The War on TV – Philip Hammond, 1999

The War on TV

Philip Hammond

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 steadilysince.

‘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 acourse 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, andworked as a consultant on BBC2’s Counterblast: Against the War (4 May).