The Press and the Persian Gulf Crisis: The Canadian Angle

Ann L. Hibbard (University of Windsor)

T.A. Keenleyside (University of Windsor)

Introduction In times of international crisis, it is characteristic of societies to fall in behind their governments and leaders, and for their peoples to adhere, in effect, to the old adage "my country right or wrong." In such circumstances, it is also not unusual for the media of states, whatever their private reservations, to lend broad support to the policies of their governments and thus play a role in building societal support for whatever measures their governments opt to take to resolve the crisis.

With respect to the United States, the Persian Gulf crisis in the latter half of 1990 fit this traditional pattern. The American public, influenced by its media, which obligingly reported the crisis (and the ensuing war) essentially the way the administration wished, gave its overwhelming support to the White House for the use of military means to dislodge Iraq from Kuwait. The same was not, however, the case in Canada. Here, in an interesting instance of resistance to the pull of the American media, the Canadian public was somewhat divided on the wisdom of military action against Saddam Hussein and largely opposed to a direct Canadian involvement in any such initiative.

It is the thesis of this study that this difference in public attitudes in Canada may have been due at least in part to more objective media coverage of the Gulf crisis in this country than in the United States and to the tendency for the print media in evaluative articles to express on balance a bias against military intervention as early as January 15, 1991, and especially to Canadian involvement in a combat role. It is further contended that this absence of societal support for Canadian participation in war against Iraq may have acted as a constraint on the Mulroney government's willingness to commit troops to the armed forces amassed against Saddam Hussein. In all, 3,700 Canadians participated in a coalition force of over 500,000, and no ground forces were assigned to Operation Desert Storm, arguably the acid test of full and unreserved support for this U.S.-led enterprise. Admittedly, the principal constraint on a more substantial level of Canadian military commitment was the limited capability of Canada's armed forces. Still, a larger air and modest ground role were not beyond the realm of possibility, and, given the Mulroney government's inclination to follow the lead of the United States on most foreign policy issues, a more significant contribution might well have been contemplated, were it not for the effect that might have had on a public unenthusiastic about the involvement of Canadian personnel in a military solution.

At the outset, it is important to establish empirically that public opinion in Canada and the United States did, in fact, differ over the critical period leading up to the launching of Operation Desert Storm, that is, during that period in which it was possible for domestic factors to have some impact in shaping the responses of governments to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. In fact, in the early stages of the crisis, when economic sanctions were first imposed and forces (including three Canadian naval vessels) were despatched to help enforce them, Canadian and American public attitudes were similar in nature and supportive of the action taken. For instance, in September 1990, an Angus Reid poll showed that 69% of Canadians favoured the government's decision to send forces to the Gulf in support of sanctions, while a Gallup poll in the United States in August disclosed that 68% of Americans supported the government's decision to move U.S. naval vessels to the Gulf as a show of force and 80% supported the despatch of troops to Saudi Arabia as a defence against an Iraqi assault.

By December, however, with the UN Security Council having authorized member states to "use all necessary means" to force Iraq out of Kuwait unless it ended its occupation by January 15, 1991, and with both Canada and the United States having committed more forces to the Gulf, opinions started to diverge. A Gallup poll in Canada disclosed that only 36% of Canadians favoured Canadian armed forces going to war against Iraq, while 55% were opposed. By contrast, in the same month a Gallup poll in the United States reported 53% in favour and 40% opposed to going to war with Iraq if the situation did not change by the January 15 deadline. Thus, while American opinion was clearly sharply divided at this stage, support for war was, nevertheless, 17 percentage points higher than in Canada. By early January, the gap in public opinion between Canada and the United States had widened considerably. The Gallup reported little change in attitudes in Canada, with 37% in favour and 56% against Canadian involvement in war against Iraq, while in the United States 62% supported and 33% opposed the U.S. and its allies going to war if the deadline passed without a resolution of the dispute. Thus, on the eve of the conflict, U.S. support for involvement in a military offensive was 25 percentage points higher than in Canada and opposition 23 points lower.

