PR war.

While the MoD makes its own videos, Iraq inevitably allowed British TV cameras access to hospitals to show us the injured children following the bombing of Baghdad - although we haven't seen many other really sickening pictures yet, at least not on TV.

It's too early to say who is winning the PR war, but the best news is that the hugely expensive media centre set up by the Americans in Qatar has been one big folly. There may be thousands of journalists hanging around in five-star hotels hundreds of miles from the action, but so far all the decent news has come direct from the front line. Some broadcasters haven't even bothered to cover the live MoD briefings in London. This is all good news - if there can be such a thing in war.

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