Philip Hammond on coverage of NATO bombing of Serbia

The Independent 6th April 1999

A war of words and pictures

Nato casts doubt on the veracity of Yugoslav war reporting, but is our own media any less guilty of propaganda? By Philip Hammond

It takes two sides to fight a propaganda war, yet critical commentary on the “war of words” has so far concentrated on the “tightly controlled” Yugoslav media. We have been shown clips from “Serb TV” and invited to scoff at their patriotic military montages, while British journalists cast doubt on every Yugoslav “claim”.

But whatever one thinks of the Yugoslav media they pale into insignificance alongside the propaganda offensive from Washington, Brussels and London.

“They tell lies about us, we will go on telling the truth about them,” says Defence Secretary George Robertson. Really? Nato told us the three captured US servicemen were United Nations peacekeepers. Not true. They told us they would show us two captured Yugoslav pilots who have never appeared. Then we had the story of the “executed” Albanian leaders – including Rambouillet negotiator Fehmi Agani – whose deaths are now unconfirmed.

When the Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, who was said to be in hiding, turned up on Yugoslav television condemning Nato bombing, the BBC contrived to insinuate that the pictures were faked, while others suggested Rugova must have been coerced, blackmailed, drugged, or at least misquoted.

They told us the paramilitary leader Arkan was in Kosovo, when he was appearing almost daily in Belgrade – and being interviewed by John Simpson there. They told us Pristina stadium had been turned into a concentration camp for 100,000 ethnic Albanians, when it was empty. Robertson posing for photographers in the cockpit of a Harrier can’t have been propaganda. Only the enemy goes in for that sort of thing.

Nato’s undeclared propaganda war is two-pronged. First, Nato has shamelessly sought to use the plight of Albanian refugees for its own purposes, cynically inflating the number of displaced people to more than twice the UN estimate.

Correspondents in the region are given star billing on BBC news, and are required not just to report but to share their feelings with us. As Peter Sissons asked Ben Brown in Macedonia: “Ben, what thoughts go through a reporter’s mind seeing these sights in the dying moments of the 20th century?”

Reports from the refugee centres are used as justifications for Nato strategy. The most striking example was the video footage smuggled out of Kosovo said to show “mass murder”. The BBC presented this as the “first evidence of alleged atrocities,”unwittingly acknowledging that the allies had been bombing for 10 days without any evidence.

Indeed, for days, the BBC had been inviting us to “imagine what may be happening to those left in Kosovo”. After watching the footage, Robin Cook apparently knew who had been killed, how they had died, and why. Above all, he knew that the video “underlines the need for military action”.

The second line of attack is to demonise Milosevic and the Serbs, in order to deflect worries that the tide of refugees has been at least partly caused, by Nato’s “humanitarian” bombing. Parts of Pristina have been flattened after being bombed every day for more than a week.
Wouldn’t you leave? And what about thousands of Serbian refugees from Kosovo – are they being “ethnically cleansed”, too? Sympathy does not extend to them, just as the 200,000 Serbian refugees from Krajina were ignored in 1995. Instead, the tabloids gloat “Serbs you right” as the missiles rain down.

The accusations levelled against the Serbs have escalated from “brutal repression” to “genocide”, “atrocities” and “crimes against humanity”, as Nato has sought to justify the bombing. Pointed parallels have been drawn with the Holocaust, yet no one seems to notice that putting people on a train to the border is not the same as putting them on a train to Auschwitz.

The media have taken their cue from politicians and left no cliche unturned in the drive to demonise Milosevic. The Yugoslav president has been described by the press as a “Warlord”, the “Butcher of Belgrade”, “the most evil dictator to emerge in Europe since Adolph Hitler”, a “Serb tyrant”, a “psychopathic tyrant” and a “former Communist hard-liner”.

The Mirror also noted significantly that he smokes the same cigars as Fidel Castro. Just as they did with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war, Panorama devoted a programme to “The Mind of Milosevic”.

Several commentators have voiced their unease about the Nato action from the beginning. But press and TV have generally been careful to keep the debate within parameters of acceptable discussion, while politicians have stepped up the demonisation of the Serbs to try to drown out dissenting voices. The result is a confusingly schizophrenic style of reporting.

The rules appear to be that one can criticise Nato for not intervening early enough, not hitting hard enough, or not sending ground troops. Pointing out that the Nato intervention has precipitated a far worse crisis than the one it was supposedly designed to solve or that dropping bombs kills people are borderline cases, best accompanied by stout support for “our boys”. What one must not do is question the motives for Nato going to war. Indeed, one is not even supposed to say that Nato is at war. Under image-conscious New Labour, actually going to war is fine, but using the term is not politically correct.

The limits of acceptable debate were revealed by the reaction to the broadcast by SNP leader Alex Salmond. Many of his criticisms of Nato strategy were little different from those already raised by others, but what provoked the Government’s outrage was that he dared to compare the Serbs under Nato bombardment to the British in the Blitz. Tony Blair denounced the broadcast as “totally unprincipled”, while Robin Cook called it “appalling”, “irresponsible” and “deeply offensive”.

The way Labour politicians have tried to sideline critics such as Salmond is similar to the way they have sought to bludgeon public opinion. The fact that Blair has felt it necessary to stage national broadcasts indicates the underlying insecurity of a government worried about losing public support and unsure of either the justification for or the consequences of its actions.

Audience figures for BBC news have reportedly risen since the air war began. Yet viewers have been ill-served by their public service broadcaster. The BBC’s monitoring service suggested that the “Serb media dances to a patriotic tune”. Whose tune does the BBC dance to that it reproduces every new Nato claim without asking for evidence?

Just as New Labour has sought to marginalise its critics, so TV news has barely mentioned the protests across the world – not just in Macedonia, Russia, Italy and Greece – but also in Tel Aviv, Lisbon, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, Sydney and elsewhere. Are we to suppose that these demonstrators are all Serbs, or that they have been fooled by the “tightly controlled” Yugoslav media?

Philip Hammond is a senior lecturer in Media Studies at South Bank
University, London.