Hi there,

Democracy Now! is celebrating 28 years on the air. Since our very first broadcast in 1996, Democracy Now! has been committed to bringing you the stories, voices and perspectives you won't hear anywhere else. In these times of war, climate chaos and elections, our reporting has never been more important. Can you donate $10 to keep us going strong? Today a generous donor will DOUBLE your donation, making it twice as valuable. Democracy Now! doesn't accept advertising income, corporate underwriting or government funding. That means we rely on you to make our work possible—and every dollar counts. Please make your gift now. Thank you so much.
-Amy Goodman

Non-commercial news needs your support.

We rely on contributions from you, our viewers and listeners to do our work. If you visit us daily or weekly or even just once a month, now is a great time to make your monthly contribution.

Please do your part today.


Ex-British Navy Spokesperson Steve Tatham on “Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion”

Media Options

From November 2002 to May 2003, British Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham was the head of the British Royal Navy’s Media Operations in the Northern Arabian Gulf. He served as the British Navy’s spokesperson in the critical months leading up to, during and after the launch of the Iraq invasion. He was responsible for war correspondents embedded with British troops and for responding to the flood of media inquiries during the invasion. He worked alongside U.S. military planners in the Gulf, coordinating the huge media campaign that foreshadowed and accompanied the Iraq war.

Steve Tatham has written a book–published in the US this month–called “Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion.” In it, he exposes the US military’s handling of the Arab media and its treatment of journalists from the Arab world, in particular from Al-Jazeera. He says the US military ignored the Arab media and demonized them through repeated accusations of anti-Western bias.

In this exclusive interview, we spend the hour with British Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham.

  • Lt. Commander Steve Tatham, former British Navy spokesperson and author of the new book “Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion.”

Related Story

StoryFeb 28, 2024“Uncommitted”: Over 100,000 Cast Protest Vote Against Biden’s Gaza Policy in Michigan Primary
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, a Democracy Now exclusive interview with British Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham on Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion. All that and more coming up.

From November 2002 to May 2003, he was the head of the British Royal Navy’s Media Operations in the Northern Arabian Gulf. He served as the British Navy’s spokesperson in the critical months leading up to, during and after the launch of the Iraq invasion. He was responsible for war correspondents embedded with British troops and for responding to the flood of media inquiries during the invasion. He worked alongside US military planners in the Gulf, coordinating the huge media campaign that foreshadowed and accompanied the Iraq war.

Steve Tatham has written a book–published in the US this month–called “Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion.” In it, he exposes the US military’s handling of the Arab media and its treatment of journalists from the Arab world, in particular from Al-Jazeera. He says the US military ignored the Arab media and demonized them through repeated accusations of anti-Western bias.

In this exclusive interview, we spend the hour with British Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham. I began by asking him about the title of his book, “Losing Arab Hearts and Minds.”

STEVE TATHAM: Well, we had the opportunity since 9/11, I think, to make great strides in the Arab world and public opinion. Immediately after 9/11 the United States had considerable sympathy from some rather strange quarters — people like Syria, people like Iran — and I think that there was a moment there where we might have capitalized upon that. But unfortunately we lost that moment. The Iraq war came along, and we didn’t explain ourselves properly to the Arab world during the Iraq war. And we are today where we are.

AMY GOODMAN: What is your position in the British military exactly? If you could explain what you did around the invasion of Iraq.

STEVE TATHAM: Sure. I was the head of the Royal Navy’s Media Operations in the theater of battle in the Northern Arabian Gulf, so I was responsible for the embedded war correspondents that were with the Royal Navy and for responding to the many media inquiries that went on during that war, and I was the spokesman, the pubic spokesman for the British Air Royal there.

AMY GOODMAN: Where were you based?

STEVE TATHAM: I was based with the United States Navy in Bahrain. That was our headquarters. But, of course, we were all over the northern Gulf and southern Iraq as the war progressed.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your book, Losing Arab Hearts and Minds, with a quote, a quote of the President of the United States, George Bush: “Either you’re with us or with the terrorists.” Can you talk about that?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, I put the quote in, because that quote seemed to apply, after a while, not just to nation states but to the world’s media, and that’s why I became concerned during my tenure there as Royal Navy spokesman. And what prompted the book, really, was the way that the relationship with the world’s media and the Arab media, in particular, changed during the few short weeks of the invasion phase.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the British military’s approach to the invasion and compare it to the US military’s approach?

STEVE TATHAM: To the invasion or to the media?

AMY GOODMAN: To the invasion, in how it presented it to the media.

