BROADCAST Weekly Magazine (Britain)
May 14, 1999
The War on TV
In its war against Yugoslavia, Nato has tried to silence all debate,
criticism and dissent. The most grotesque instance of this was the
bombing of the Serbian television building, killing an estimated 10
civilians and injuring dozens more. Prime Minister Tony Blair described
this as 'entirely justified'. The attack was allegedly carried out in
the name of Truth, since the station produces propaganda. The
image-conscious Blair explained that television is part of the
'apparatus' which keeps a political leader in power, so camera
operators, make-up ladies and janitors are therefore legitimate targets.
Perhaps Nato also hoped reports by Western journalists in Belgrade -
filed from the TV building until it was hit - would become collateral
damage. Certainly in Britain politicians have sought to stifle opinions
and facts they do not like, most conspicuously by portraying John
Simpson's reports as Serbian propaganda. What are they scared of?
First, they are worried by suggestions that the Serbian people are
united against Nato. Defence Secretary George Robertson argued
unconvincingly that if an opinion poll were conducted in Serbia it would
not show the united opposition Simpson had reported. Second, they are
uncomfortable about interviewers questioning the success of Nato
strategy. Development Secretary Claire Short, for example, did a bad
impersonation of the 'clever dick' questions asked by the likes of John
Humphries. Third, politicians have been rattled by reports of civilian
damage and death caused by Nato, which began to come out within the
first 24 hours of the bombing campaign and have continued steadily
'I only, as Nato spokesman, give out information when it is totally
accurate and confirmed', Jamie Shea told Channel Four News. In fact
Nato information has been about as accurate as its bombs - several of
which have landed outside Yugoslavia's borders. In this interview, Shea
was giving out the 'totally accurate and confirmed' information that two
Yugoslav pilots had been captured after their planes were shot down over
Bosnia while they were attempting to attack Nato peacekeepers there.
Nato later admitted no pilots had been captured and the MiG fighters did
not have ground attack capability. We have since been fed a string of
stories - that 20 schoolteachers were killed in front of their pupils,
that Pristina stadium was being used as a concentration camp, that the
paramilitary leader Arkan was in Kosovo, that President Slobodan
Milosevic's family had fled the country, that Kosovo Albanian leaders
had been executed - all of which turned out to be false.
Nato even lied about its intention to bomb Serbian television. We were
told people in Yugoslavia do not have access to the Western side of the
story - though in fact they do - and that airstrikes would follow unless
Serbian TV carried six hours a day of Western news programming. When
Belgrade offered to accept the six hours in exchange for six minutes of
Yugoslav news on Western networks, Nato backtracked, saying it had only
meant it would bomb transmitters also used for military communications.
Nato also explicitly assured the International Federation of Journalists
it would not target media workers. What are we to make of an
organisation which kills others because it says they are lying, but
consistently lies itself?
Hitting civilian targets has been the most sensitive issue for Nato.
The technique for stage-managing the release of such information is to
begin with a bare-faced lie, in the hope that the first headlines will
leave a lasting impression. This is followed by an admission of limited
culpability, designed to indicate Nato's honesty and openness whilst
continuing to imply the enemy is at least partly to blame. This
procedure was established over the damage caused to civilian areas of
Pristina, which Nato initially tried to pin on the Serbs. They then
admitted 'one bomb' may have been 'seduced off the target' - as if the
Serbs were willing reluctant Nato bombs to hit them. The same strategy
was adopted to explain the attack on the refugee convoy: the Serbs were
blamed, then Nato admitted to hitting one tractor.
British broadcasters have drawn some self-flattering comparisons,
suggesting that whilst Serbian TV is a propaganda machine, our news is
impartial and balanced. It is true that some has been, particularly
reporting by correspondents in Serbia able to see the results of Nato
bombardment. But back in the studio there is a tendency to stick
slavishly to the Nato line. When Simpson reported from the site of the
downed US Stealth aircraft, his colleagues in London insisted Nato had
not yet confirmed a plane had been shot down. Similarly, Sky's
presenter tried to question the credibility of a report by their
Belgrade correspondent Tim Marshall on the bombing of the refugee
convoy, even though Marshall maintained his sources were reliable.
Of course, even in London newsrooms there are honourable exceptions.
