A trip to Spain has made
me think a lot about the Spanish civil war and news reporting, and especially the bombing of Gernika in 1937 by German and Italian aircraft on behalf of the rebel military, in which hundreds of civilians were killed. The incident was rapidly reported, in particular by Times correspondent George Steer. It is a classic case study for war reporting. Several books cover it in detail. Some issues that it raises:
1. Coverage. The civil war and in particular the northern theatre was regarded as a news priority by British media. The Times, Express and Reuters all had correspondents on the ground; they were having dinner together in Bilbao when they heard the news, and drove to Gernika immediately. French and US media had less coverage and relied on syndication, pickups of other stories or more distant correspondents. What makes media cover something (or not)? Economics? Audience? Story?
2. Reporting. There was good detailed reporting from Steer and others. The correspondents were present and quickly. Steer want back the following day and his report reflects that in its detail and focus. It is worth reading in full. What makes for good, readable, immediate coverage? Why is the person on the spot so crucial? What will replace them?
3. Editorial judgement. There was pressure on the Times editor – which was resisted – to tone down, censor or remove coverage. Dawson was very much inclined towards appeasement but on this he couldn’t be moved. What makes editors act independently? What supports this and what doesn’t?
4. Fog of war. There were other incorrect reports, and use of the incident for propaganda. These muddied the waters and helped critics use misreporting to deny the incident. How do you deal with incorrect reports, especially when it isn’t easy to verify them? Does it matter if some early details were wrong? Does correcting them undermine the story?
5. Response. The response of the (Francoist) rebel military was direct denial of the attack. They claimed the republicans had done it themselves. This story still has credence in some circles. How do governments react to atrocities and humanitarian scandals? How can people stand up against this?
6. Impact. The news coverage had great popular results. It spread to all media and was a spark to wider anger about the fascists and the war. What makes a story like this work? Victims? Nature of atrocity? Immediacy and reporting?
7. Channels of distribution. “Follows” and syndication led to wider dissemination Of the story. In particular, Steer’s report went to the New York Times and to L’Humanite in Paris, the communist paper. How do stories get to readers/viewers? Are there more or fewer channels now? More or less noise?
8. “Memes“. Picasso read l’Humanite and it inspired him to paint the atrocity as part of an existing contract with the Spanish government. It thus triggered a much wider critical conversation. What makes a story part of a wider discussion? Why did this one work? Pure coincidence?
9. Objectivity. Steer had direct conversations with the Basque government and was clearly aligned with them personally. He also had direct conversations with policymakers in London. Later in his career he worked for British military intelligence in an early form of psyops. But was his reporting nonetheless objective? Is objectivity the same as neutrality?
10. Intervention. There was no decisive intervention in favour of the Spanish Republican government despite the reporting. Britain, France and the US had grave doubts about the Republicans and there was sympathy for the fascists in conservtive and Catholic circles. Under what circumstances does reporting of an atrocity in a civil conflict lead to external intervention? When doesn’t it?
Several books on this; and several academic studies. Other questions that could be asked. But: comments? Questions? Suggestions? I am going to produce a longer version of this.