STEVE TATHAM: Well, in terms of the Western media, we had very similar ideas. We embedded a huge number of correspondents. The Royal Navy had thirty-one members of the Western media embedded with them; in total there were over five hundred members of the media embedded with coalition forces. And we tried to be as open and honest in our engagement with them as we possibly could within the confines of a military operation. The difficulty was that of those five hundred journalists, less than three percent of them were from the Arab world, for a whole host of reasons. And it’s interesting to me, in my research, to chart the way that opinion towards the Arab media waxed and waned during that period. Initially, the United States at the very highest levels was very enthusiastic that we should engage with the Arab media. Donald Rumsfeld himself said, “I’m concerned that this might be perceived as a war against Islam.” And there was lots of higher level direction to engage with the Arab media, whereas on the British side we were much more focused on the tremendous domestic battle that was going on at home. And you’ll recall that there was terrible indecision and angst in the United Kingdom over our involvement in that war. As the war progressed, it’s interesting the way that the United States pulled back from that engagement with the Arab media, but that the British forces, often at unit and command level, were concerned enough to reengage with the Arab media, because we recognized the importance of that, to coin that dreadful phrase, “hearts and minds.”

AMY GOODMAN: Which Arab media was embedded, and why was most of the Arab media not?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, for the United Kingdom, the reason that we didn’t embed, not just Arab media, but any international media, was because we were so focused on the domestic scene here in the United Kingdom and the need to win over public opinion in support of British forces. And that’s quite an easy reason. We simply overlooked the Arab media. The United States was a little more thoughtful. They embedded, for example, the Al Jazeera TV channel, but for a very short period of time, a matter of hours, because during the course of those embeds, the Arab media actually found themselves to an extent — and I’ve used the word in my book — “demonized” by the organizations that were looking after them, and that became entirely counterproductive.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain further. How were they demonized?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, there’s a fairly good quote in my book, when there’s a press briefing with American forces where all of the media are invited to attend. It’s a sitrep on the operational situation, but as Al Jazeera go in to that briefing, they’re stopped by a US officer and said, “No, sorry, not you guys. You’re a channel with a reputation.” Now, perhaps it’s my British sense of fair-mindedness, but it does seem paradoxical that we’re inviting the rest of the world’s media in, and we’re not too concerned about them, but the Arab media can’t come in, because we’re concerned about their reputation or about what became the new four-letter word, their “bias,” one way or the other, and that struck me as entirely counterproductive to trying to win this war of ideas and explain who we were.

AMY GOODMAN: And what was the US approach to monitoring the Arab media, or did they? Did they know what the Arab media was saying?

STEVE TATHAM: I can only go from my research, which was at a particular point of the US military media machine, which was CentCom headquarters in Doha in Qatar, so I can’t speak for the wider US military. But certainly, the media monitoring that went on in Doha was pretty sparse. I remember the head of the US media operations there saying to me, “No, I didn’t see any analysis, but I know they were biased.”

AMY GOODMAN: This was James Wilkinson?

STEVE TATHAM: Yeah, yeah. “I know they were biased. If I needed to know what was going on, General Abizaid happened to speak Arabic and he could tune in.” Now, that was one approach, I suppose. It differed from the British approach in that we had a very formalized method of media monitoring. The BBC has long provided monitoring services. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office monitors and advises on trends in the Arab media, and that was enormously useful to not just the military, but, of course, to the politicians, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you offer translations of the Arabic media to the US military?

STEVE TATHAM: I don’t know the answer to that, Amy. I wasn’t employed in the Qatar area. Certainly, we didn’t see it where I was in Bahrain.

AMY GOODMAN: So, are you suggesting that while the US was saying that the media, Arab media, was biased, that they weren’t actually following it, just saying it?

STEVE TATHAM: From my research at CentCom headquarters in Qatar, I don’t think there was time to properly analyze it there, and James has said to me that they didn’t receive any higher level analysis from the United States. Now, the moment that that did change was when the Arab media showed the pictures of the captured coalition servicemen, and then subsequently of the dead coalition servicemen, and that, of course, received very close analysis indeed, and prompted James to say, “Look, I’m not going to deal with the Arab media now, because this is just too blatantly biased.” The British took a similar view, although we reengaged fairly rapidly afterwards, having made our displeasure quite well known to them.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s analyze that, because in Losing Arab Hearts and Minds, you look at that extensively, the showing of these images and the accusations hurled at the Arabic media, saying that they were breaking the Geneva Conventions, they were thrown off — Al Jazeera was thrown off the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq. Can you talk about all of this?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, it was an interesting period. It created considerable disquiet amongst the military and amongst the politicians. The Geneva Conventions were raised. Retrospectively, that probably wasn’t an ideal move, because, of course, channels like Al Jazeera and the BBC and Sky don’t subscribe to the Geneva Conventions. They’re not nation states. They haven’t signed up to them. There are general principles, that we don’t in the West like to see imagery such as that, but the truth be known, Sky TV showed the imagery of captured troops, Sky TV here in the United Kingdom. I think it even showed the pixelated images of the dead troops. So really there was very little difference, and there was a slight hypocrisy here in the way that this was dealt with, which I think was counterproductive to that relationship that we kept or we wanted to build with the Arab media. One of the prime difficulties came a little bit later, actually, when the footage of Saddam’s dead sons was released, and I recall a statement at the time saying, “Look, it’s very important that we show this footage. It overrides any sensitivity that may exist over showing dead bodies. Just to show the Iraqis that the regime is dead.”

AMY GOODMAN: Who said this?

