Journalists must always fight spin – by Robert Fisk

THE INDEPENDENT, Monday, January 17, 2000

Journalists must always fight spin

What is it about defence correspondents that they so often come across as mouthpieces for crude military propaganda?’ 

By Robert Fisk 

WHO COULD possibly be surprised by reports that Mark Laity, the BBC’s defence correspondent, has been offered the job of second-in-command to Nato’s spokesman James Shea? “I did not feel that Jamie Shea lied to me at all,” Laity announced. This is said after a war in which Nato told fibs about its attacks on refugee convoys, bombing the centre of Pristina, hitting a hospital in Surdulica, the number of Serb tanks destroyed and – awesomely – refused to answer a UN commission’s questions about the use of depleted uranium munitions in the Kosovo bombardment. 

But what is it about defence correspondents that they so often come across as mouthpieces for the crudest military propaganda? It is certainly nothing new. Back in the First World War, correspondents dutifully reported on the German crucifixion of babies on church doors and the cheerful Tommy taking the slaughter on the Somme in his stride. 

Jamie Shea, in fact, wrote his PhD on British propaganda in the First World War. It shows. Nato ran its propaganda campaign out of Brussels as a populist bandwagon in which Shea quoted Shakespeare – “uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” – to illustrate Slobodan Milosevic’s problems, and then called the Serbian leader Al Capone. As this cheerful theatre was staged, the defence correspondents who gathered for the daily briefings were putty in his hands. The Serbs were committing war crimes, atrocities – and indeed they were – so who would dare to criticise Nato? 

Laity is, in fact, a personable sort of chap, his constant and confident appearances from Brussels a soothing balm to the BBC’s viewers who wondered – reading their more critical newspapers – if something might just be amiss in a Nato bombing campaign that began with barracks and then spread promiscuously to bridges, a train, railway lines, factories, refugee convoys, hospitals, and even the occasional Serb tank. So, when Nato slaughtered dozens of Albanian refugees in the first of its massive “mistakes”, Laity knew where his judgement lay. 

Shea urged journalists to hold their fire, not to accuse Nato of killing the refugees until he could produce an explanation. He had no problems with Laity. “I took, right from early on, that there was a propaganda war here,” Laity was to admit later. “And my judgement was that the Serbs were quite capable of deliberately misleading; we knew – and subsequent events proved beyond doubt – that the Serbs were killing a lot of Albanians. Deliberately. So if they killed Albanians deliberately andcould blame it on Nato as well, it’s a kind of ‘double whammy’. So what I wanted people to do was pause.” 

Only after journalists taken by the Serbs down to Kosovo, and the evidence they unearthed – The Independent carried the computer codings from bomb parts at the scene – proved that Nato was responsible, did Shea produce the commander of the US jets that bombed the convoy. For the most part, our colleagues in Brussels were fed the Nato line and parroted it over the air. “They [Nato] are very confident that they attacked a military convoy,” Laity initially reported. Note the language. He didn’t report that Nato “say” they are confident. Their confidence was treated as fact – exactly Shea’s line. 

We can understand the problems of defence correspondents, especially if they work for the BBC. They don’t want to lose their contacts. “These were good people I was speaking to, not PRs,” Laity would later say about his sources. If journalists became unduly sceptical, they might be regarded as off-side, cynical, even unpatriotic. Nothing new here. I can still recall how a plethora of defence corrs attempted to justify the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972 by repeating the British Army’s lies. In the 1992 Gulf War, it was the same. 

The BBC World Service gradually bleached out any critical comment from its coverage of the Gulf. I recall coming across a British Army medical convoy, sent off to the Kuwaiti border without maps, about to cross into occupied Iraqi territory. A bunch of US special forces, a French photographer and myself came across them as they actually tried to negotiate their way through the Saudi frontier station at Khafji, their commander – from Armagh in Northern Ireland – pleading to use my map because he had none. 

When I reported this, the BBC chose not to interview me. Instead, two reporters went on air to disparage the report. “Anecdotal”, they called it. One of them was Mark Laity. Maybe that’s a defence correspondent’s job: to put the army’s point of view. Which is why – cruelly, I’m afraid, but truthfully – I referred in this newspaper to Laity’s Kosovo performance as that of “a sheep in sheep’s clothing”. I haven’t changed my view. The defence correspondents failed to challenge Shea about the use of depleted uranium shells, the civilians killed at Surdulica hospital in which Serb soldiers were hiding, the eyewitness reports that the Nato pilot who rocketed the Yugoslav train at Gurdulice returned for a second attack, and Nato’s critical demand to the Serbs to allow alliance troops to move throughout Yugoslavia – which was simply abandoned at the end of the Kosovo war. No Brussels reporter asked what protection Nato intended to give the Serb minority in Kosovo, post-war. In the event, most were “cleansed” by the Albanians before the eyes of Nato. 

ITV reporters showed far more gumption. Anyone who watched Jonathan Dimbleby’s superb LWT dispatch last night – Inside Kosovo – can see what TV reporting should be about. His coverage of the Serb evictions, the KLA intimidation of their own people, and the inability of Nato to impose order was a model. 

Dimbleby, along with Keith Graves of Sky and others, may be wolves in wolves clothing, but they are doing their job. Not so others among our colleagues during the war. Take that train, seen speeding into the bomber’s sights at Gurdulice, too late for him to abort the strike. Going a bit fast wasn’t it, for an electric train rumbling across a viaduct over a river gorge? It looked like it was moving – on the video Shea showed the defence boys – at Eurostar velocity. Now, it turns out, Nato notched the film up to three times the real speed. The Brussels reporters didn’t spot it. They trusted Nato. They thought Nato never lied. 

On 30 August last year, scarcely two months after the Kosovo war ended, television journalists met in Edinburgh to debate their coverage. There were a few “mea culpas” and a lot of back-slapping – the TV boys are not made of modesty – and whenI suggested that the Nato coverage had been on the level of a boy’s military magazine, there was much shaking of heads. Laity referred to my criticism as “ranting” – I had repeated the “sheep” description – and tried to justify Nato’s war by comparing the number of “mistakes” to “successful” strikes – a ratio, I recall, that supposedly came out as around one in a thousand. At one point, Laity revealed that in the later stages of the war, Nato had made a tactical decision to stop apologising for its killing of civilians in Yugoslavia. It was the first I had heard of this. Why were we not told this at the time? 

But it’s not Laity I’m against. It’s the culture of the defence correspondents’ profession – as if their raison d’être is to give the military side of the argument rather than challenge the powerful generals on a subject on which they, the correspondents, are supposed to be experts. Defence correspondents work hard. Laity, I recall, said he’d made more than 800 broadcasts from Nato headquarters during the bombardment – he probably made far more in Brussels, and at little cost, of course, to his employers. But then, with a big smile, Laity added humourously: “I was easy – I was cheap.” 

Reports of Laity’s job offer from Nato say that he’s still negotiating a higher figure than the £100,000 thought to be on offer. Easy perhaps. But certainly not cheap.