The truth, not lies, has tarnished US image

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 May, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 27 May, 2005, 12:00am

Donald Rumsfeld wants to open up a new front in the 'war on terror'. It involves countering media reports that damage US interests. The tough-talking defence secretary still has a lesson to learn.

His concern is that the war is being fought in an age of satellite television, 24-hour news networks and internet websites, which together create a 'global maelstrom of instant coverage'.

Mr Rumsfeld complained that the US government was ill-equipped to combat the bad publicity it sometimes received. There was a need, he said, for a more sophisticated way of dealing with this 'unique challenge'.

He may well be right to highlight inadequacies in the government's public relations machine and the difficulties posed by the use Muslim extremists make of modern communications. But that is not the point. There is a subtext to his speech that conveys a different message. Mr Rumsfeld seems to think an unfair picture is being painted of the US military by the world's media.

He borrowed Mark Twain's quote that 'a lie can make its way halfway around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on'. But it is the truth that has done all the damage to the image of the US, especially reports of prisoner abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr Rumsfeld does not appear to approve of accurate reports either. He spoke of 'a seemingly casual regard for classified information'.

The timing of his speech is interesting. It followed the controversy over a report in Newsweek magazine. The article claimed that US guards at Guantanamo Bay tormented Muslim prisoners by flushing the Koran down the toilet.

It was picked up by the Al-Jazeera network and broadcast - with terrible consequences. Riots in Afghanistan left at least 16 people dead and there were angry protests all over the Muslim world.

Newsweek later apologised and retracted the report under pressure from the White House. But an FBI memo has since been released which shows at least one detainee made complaints of this nature in 2002. Whatever the flaws of the Newsweek report, it was believable.

The media has a big responsibility to bear when reporting on matters that are likely to be inflammatory. But it has played an important role in exposing the prison abuses. As a result, some of those responsible have been brought to justice, rules have been changed and conditions generally improved.

The media has also fairly reported the successes of the 'war on terror', such as the impressive elections in Iraq and Afghanistan. It mirrors what is happening.

Mr Rumsfeld should not worry so much about countering negative reports or keeping confidential documents secret. The real challenge is to make sure that the US military observes the highest moral standards. That is the way to limit those damaging media reports.