STEVE TATHAM: I don’t recall. It was a senior administration official. That may well be the case, but, of course, it’s slightly hypocritical in relation to the statements that we’d made over the footage of the American and British servicemen, both captured and dead. The two contrasted, and that contrast wasn’t lost on the Arab media.

AMY GOODMAN: You also analyze what the Arab media shows, in general, when it comes to casualties and how different that is from the Western media and from the US, in particular.

STEVE TATHAM: Yes, I have a theory about this. The graphic level of the imagery that Al Jazeera and other news, Arab news channels, is prepared to show quite often horrifies us here in the West. You see very vividly and in extreme close-up the effects of munitions, of death and destruction, at quite unpleasant detail, and you don’t see that on BBC coverage, certainly, because we have the various regulatory standards that believe that to be unsuitable. My view is that in the Arab world, people are much more acclimatized or attuned to that routine unpleasantness, from the Iran-Iraq war, from the Intifada, from the various civil wars in Lebanon, from everything that’s gone on in the Arab world. People are more realistic in what they see and what they expect of their TV companies, so to have not shown that imagery might actually have been, perhaps made them less believable. I remember talking to the head of Sky News here in the United Kingdom, who actually said to me, “I think we should be showing that imagery. We should show what happens when a Tomahawk missile lands on a marketplace, because otherwise we’re in danger of sanitizing war and making it somehow less believable.” And I think there is a place to see that imagery, perhaps late at night, but I think there’s a place for us. And it’s just our sensitivity that was heightened when we saw it so readily and so often on Arab news channels, not just Al Jazeera, but all of them.

AMY GOODMAN: Victoria Clarke, who’s now a CNN commentator, but who was a spokesperson for the Pentagon at the time —

STEVE TATHAM: Right, she was, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — was hardly apologetic. She said Baghdad is not a safe place, and that people shouldn’t be in these dangerous places.


AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about unembedded journalists?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, that brings the wider debate between unilateral journalists and embedded journalists. From personal experience, when I was in Sierra Leone in 2000, three unilateral journalists were killed by the RUF rebels, and I was there as a media operations officer. They were told, “Don’t go down this road; it’s not safe.” But they went down the road, and they paid with their lives. I also know that embedding is not always the favorite pastime of the media. An “embed” sounds suspiciously like “in bed,” which is very unfortunate. And to get that level of objectivity that editors and correspondents want, they feel the urge to act as unilaterals, and I applaud that. But Victoria Clarke was quite right: war is not child’s game. It is bloody, it’s dangerous, it’s appalling, it’s scary, and things change very, very quickly. And it is difficult enough in a military environment to keep pace with what is happening. It’s next to impossible when you’re not in a military environment to keep pace with where the front line may be or where dangerous areas are or where firefights are going on. So it’s very, very difficult. I hugely applaud unilaterals. I think they have tremendous courage and I would not do it myself. I think they’re mad men and women, but I applaud them. But as a military man, I can see the value of embedding, and I also know from personal experience that we do try to be as honest and open as we possibly can, while simultaneously having the duty of care over those people, many of whom who’ve not been to this type of environment before. And even the most experienced, like Terry Lloyd and people like that, have also paid with their lives, so it’s a dreadful situation.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a chapter called “The FOX Factor.” Can you talk about it?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, yes. I suppose you either love or you hate FOX. I put FOX in the book, because for everything that was said about Al Jazeera, I think the same argument could be made about FOX TV. Was Al Jazeera biased? Certainly, Al Jazeera presented the war from an Arab perspective, and the Arab world didn’t like the war. Therefore, in that respect, there was a degree of bias. Did FOX TV present the war from a particular perspective? Certainly. You only had to tune in to see the strap line “Operation Iraqi Freedom” to know that you weren’t necessarily going to get objective coverage of what was going on. And I pick out particular presenters’ comments on screen during the conflict, about what they felt about the war, and the reason it had come about, to highlight this. I recall speaking to David Rhodes, who was head of, I think, news gathering at FOX at a previous Al Jazeera conference, and I remember him saying to me, “Sure, we did go this particular way, but we only went that way because we felt the rest of the media was much too liberal and much too left-minded, so we took a more right-minded course.” “The FOX Factor” played significantly with the U.S. military, because — and I saw this firsthand from November 2002 'til April 2003 when I was working alongside the Arab media — the only TV station that was broadcasting continuously into the military accommodation, the eating areas, the living spaces, even on the ships, was FOX TV, and that, I'm sure, had an effect on the way people regarded the environment in which they were working.

AMY GOODMAN: So, there was, in a sense, no check and balance for — especially for the media spokespeople, to get a sense of what was being put out there and the response to it, if they only had FOX, especially when it came to the Arab media. Would you say FOX was almost an extension of the Pentagon, in the sense of what it was putting out and whether it was putting out any kind of challenging line that might have fed back to the media spokespeople in the area, to say, “Oh, we have to deal with these questions that are being raised”?