Finally, immediately after the outbreak of the war, polls in the two countries showed similar levels of support for the U.S. decision to take military action against Iraq (73% in Canada to 79% in the United States). However, Canadians remained strongly opposed to direct Canadian participation in the conflict with 62% rejecting the idea and only 36% in favour. Accordingly, the level of support of the American public for U.S. involvement in the war against Iraq was by this time 43 percentage points higher than the level of Canadian support for direct participation, and the level of U.S. opposition (at 15%) 47 points lower. In sum, the polling data disclose a markedly different climate of opinion in Canada vis-à-vis that in the United States, a distinction which this study attributes at least in part to media coverage of the Gulf crisis in Canada that varied significantly in character from that in the United States.

While there have been several non-quantitative studies of Canadian media treatment of the Persian Gulf crisis and war (Greenwood, 1991; Smith, 1991; White, 1991; Winter, 1991, 1992) prior to this one, empirical analysis was confined to the works of Miljan (1991, 1992) and Kirton (1991) and systematic treatment of the press simply to Kirton's examination of editorials during eight important moments of decision. Thus, a more comprehensive exploration of Canadian press coverage seemed called for, and especially one of the relatively neglected period prior to the outbreak of war. These weeks were particularly critical, in that if the media were to exert any influence at all on the shaping of government policy on the issue of military involvement, it had to occur at this time, since once the war commenced, government had to act immediately with little or no opportunity for further canvassing of media and public opinion. Further, it is arguable that during this period, before the public became mesmerized by television's (especially CNN's) coverage of the high tech war itself, the press's contribution to shaping societal perceptions of the crisis was important (even if, as is usually the case, it was less dominant), since the press "covered a much wider array of topics than was available on television" (Rowse, 1991, p. 27) and offered much more "complete interpretations of events and stronger advocacy of particular positions" (Shaw & Carr-Hill, 1992, p. 154).

For this study, the content of six Canadian newspapers was analyzed during the most critical stages of the Persian Gulf crisis: The Globe and Mail (Toronto), The Chronicle-Herald (Halifax), Le Devoir (Montreal), The Toronto Star, the Sun (Vancouver), and the Winnipeg Free Press. These papers were selected on the basis of their status as elite national (The Globe and Mail for English-speaking Canada and Le Devoir for French-speaking Canada) or regional newspapers. Two time periods were examined. The first was the two weeks before and two weeks after the passage of UN Security Council resolution 678, co-sponsored by Canada, which authorized member states to "use all necessary means" to force Iraq out of Kuwait unless it ended its occupation by January 15, 1991. The second was the two-week period prior to the decision of the Canadian cabinet to authorize Canadian troops to participate at an offensive level in Operation Desert Storm. Each of the above six newspapers was sampled every third day from November 15 to December 11 and from January 2 until January 14, and all items identified as related to the Gulf crisis were coded under several categories of analysis. Particular attention was given to the orientation of press items as favourable, unfavourable, mixed, or neutral towards the "use of force" resolution and towards participation in a military offensive against Iraq if it did not comply with that resolution.


Over the 15 days sampled from mid-November to mid-January, altogether, 525 items appeared on the Gulf crisis, an average of 5.8 stories per newspaper issue. With the exception of Le Devoir (consumed at this time with the defeat of the Meech Lake Constitutional Accord and the Oka crisis) which averaged only 2.8 Gulf-related items per issue, the degree of coverage can certainly be described as extensive. It was also substantial in terms of the length of the articles, as 81.9% of them were either of medium length (6 to 15 paragraphs) or long (16 or more). It is also noteworthy that the news reported by the six newspapers was derived predominantly from Canadian sources. Some 65.5% of items emanated in whole or in part from the local staffs of the papers, Canadian Press or other Canadian outlets. Thus, with two thirds of the items relying, at least in part, on Canadian sources, readers of the six newspapers tended very largely to see the crisis through Canadian eyes; this is in contrast to the findings of many earlier studies of Canadian press coverage of international affairs.

Of the 525 cases, 378 or 72% dealt at least in part with one or other or both of the key issues of the "use of force" resolution and participation in a military offensive against Iraq in general terms and/or with respect to Canada specifically. Table 1 examines the orientation of these items in the context of these two main themes.