Channel Four's Alex Thompson introduced some Nato cockpit video footage
by remarking pointedly that it was 'impossible to verify
independently'. Yet his self-consciously even-handed use of this phrase
was striking precisely because it was a departure from the norm. Most
of the time, official briefings are faithfully reproduced complete with
pictures supplied by Nato and the Ministry of Defence, and the prepared
soundbites of politicians and military spokesmen are parroted by
journalists. For example, when it became clear that airstrikes were
precipitating a humanitarian crisis rather than achieving the stated
purpose of preventing one, Nato covered its embarrassment by saying it
needed to 'catch up'. This euphemistic description of intensified
bombing was dutifully repeated by Mark Laity, the BBC's man in Brussels,
on both the evening's bulletins.
The problems with the coverage run deeper than an insufficiently
questioning attitude toward official sources, however. Some journalists
have actively taken the part of Nato. When Robert Fisk's article in the
Independent contradicted the outlandish claim that the Serbs had bombed
Pristina themselves, one British television correspondent stood up at
the briefing in Brussels and urged his fellow reporters not to ask Nato
any awkward questions. Allegiances have been signalled in more subtle
ways too. Reports which take us on board planes flying missions over
Yugoslavia invite viewers to identify with Nato just as much as the
'bomb's eye view' cockpit video. Coming under fire with the Kosovo
Liberation Army inside Kosovo, Jonathan Charles spoke romantically of
'the men who dream of liberating Kosovo' as 'a symbol of hope for ethnic
Albanians', while Channel Five News offered a human-interest story about
the family of a Kosovo Albanian who had left Britain to join the KLA.
Many seem to have bought into the simplistic 'Good versus Evil' morality
with which politicians have framed the conflict, and have joined in with
Nato's demonisation of Milosevic and the Serbs. A Panorama special
exhorted Nato leaders to prosecute Milosevic for war crimes. Brian
Barron went to Montenegro in search of the 'grizzly details' of the
'troubled history' of the Milosevic 'clan'. Jeremy Paxman suggested a
programme of 'thoroughgoing imposed de-Nazification' for post-war
Serbia, echoing the view voiced by everyone from government ministers to
the Sun newspaper that the Serbs are the new Nazis.
The heavy-handed moralism has made it difficult to ask questions,
especially about the plight of refugees. Yet questions demand to be
asked: about the reasons for their flight, and the tales of atrocities
they bring with them. Judging from British news reports, these must be
the first airstrikes in history no-one has fled. Even when told they
had been bombed by Nato, survivors of the attack on the convoy blamed
the Serbs. This gives some indication of the reliability of refugees'
statements. From the viewpoint of ethnic Albanians who welcome Nato
action, such statements are understandable. But this does not explain
why Western reporters should accept them, nor why the hundreds of
thousands of Serbs displaced by Nato attacks are routinely ignored.
Rather than admitting they don't know what is happening inside Kosovo,
correspondents on the border repeat every horror story. The fact such
accounts are uncorroborated is countered by the mantra that refugees'
claims are 'consistent and credible', despite sometimes flimsy
evidence. The experience of Bosnia is cited as support for the tales of
'systematic mass rape', for example. Yet despite claims that more than
50,000 Muslim women were raped by Serbs in Bosnia, a 1993 United Nations
commission scaled down to 2,400 victims - including Serbs and Croats -
based on 119 documented cases.
No doubt civilians are being killed and terrorised from their homes by
Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, just as Serbian civilians are being killed
and terrorised by Nato bombing across Yugoslavia as a whole. That's
war. But the focus on atrocity stories obscures what little we do know
of what is happening: a military campaign against armed separatists.
Occasionally, this hidden story leaks through. Panorama repeatedly
mentioned attacks on 'KLA strongholds'. A Newsnight report on 'video
evidence of the killings of civilians' let slip that at least one of the
six 'civilians' was a KLA member and another a strong KLA supporter.
But it generally appears no KLA members are ever killed, and no-one is
killed by them.
Every war produces atrocity stories, and it is difficult to chart a
course through propaganda and rumour. A useful start would be to
discount the obviously ludicrous claims, such as the story of the 'mass
graves'. Nato asked us not only to accept a grainy aerial photograph as
evidence of atrocities, but also to believe that the Serbs forced ethnic
Albanians to dress up in orange uniforms and bury the dead in 'neat rows
of graves facing Mecca', in the words of Nato general Guiseppe Marani.
Presumably this too was 'totally accurate and confirmed'?
Philip Hammond is senior lecturer in media at South Bank University, and
worked as a consultant on BBC2's Counterblast: Against the War (4 May).
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