STEVE TATHAM: I don’t think it presented the challenges to the military media spokespeople that you refer to in the same way as perhaps other recognized brands like the BBC or CNN did. I think it was less confrontational. I think they were easier to deal with. And I know from personal experience when I had FOX TV journalists with the Navy, they were easier to accommodate. But that was because the channel had made a conscious editorial decision that it was going to support very vocally, very visibly, the operation, in particular, the men and women of the U.S. armed forces. And that made them slightly easier to deal with.

AMY GOODMAN: How were they easier, in your own experience?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, the questions didn’t tend to be quite so pointed. The area of reference was perhaps slightly different. They were much more interested in — to a certain extent they were much more interested in what we would call “big boys’ toys,” very exciting to see aircraft flying off and missiles going and so on, and that was always an area going to be of great attention to them.

AMY GOODMAN: British Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham, the head of the Royal Navy’s Media Operations in the Northern Arabian Gulf during the Iraq invasion. He is author of the book, “Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion.”

When we come back from this break, Lieutenant Commander Tatham talks about how Arab journalists were treated at the US military’s media operations base–CentCom–in Qatar. What he calls the US military’s “paucity of information” in its press briefings and how one TV network disregarded a British military request to not broadcast sensitive information on its military operations. No, it wasn’t an Arab TV channel. It was Fox News and he says they had to be physically stopped. This is Democracy Now, Democracy now.org — we’ll be back in a minute.

Music Break

AMY GOODMAN: “Don’t believe the hype” by Public Enemy here on Democracy Now, Democracynow.org, the War and Peace report, I’m Amy Goodman as we continue with our exclusive interview with British Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham, the former spokesperson for the British Royal Navy and the head of the its Media Operations in the Northern Arabian Gulf during the invasion of Iraq. He is author of the new book, “Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion.” In the book, he describes a situation where the military warned the press not to speak too much about where they were and what the operation was about, and how the Arab media respected that, but it was FOX that broke the embargo. I asked him to talk about it.

STEVE TATHAM: When we were putting one of our auxiliary vessels into the port of Umm Qasr with humanitarian aid on board — and I forget the date that it was going into the port — but it was delayed by one day because Iraqi forces — I don’t think we ever quite found out who they were — were found in the marshes, and there was a risk that they might attack the ship. And so, my colleague, who was escorting the media on board, got the media together and said, “Look, I’m awfully sorry, chaps, but we’re going to be delayed by one day whilst coalition forces go into the marshes to secure them, and this is for your own safety, and I would ask you not to broadcast that, because, obviously, it’s prejudicial to the safety of the people who are going in to sort this out.” And that was respected by everybody on board, including the Arab media — we had Abu Dhabi TV on board — for that serial. Sadly, however, my colleague had to stop FOX TV from broadcasting it immediately, and he physically stopped them from doing it, with some fairly heated exchanges and fairly tense navalese language. I don’t know why they chose to do it, but we were not pleased at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: So it was FOX. It was not the Arab media, who was breaking —


AMY GOODMAN: And you also talk about that in an interesting way, that that was a moment where you felt it was important to broadcast an image of humanitarian aid coming in —


AMY GOODMAN: — particularly to the Arab world.


AMY GOODMAN: But that that’s who was excluded from looking at it or from showing it, in Umm Qasr, the ability of the Arab media to project this happening, because of the tension almost between the Arab media and the coalition forces.

STEVE TATHAM: Well, the Arab media filmed — were on board the ship, the Sir Galahad. They filmed the distribution of the aid. We had a lot of Arab media that met the ship on arrival, as well, so they had exceptional coverage of it, because we felt that the story was of immediate interest to the Arab world. There had been stories flying around that half the people were starving, that the water had run out, that there was disease, all of which was pretty inaccurate. And by showing that the ship was going in, by showing that the entire port facilities hadn’t been blown to pieces, of showing the aid being distributed, we were able to dispel some of these more wild rumors that were so floating around.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about CentCom? Can you talk about CentCom in Doha, how it was set up, who set it up, and the difference between the U.S. military and the British military approach to the media there?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, I can’t talk in detail, because I wasn’t based at CentCom. I was in a subordinate command in Bahrain, but, of course, we worked for them and we had interaction with them. CentCom will be famous for this multimillion dollar briefing theater that was produced, I understand, by Hollywood executives. But we had a large British contingent there, led by a senior British Air Force officer, and it is quite clear from my research that there was a very different relationship between the British and the Arab media, and the U.S. and the Arab media. Both the U.S. and the U.K. regarded them with tremendous importance, but the way we actually dealt with them on the ground was significantly different, and I know that that caused difficulties between the, the two coalition partners. I recall James Wilkinson saying that we gave them a prayer room, and we made sure that we invited them to ask questions, but that, I tended to feel, was on a much more superficial level. The British perhaps took a slightly different approach. I know that our senior briefing officer there had breakfast with them every morning, for example, and was able to talk off the record and say, “Look, this is what’s happened; this is what we’re planning to do,” and establish a rapport with them. And I know from talking to him that that rapport, in fact, friendship, became extremely useful; that buildup of trust on both sides was extremely useful to both their needs as journalists and our needs as the military. And I’m not entirely sure that relationship existed on the U.S. side, and that’s not for the want of trying. I mean, I’ll just quote James, who said to me, and he recognized that there were many problems, and it’s not intended to castigate him at all, but he said, “Look, the only time that we, the U.S., ever get serious with Arab media is in war, or when we’re about to do something that they’re probably not going to like, and I think our nation has got to get better at public diplomacy, and in the times when things aren’t bad. You guys, the Brits, do it so much better.” Well, maybe that’s because we have a closer historical association with the region; I don’t know. Maybe we just do business differently. But I think that’s a candid admission by a senior guy, that “we got that wrong, and we need to work on this.” And I think the U.S. public diplomacy program needs to learn lots of the lessons that came out of that in their future engagement.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s not only with Arab media, but you describe how the British military spokespeople — you all — dealt differently with the British press corps each day, and how little information the U.S. military was giving out at CentCom.