What is immediately striking is that the Canadian print media was not very favourable to the "use of force" resolution, nor to the possibility of a military offensive against Iraq. Out of the 145 items pertaining to the former, 61 or 42% were either unfavourable or mixed regarding this issue, while with respect to the latter, 138 or 43.7% fell into these two categories. Right away, it is thus clear that the Canadian press did not play the type of "cheerleader" role that American studies suggest was the case with the U.S. media in building up public support for a war against Iraq.

Table 1 Orientation of All Content (Unit of Analysis = Press Item) (N = 378)
Orientation "Use of Force" Res. Partic. Mil. Offensive
Favourable 27 (18.6%) 41 (13.0%)
Unfavourable 35 (24.1%) 80 (25.3%)
Mixed 26 (17.9%) 58 (18.4%)
Neutral 57 (39.3%) 137 (43.4%)
Total 145 (99.9%) 316 (100.1%)
Many items dealt with both issues. Numbers do not total to 100% due to rounding.

Turning to different components of the Canadian press, Table 2 examines the orientation of the 260 hard news items that dealt with the use of force resolution and participation in a military offensive.

Table 2 Orientation of Hard News Items (N = 260)
Orientation "Use of Force" Res. Partic. Mil. Offensive
Favourable 20 (19.2%) 26 (12.5%)
Unfavourable 14 (13.5%) 24 (11.5%)
Mixed 17 (16.3%) 31 (14.9%)
Neutral 53 (51.0%) 127 (61.1%)
Total 104 (100.0%) 208 (100.0%)
Many items dealt with both issues.

In view of the fact that reputable newspapers attempt to provide relatively balanced treatment in their straight news stories, not surprisingly, Table 2 discloses that a high percentage of hard news items were coded neutral or mixed for both issues. Stories exhibiting a favourable or unfavourable slant towards the "use of force" resolution and participation in a military offensive were relatively evenly divided between these two orientations, with a modest leaning towards the former.

With respect to hard news items dealing specifically with Canadian involvement in the two issues, 30 items discussed the "use of force resolution" in a Canadian context and 69 Canadian involvement in a military offensive. Only 20% of the items dealing with the first issue were favourable to the "use of force" resolution and 16.7% were unfavourable. On the issue of Canadian participation in a military offensive, the percentage of favourable items dropped to 11.6%, and the unfavourable category increased to 20.3%.

In sum, the tendency was for most hard news stories in the Canadian press to be neutral in character and for the remainder to be fairly evenly distributed amongst the categories of favourable, unfavourable, and mixed. However, coverage related specifically to Canada's position on the "use of force" resolution and especially to Canadian involvement in a military offensive tended to be more unfavourable than that which simply dealt with the two issues in general terms. Thus, it is clear that in its hard news coverage, the Canadian press, at least as reflected in the six newspapers analyzed, did not play a pliant role in support of an aggressive Canadian posture in the Gulf.

This is a significant finding because the press in this crisis situation might well have given significantly greater play to views supportive of the two issues examined than to unfavourable opinion. There were, after all, virtually daily important statements emanating from governmental sources related to the Gulf crisis which the media would have been negligent in their duty not to have covered. Thus, even a fair and objective reporting of developments might in reality have entailed a bias, albeit inadvertent, towards the "official" point of view, colouring public attitudes accordingly. That this does not appear to have occurred in the case of the newspapers examined would seem to be a tribute to their editors' efforts to overcome the "pro-war" bias that likely existed in the copy reaching their newsrooms.

Turning to those sections of the papers that provided contextual background and evaluative comment related to developments during the Persian Gulf crisis, the sample yielded 21 editorials. Of these, 10 dealt with the "use of force" resolution and 17 with the issue of participation in a war. While three of the editorials related to the former subject were favourable and only two negative, an additional five were mixed in character, reflecting a hesitancy on the part of newspapers to give their full endorsement to the notion of setting a deadline for an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait after which force might be employed. It is noteworthy that when editorials turned their attention specifically to discussing actual participation in a military offensive against Iraq, enthusiasm waned still further. Fifteen of the 17 editorials which discussed this topic were either opposed to or offered mixed opinions on going to war. The Winnipeg Free Press (on November 30) was, in fact, the only paper to offer favourable editorial comment regarding the launching of a military offensive, but, as the January 15 deadline approached, even it warned that that date was too early to resort to force and argued for the continuation of the economic blockade. The desirability of extending the period of economic sanctions was the principal argument that other papers gave for opposing the launching of a military offensive and especially one entailing Canadian participation.

In sum, editorial comment in the six newspapers did not by any means give carte-blanche approval to the UN "use of force" resolution nor to participation in a military offensive, the more so if Canada itself were to be involved.

With regard to the 55 features and columns in the sample, once again, negative commentary on the two critical issues was much more prevalent than positive--by a margin of roughly 30 percentage points in both cases. On the subject of the "use of force" resolution, 50% of features and columns were unfavourable, 13.6% mixed in tenor, and only 18.2% favourable, while in their commentary on the appropriateness of launching a war against Iraq, 44.7% were unfavourable, 27.7% mixed, and only 14.9% favourable.

In terms of features and columns which dealt specifically, at least in part, with Canadian participation in both the "use of force" resolution and in a military offensive, as with the editorials, they were decidedly negative. For both issues, almost 50% of the pertinent items commented unfavourably and only 15% favourably on Canadian involvement.

In sum, features and columns in the six newspapers, like editorials, did not strongly rally behind the government's decision to support the "use of force" resolution nor around participation in a military offensive.10

With respect to letters to the editor, that portion of the press coverage that reflected the voice of Canadian public opinion as it appeared in the six newspapers, only nine of the 35 letters in the sample dealt with the "use of force resolution"; eight of these exhibited unfavourable attitudes towards it, while one was neutral. The issue of participation in a military offensive garnered much more attention from Canadians writing to their newspapers, with all but one of the letters dealing at least in part with this subject. Of the 34 letters that discussed the issue of going to war against Iraq, 25 or 73.5% were opposed to such action. Of the remainder, only four were favourable (11.8% of the total), three mixed (8.8%), and two neutral (5.9%). There was a much greater tendency to look at the Gulf crisis from a Canadian angle in letters to the editor than in other sections of the newspapers. Six or 66.6% of the letters dealing with the "use of force" resolution and 21 or 61.8% of those that discussed participation in a military offensive did so at least in part from a Canadian perspective. Further, most of those which dealt with Canadian policy expressed negative views on Canada's support for UN Security Council resolution 678 and on the question of Canadian involvement in military action against Iraq. For the first issue the figure was 83.3%, and for the latter 76.2%.

In sum, the letters to the editor in the sample were even more negatively disposed towards the two issues examined than were the items that appeared in other sections of the six newspapers.

Table 3 displays the origins and orientations of statements emanating from various sources (Canadian, U.S., and other) that appeared in hard news items related to the two issues explored in this study. Included in the "other" category are coalition governments beyond Canada and the U.S., non-coalition governments, and intergovernmental organizations. As this table indicates, the Canadian press reported relatively similar numbers of statements from Canadian, American, and other sources (116, 111, and 98 respectively). However, there were distinct differences in the frequency of favourable and unfavourable statements of Canadian origin compared to those from American and other sources.

Table 3 Origins and Orientations of Hard News Statements
Orientation Canadian American Other
Favourable 33 (28.4%) 63 (56.8%) 44 (44.9%)
Unfavourable 51 (44.0%) 9 (8.1%) 15 (15.3%)
Mixed 17 (14.7%) 14 (12.6%) 16 (16.3%)
Neutral 15 (12.9%) 25 (22.5%) 23 (23.5%)
Total 116 (100.0%) 111 (100.0%) 98 (100.0%)

While only 28.4% of quotations attributable to Canadian sources were favourable, 56.8% of American, and 44.9% of other statements fell into this category. By contrast, 44% of observations by Canadians reported in the newspapers were unfavourable compared to only 8.1% by Americans and 15.3% by others. Given the relatively high reliance of the Canadian newspapers on non-Canadian comments regarding the "use of force" resolution and the appropriateness of participation in a war against Iraq, overall, favourable statements on the two issues outnumbered unfavourable ones by a margin of almost two to one (140 to 75). While the Canadian press thus tended to give greater play to "pro-war" than "anti-war" quotations, its reportage of unfavourable Canadian observations was important in providing readers with a different view of the desirability of going to war and a perspective which presumably was not readily available to Americans.

The frequency of unfavourable statements from Canadian sources was due to the press's liberal reporting of the views of opposition members of parliament, interest groups, and individual elites. Collectively, they accounted for 54.3% of the Canadian statements. All 36 attributable to opposition members of parliament were unfavourable on the two issues while 15 (55.6%) of the 27 observations by other Canadian sources were similarly negative. By contrast, government statements accounted for 90.0% of all favourable commentary in the press from Canadian sources. While there were no government quotations that were unfavourable towards either of the two issues, nevertheless, 12 out of the total of 53 (22.6%) were coded as mixed and 11 (20.8%) as neutral.11

By contrast with the coverage of Canadian statements, 90 or 81.1% of those originating from American sources were by government officials, principally the President and the Secretary of State, and these accounted for 93.7% of all favourable comments from American sources. Of U.S. government statements, 65.6% were favourable regarding the two issues, 7.8% were mixed, 26.6% neutral, and none unfavourable. Little space was devoted by the Canadian press to minority party perspectives. They accounted for only eight or 7.2% of the total number of U.S. statements. Five were coded as unfavourable and three as mixed. "Other" American sources were likewise neglected as there were only 13 such observations, 11.7% of the total. These were evenly divided among favourable, unfavourable, and mixed, with one neutral statement.

Of the 98 statements originating from non-Canadian and non-American sources, 57 or 58.2% were from governments of other states that, in the end, participated in the coalition of forces that went to war against Iraq,12 and they accounted for 84.1% of all positive observations from non-Canadian and non-American sources.

While non-coalition sources were somewhat underrepresented in this "other" category, nevertheless, they did account altogether for 41.8% of these statements. Further, it is noteworthy that overall the Canadian newspapers gave almost as much attention to "other" statements as they did to observations emanating from Canadian and American sources. It seems reasonable to speculate that the Canadian press was probably more balanced in this regard than was the American media. Conclusion This study has demonstrated that during the build-up to the Persian Gulf War of 1991, the Canadian press did not act as a pliant tool of the government, preparing the public to support an early resort to war in the way in which studies have indicated the American media did. In particular, the broadly neutral character of the hard news coverage, the frequency of unfavourable and mixed statements in these stories from Canadian non-governmental sources and the tendency towards an "anti-war" posture in editorials, features, columns, and letters served to ensure that the government did not receive from the press carte-blanche approval for a militarily aggressive policy in the Persian Gulf. For the same reasons, readers were not manipulated into offering their support to the government for a war against Iraq.

The public opinion polling data reported in this study demonstrate that Canadians were considerably less supportive of going to war against Iraq than were Americans. It is possible that this was due at least in part to the different nature of the Canadian media's coverage of the Persian Gulf crisis vis-à-vis the American media. It is also possible that negative public opinion, encouraged by the nature of Canadian media coverage, was a factor inhibiting Canada from making a more substantial contribution to Operation Desert Storm than it did. On January 11, 1991, the government did expand its commitment to the Gulf somewhat, by sending an additional squadron of CF-18 fighter jets, an air tanker, and some air service personnel. However, it never committed ground troops, the ultimate test of its support for the United States and the other coalition partners. Clearly, Canada's limited military capability was the principal factor constraining its contribution. Nevertheless, the impact of the cautious view of the public (nurtured perhaps by the press) regarding the desirability of an expanded military involvement cannot be discounted. Indeed, according to Charlotte Gray, an official at External Affairs acknowledged to her that "public opinion had a significant impact" on ministers' thinking and thus in shaping Canadian policy (Gray, 1991, p. 8). With society not clearly on side and likely to turn strongly against the government if stepped-up involvement led to a significant level of casualties, the prudent thing for Ottawa to do was to keep its role in the Gulf to a modest level.

The case of the Persian Gulf crisis thus seems to be a heartening example of the capacity of the Canadian public, aided by its media, to resist the powerful attraction of attitudes and perspectives from south of the border. The explanation for this independence of thought would seem to rest in differences in political culture between Canada and the United States. This country's less militaristic history; its penchant for compromise in contrast to America's seeking of unambiguous solutions, its greater patience (and hence readiness to give sanctions time to work), and its preference for peacekeeping over peace enforcement were doubtless all at work in shaping press and public attitudes in Canada distinctly different from those in the United States. In an era of perpetual self-doubt in Canada, it is encouraging to be reminded that this country, its media, and its people are, indeed, different.


The literature arguing that the U.S. media exhibited a pro-war bias and were, in effect, manipulated by the government is quite extensive. See, in particular: Gottschalk, 1992; Hiebert, 1991; Kellner, 1992; Lee & Devitt, 1991; MacArthur, 1992; McMasters, 1991; Rowse, 1991; Smith, 1992.
The above data have been derived from various polls reported in the Gallup Report in Canada, the Canadian press, and the Gallup Report Monthly in the United States.
Interestingly, there was as well widespread parliamentary opposition to Canadian involvement in the Gulf War and not only amongst Liberal and NDP opposition M.P.'s. Eight Progressive Conservative backbenchers broke party ranks to criticize the government's decision to allow Canadian military units to participate in Operation Desert Storm.
Since not all the newspapers selected for this study had Sunday editions, any coding date that fell on a Sunday was moved forward one day if an even number date and back one day if an odd number. Since Le Devoir did not publish on the coding date of January 2, the January 3 issue was analyzed instead on the assumption that issue would have reflected the news that was reported in the other newspapers on January 2.
For each relevant press item, a codesheet was used to record data pertinent to type and source of content, length of item, issues covered, overall orientation of the item, and origins and orientations of statements attributed to American, Canadian, and other official sources, as well as to non-governmental ones. All coding was conducted by the two authors and overall intercoder reliability was calculated at 86%. For the coding of the orientation of items, it was 89%.
See, inter alia, Scanlon, 1967, 1974.
Constraints of space have inhibited the inclusion of quotations that would illustrate how coding decisions were made with respect to the orientation of items vis-à-vis the two issues analyzed. However, the following is a passage from a column in The Globe and Mail by Jeffrey Simpson on January 11 that led it to be coded as favourable towards the two issues: "War, of course, would bring considerable pain to all parties, and inevitably some nasty, even tragic surprises, for that is the nature of war. Yet, if Iraq refuses to abide by the United Nations resolutions, war is the only realistic method of securing compliance with the dictates of international order, preventing one Middle Eastern power from dominating the region, and ensuring the credibility of the first post-Cold War test of collective security." The following is a quotation from an editorial in Le Devoir on November 30 that led the item to be coded as unfavourable towards participation in a military offensive: "Allons-nous vers la guerre? C'est possible, mais ce serait stupide de s'y résigner sans avoir épuisé tous les autres moyens. . . un conflit armé comportait trop de risques, trop d'inconnues--sans compter les difficultés pour l'alliance, encore embryonnaire, d'intervenir rapidement de manière concertée--et que d'autres stratégies pouvaient s'avérer efficaces, notamment l'embargo économique." Items coded as neutral were those that communicated simply factual material related to the Gulf crisis and did not include statements reflecting a clear point of view on the two issues. Mixed items, on the other hand, were those which did entail normative observations related to one or other or both issues, but where there were offsetting favourable and unfavourable comments or sufficient qualifications with respect to the particular viewpoint communicated that, overall, the likely impact of the item on the reader was not clear.
There were some interesting differences amongst the six papers in the orientation of their coverage, but, due to the constraints of space, this article focuses throughout on the data in aggregate. It needs to be said, however, that in no dimension of the analysis were the differences so great amongst the six papers as to affect the collective judgement offered here of the Canadian press's treatment of the Gulf crisis.
For the purposes of this study, hard news items were defined as those which were factual and descriptive in nature and appeared on the front pages, inside news pages, or as photographs alone without an accompanying news story. For the hard news items, only the orientation of the first 10 paragraphs was analyzed on the assumption that the impression conveyed by an item to the reader would come largely from the early character of the reportage.
Within the evaluative category, cartoons were also analyzed. Three were coded as favourably disposed towards a military offensive against Iraq, five as opposed, one as mixed, and one as neutral.
Prime Minister Mulroney's own statements so mirrored those of the United States government that they were referred to by one news bureau as "George Bush plus one hour" (Young, 1991, p. 2).
Although Israel was not a member of the coalition, statements coming from this country's government were included under this category as its views followed closely those of the United States and other coalition governments.


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