STEVE TATHAM: Yes, and that was a source of frustration to the U.S. media, as well. I suppose that a result of the relationship that we’ve had — we have perhaps one of the most intrusive and non-deferential media in the world, and it really is engaging with the media at a rough, tough boxing match at times. And what that’s enabled us to do is build up a significant rapport with the key people from the media and, importantly, trust, and we understand the parameters in which they work, and they understand the parameters in which we exist. And so, we had that rather mature relationship, where we could say to elements of the British media, “Come on, I’m gonna give you a brief. This is off the record. You’re not to broadcast this until such and such a time,” and we knew, because of the long-term relationship that existed, that that trust would be honored. I’m not entirely sure that the U.S. military had quite the same relationship with, certainly the American media, and the international media. It was a much more formalized briefing style. They obviously relied on, obviously, visual imagery of events that were happening and didn’t tend to develop into little closed huddles of discussions and debates, and I think that characterized the difference between the two.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the visual displays: long on the visual displays, short on information.

STEVE TATHAM: That was certainly an allegation that was levied by most of the press there, yeah, and our senior civil servant who was out there as the media advisor said that this was — in his interview to me — he said this was very difficult to manage, and in the end, we couldn’t. There was a paucity of information on the U.S. side, and we had to give more to our people, because they operate in a completely different manner, and they’d eat us alive, quite frankly.

AMY GOODMAN: The British media.

STEVE TATHAM: The British media would eat us alive, unless we provided more information and engaged on a much more social level, often on a one-to-one basis, and that’s what the media team did. And that’s what we, as media operations officers, have done for years with the British military.

AMY GOODMAN: What does that say about the U.S. media, that they wouldn’t eat the U.S. military spokespeople alive for giving this paucity of information?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, it was certainly a different technique. I don’t know how successful it was. I don’t want to suggest that one was better than the other. The American military knew the American press; we knew the British press. And we dealt in the way that we have traditionally done so with that sector with which we’re familiar. I would’ve been uncomfortable adopting the U.S. policy with the British media. I don’t think I’d have managed it.

AMY GOODMAN: But would you say the U.S. media accepted this approach more than the British media would?

STEVE TATHAM: I think that’s too much of a generalization, because, as I put in my book, there were members of the American media that stood up and said, you know, “General Brooks, what is the point of this? Why are we here? What’s going on? Why are you just showing this imagery? When are you going to answer my questions?” And there was quite some heated debate over this paucity of information, so I think that’s perhaps a bit of a generalization. But it’s also fair to say that the U.S. media, I think, were largely much more on side, and you’ve only got to compare, perhaps, some of the coverage in the U.S. with some of the coverage in the U.K. Britain’s leading, or one of our leading tabloid newspapers, was daily printing front page headlines of the prime minister with red dripping off his hands, with headlines, “Blood on his Hands,” publishing posters to put in the wall, in windows to oppose the war. So we came from a very mixed bag of editorial opinion, and that was — perhaps kept us on our toes to deal with them.

AMY GOODMAN: And the U.S. media?

STEVE TATHAM: I think the U.S. media was much more alive to 9/11 — that was very fresh in the memory — felt perhaps a genuine connection existed between 9/11 and Iraq, and was keen, in the same way as we in the British military were keen, to support their troops. And we wanted the British press to support us. Regardless of the high level political machinations, we needed that support.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you see that connection between 9/11 and Iraq?

STEVE TATHAM: That’s pretty much a political question. I have my own personal views. At the time, yes; subsequently, no. But that is just my opinion.

AMY GOODMAN: When did you think that or come to realize that there were no weapons of mass destruction?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, I left the theater of operations in April 2003 and returned to the U.K. for leave and to get away from it. There was tremendous debate at the time to find them. There was lots of angst in the media that they hadn’t been found, and I guess that was the time that, for me personally, I — this was my view and not the view of the British military or the government — but for me, personally, that’s when the odd alarm bell started ringing.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are your thoughts about that, since that was, in the United States, the reason given, and I presume in Britain, as well, the reason given for invading Iraq.

STEVE TATHAM: I can’t answer that question, Amy. That’s a political question and not one that I feel comfortable answering.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham. His book is Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera, and Muslim Public Opinion. You talk about the difference between the coverage of the Persian Gulf War, with CNN, Sky News, BBC, and the coverage of the invasion of Iraq of 2003, with the “big three A’s,” Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, the Arab networks. What difference did it make in that ten years to have these very — this new addition to the media landscape?

STEVE TATHAM: In those ten years, we’ve seen a fundamental change. In 1991, Arabs who could speak English and had the means to do so would watch the progress of the war in the Arab world on Western news providers. In 2003, they could watch it in their own language from Arab news providers. And more importantly, we in the West, as we see all the time as BBC and CNN take Al Jazeera image, could also see the war from a different perspective. We have news that — an inversion of news transference from the global West to the global East in 1991, and in 2003 we’re taking it directly from the global East and showing it to the global West. It’s a fundamental change in the way that we see the world, and I think that’s significant.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it’s better?

STEVE TATHAM: Undeniably so. Absolutely, yeah.


STEVE TATHAM: We are able to see the world from other people’s perspectives, which — in 1991 I was at sea in the Mediterranean. I saw the 1991 Gulf War from the perspective of the BBC. In fact, I listened to it on the BBC World Service. That formed my view in its entirety. Today, or in 2003, my view was not formed just by the BBC, because I had counter-opinions, counter-imagery on Al Jazeera, on Abu Dhabi TV, that might perhaps cause me to question the things that I was seeing on the more traditional news providers. And I think that’s a fundamental change, and I think it’s an extremely important factor that we need to consider in the future. And there’ll be other things like this. During 2003 we had the famous Baghdad blogger, Salam Pax, who revealed all kinds of interesting things through his daily blog that was enormously popular to audiences over here. We’re getting the rise of the citizen journalist, and we’re slowly starting to see views and ideas about what’s happening from not just a few news providers, but from thousands of different perspectives. I mean, it’s a phenomenal change in just a few short years, one brought about by satellite TV, and two, laterally by internet.

AMY GOODMAN: British Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham, former spokesperson for the British Royal Navy during the Iraq invasion. He is author of “Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion.” We’ll be back with him in a minute.

Music Break

AMY GOODMAN: “Bombs over Falluja” by Black Mona Lisa here on Democracy Now, Democracynow.org, the War and Peace report, I’m Amy Goodman as we continue with our exclusive interview with British Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham, the former spokesperson for the British Royal Navy during the invasion of Iraq and the head of its Media Operations in the Northern Arabian Gulf. His book is titled, “Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion.” We interviewed him in March and I asked him what he thinks about the rise of Arabic-language U.S.-funded networks like Al Hurra and Radio Sawa.

STEVE TATHAM: The U.S., I think we all agree, needs to improve its dialogue with the Arab world, and I’m a great advocate of soft power, and there was a very famous soft power campaign in the late 1990s called Shared Values, which was run by a marketing executive called Charlotte Beers, which attempted to show the Arab world the life of Arabs and Muslims in the United States — Shared Values — and it flopped rather spectacularly, which I think was disappointing, actually, because it was in concept a reasonable idea. We’ve seen that concept resurrected again with Alhurra, “The Free One,” the free-to-air Arabic language TV station broadcast from Virginia in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Translated as “The Free One.”

STEVE TATHAM: Translated as “The Free One,” indeed. So I applaud the concept and the initiative and the need to engage. We have to explain our values. We have to get behind the facades that seem to exist. But, as my research in the book has indicated, I’m not at all convinced that Alhurra is really working. Everybody that I came across in the pursuit of my research in the Arab world not only was — not only did not watch Alhurra, but they actually felt quite offended by it. First of all, how can there be a contemporary satellite news provider based in West Virginia? How can they possibly be up to date with the news, as up to date as one based in Qatar or Abu Dhabi or Dubai? So that was the first issue. And the second one, there was a feeling that actually this was just an extension of propaganda, and they felt aggrieved that somehow the organic Arabic news channels were somehow seen to be inaccurate and that people had to watch Alhurra to get their news. So, mixed emotions, really. I know that its sister channel, Radio Sawa, is having more success in the Arab world, and that’s good, and anything that can try and dispel some of the myths, that can educate people properly to what we’re all about, and we conversely can learn about the Arab world, is to the good, but I’m not convinced that Alhurra, I have to say, and I know that I have had some very vigorous debates with that with senior American representatives over it.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think it should be clear to people that it’s funded by the United States to the tune of tens of millions of dollars?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, it’s quite clear on its website and its publicity brochures, and I’m not aware of that being hidden, quite frankly. I think everybody in the Arab world that watches it knows that it’s funded by the United States, that it’s beamed from the United States, so I don’t think there’s any suggestion of trying to hide that somehow. And I think that’s the reason people realize that, that it’s frankly unpopular, which is unfortunate.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the U.S. would do better at taking seriously the media that the Arab world takes seriously?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, this is the argument that I’ve raised in my book. I don’t for one moment suggest that by embedding Arab media with the coalition during the Iraq war would suddenly have magically have changed the Arab world’s view of the West. It just wouldn’t. That’s a ridiculously naive statement to make. But what I found was that war correspondents, when embedded with troops, after a period of time got behind the facade of the combat gear, the weapons, the tanks, the dark glasses, and they saw humanity underneath. They saw individuals and people underneath. And you were able to see personalities, hopes and fears. You learned about wives, children. People were scared, worried, their reasons for being there. Quite frankly, I think that’s imagery that we might have done well to show the Arab world, because it’s very easy for people to apply the term “a crusader” disparagingly on Western coalition troops. But if they saw the individuals behind, they might think a little bit more. I showed you a picture earlier, Amy, of troops, of American Seabees in Umm Qasr being hugged by Iraqis, because they’d just erected a playground for them. And the heading on the piece of paper is “The War that You Don’t See in Iraq,” and it’s absolutely right. We hear of all the horrendous things, the violence and so on going on out there, but we don’t tend to see the very tangible things that are happening, as well. And here’s a prime example of an American GI being hugged by a young guy, because he’s just made his playground for him. I kinda think that would be good things to show the Arab world. And so, in answer to your question, a rather longwinded answer, I think we should be engaging much more proactively with the Arab, organic Arab media, than has been done thus far.

AMY GOODMAN: I use the words, “Should they take the Arab media more seriously.” Perhaps they do, but not so much take it seriously, but not vilify it, because—

STEVE TATHAM: Yes, there’s no doubt that it’s taken seriously, but it’s taken seriously — you use the word “vilified;” I use the word “demonized” in my book — and I think that is counterproductive. There were some very serious issues over the way things were presented by the Arab media. There’s no doubt about that, but I think those things tended to obscure the wider issue, and I think they should have engaged with the organic Arab media much more closely. Certainly, we should not have demonized them the way we did. There’s a very cute British expression that says, “Look, we would have been better to have them in the tent peeing out, than outside the tent peeing in,” and I subscribe to that.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the U.S. military used Al Jazeera to send, not just a message to Al Jazeera and the Arab world by calling them, for example, as Rumsfeld did, a terrorist organization, but to send a message also to the Western media not to raise the same kinds of questions?

STEVE TATHAM: It’s a theory. I’d have to think about it. I’m not sure I’m prepared to offer an opinion at the moment.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk about PSYOPS in your book, Psychological Operations. Can you explain?

STEVE TATHAM: Pyschological Operations is part of the wider Information Operation campaign. It was very public during the 2003 war, less so in the 1991 war. The United States military has tremendous capability there. During both wars, you flew the Commando Solo aircraft. These were flying radio stations.

AMY GOODMAN: “You,” saying the U.S.

STEVE TATHAM: This is the U.S., yeah. During 1991, that was extremely secret. It wasn’t so during 2003. You proactively publicized what was going on. The dropping of leaflets in Arabic, explaining how to surrender, where to park your tanks, all of this stuff proved very successful during the 2003 campaign. People did surrender, waving leaflets saying “This is how you surrender.” And it was very public. Those leaflets were available on the CentCom website for anybody to look at. In 1991 that was not the case. So, that Psychological Operation, together with many other things, formed the sort of intellectual component of modern warfare.

AMY GOODMAN: What about interference with radio broadcasts?

STEVE TATHAM: Yeah, that was done. I mean, it’s been publicly acknowledged. That’s the point of the Commando Solo missions.


STEVE TATHAM: The Commando Solo flying radio station would take over an FM station and broadcast its own messages across it. We did it. We had a frigate in the Northern Arabian Gulf that took over FM radio stations and broadcast a particular eclectic mix of music and messages to try and dishearten and to persuade Iraqi troops to surrender, and that proved very successful.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel about the planting of false stories? It’s come out a lot now in the U.S. media, of stories of both Iraqi journalists being paid to publish stories and the planting of false stories.

STEVE TATHAM: It’s not a subject that I can really comment on. I have no expertise in it. As a media operations officer, I have no involvement in that whatsoever. My job is to facilitate the access of the press to the military and the military to the press. And if there was the slightest suggestion that I was involved in that, any media operations officer was involved in that, they would lose their credibility with the press, which would be entirely counterproductive. So, I don’t have enough experience to give you an opinion. It’s not something I’m involved in.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you ever lied?

STEVE TATHAM: To the media? No. No. If I lie to the media, and I’m subsequently found out, my credibility as a media ops officer dips immediately. Now, sometimes I may not be able to answer the question because of time constraints or whatever it may be, and then you have to be quite clear under tremendous pressure, because otherwise you can be in that situation where you suddenly think, “Have I just told an untruth?” No, you have to be robust, and that’s when you take the flak, because the media say, “The military isn’t helping us.”

AMY GOODMAN: What about the military telling reporters to use them as an unnamed source, and then putting out a false story, but it then can’t be traced back to the military spokesperson?

STEVE TATHAM: That’s not something that we do. Now, there may be Psychological Operations/Information Operations officers that are involved in that, but it’s not something that I, as a media operations officer, would ever do. It would ruin my credibility.

AMY GOODMAN: Or, for example, the admitted stories that were falsely planted around Fallujah, a PSYOPS operation to put out false information?

STEVE TATHAM: Right, I can’t comment. I have no idea.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the use of white phosphorus, an issue that has come up recently, particularly in regards to Fallujah, a weapon that — well, it’s been argued whether it’s a chemical weapon in the burning of people, and the question of whether it is a violation of the Geneva Convention?

STEVE TATHAM: I have absolutely no experience or knowledge of it, I’m afraid, Amy. I don’t know that I can answer that.

AMY GOODMAN: Overall, if you were giving advice today to the U.S. military, what would you say about how to deal with the Arab world?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, I think it’s a bit presumptuous to say that I should give advice to the U.S. military, which is a hugely efficient and competent organization. All I would say is, from experience, the same thing to the U.S. military that I say to any British officer, and I lecture to every military officer going out that will have engagement with the Arab media, and that is: engage, engage, engage. Go and talk to them. Don’t be frightened. Go and talk to them. And I would say the same thing to the U.S. military. Go and talk.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the peace movement and how it is portrayed? For example, February 15, right before the invasion, 2003, massive protest around the world, millions of people protesting — tens of millions. How was it portrayed?

STEVE TATHAM: How was it portrayed where?

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel it was portrayed by the media? Do you think it was given the weight that it should have been?

STEVE TATHAM: I can only recall the British media coverage, what little I saw of it. Quite frankly, we were flat out planning for a war. We don’t get to watch much TV. But I do recall that it was very prominently covered here in the United Kingdom across all the networks and the newspapers. And that, of course, had an effect on people out there who thought very carefully about what was going on. And that had an effect on what — the way we communicated with our people, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it shape it? How does the antiwar movement affect the military, you as an insider and the people you work with?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, because — it’s very easy. The military is the same as — we’re just a microcosm of society. We come from the same environments. And so, if your mom and dad or brother or sister, or whoever it is, happens to be marching, and you happen to be sitting in a trench in Kuwait, waiting to go into Iraq, that’s going to have a fairly substantial effect on your thoughts.

AMY GOODMAN: The Jessica Lynch story, the lie that was put out about her, the private who was being treated in an Iraqi hospital at a time when the U.S. military was — you could describe — in a quagmire, and what was conveyed at the time, and what was learned afterwards, that she was saved by U.S. troops, as opposed to what turned out the doctors trying to get her in an ambulance to the U.S. military and being shot at and having to turn around. What were your thoughts?

STEVE TATHAM: At the time, I don’t even remember it happening. I mean, we were so busy with other things. Retrospectively, you can look back with the benefit of hindsight, say, “Well, that was a strange way of doing business.” But I don’t really have any other thoughts than that really.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the U.S. military controlled the media well?

STEVE TATHAM: Does that presume that the U.S. military sought to control the media? I think a better question, if I may be so presumptuous, is to say, did the U.S. military work well with the world’s media? And I think there were good moments and there were bad moments, but there were rather too many bad than good moments.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you proud of your participation in the invasion of Iraq?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, as I say in my book, with the benefit on hindsight and a year spent at the university studying it thoroughly, it has become a difficult issue for me, personally. I’m much prouder of my involvement in the Sierra Leone conflict, for example, and I say that quite clearly in the book. Everybody must make their own decision on the knowledge that’s available to them.

AMY GOODMAN: And in terms of the invasion, the naming of it by the Pentagon, Operation Iraqi Freedom, did the British military refer to it the same way?

STEVE TATHAM: No, but we’ve always had a different policy in the way we name operations. The American military has always had a very descriptive name for military operations. We randomly generate words, so our term was Operation Telic. The war was Operation Telic I, and as we go through successive phases, stabilization, peacekeeping, and so on, it’s Telic II, Telic III, etc.

AMY GOODMAN: What does Telic mean?

STEVE TATHAM: I have no idea. It’s a randomly generated name. Operations in Sierra Leone, we called Operation Palliser. I’m not sure I know what a palliser was. It’s just a different way of doing business.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised the extent to which U.S. media referred to it as Operation Iraqi Freedom, not just FOX, MSNBC, NBC, CNN?

STEVE TATHAM: Well, not particularly, because that was the name that the U.S. military prescribed to the operation, so I’m not quite sure how else they would refer to it. The British media also used the word Operation Telic and said British forces were involved in Telic. So, I think they were being reasonably accurate, because they were using the same name as the military were describing it. Of course, Operation Iraqi Freedom is perhaps a slightly more pejorative or descriptive term, depending on your point of view, than the rather strange word, Operation Telic.

AMY GOODMAN: British Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham, former British Navy spokesperson during the Iraq invasion. His book is “Losing Arab Hearts and Minds: The Coalition, Al Jazeera and Muslim Public Opinion.” His website is www.stevetatham.net. Our website is Democracynow.org. Special thanks to Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Elizabeth Press, Denis Moynihan and Frank Lopez. I’m Amy Goodman.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Up Next

“Uncommitted”: Over 100,000 Cast Protest Vote Against Biden’s Gaza Policy in Michigan Primary

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation