The Independent on Sunday 27th June 1999
Phillip Knightley places the Kosovo atrocity stories in their historical context.
If history is any guide, then many of the atrocity stories from Kosovo that have dominated the media since the end of the war will turn out to be false. Written and filmed by some of the self-styled “mass-grave correspondents”, they may at the moment appear to have the chilling ring of truth: after all, mass graves have unquestionably been found. Some of the stories may indeed be genuine, but many will vanish under investigation, or the scrutiny of time.
When passions have cooled – as one hopes that they will even in the hate-strewn Balkans – we may even hear the confessions of those who invented them. Invented? In the case of Kosovo the inventions will have been the work not of British journalists but of those feeding them with information. In the Boer War, however, the British press invented hundreds of atrocity stories – Boer civilians murdered wounded British soldiers; Boer soldiers massacred pro-British civilians; Boers executed other Boers who wanted to surrender; Boers attacked British Red Cross tents while brave British doctors and nurses were treating the wounded.
They were all made up, spun out of the imagination of the journalists, rendered more believable by artists back home who specialised in atrocity drawings. The attack on the Red Cross tent was even deemed worth filming, and when presented as genuine documentary footage caused great outrage against the beastly Boers. It was actually shot with actors on Hampstead Heath.
But if we want to examine the false atrocity story at its insidious worst, then we need to look at the Bryce Commission in the First World War. If as you read, the parallels with Kosovo and the Serbs appear striking, it is because they are so.
A committee of lawyers and historians chaired by Lord Bryce, a former ambassador to the US, produced a report which stated that the Germans had systematically murdered, beaten, raped and violated innocent men, women and children in Belgium. “Murder, lust and pillage,” the report said, “prevailed over many parts of Belgium on a scale unparalleled in any war between civilised nations during the last three centuries.” The report gave titillating details of how German officers and men had raped 20 Belgian girls in the market place at Liege, how eight German soldiers had bayoneted a two-year-old child, and how another had sliced off a peasant girl’s breasts in Malines.
Bryce’s signature added considerable weight to the report and when its main findings were published around the world they were widely believed. In fact, the Germans had committed atrocities in Belgium, but not on the scale described by Bryce. It was not until after the war – when it no longer mattered – that the truth began to emerge. Bryce had not spoken to a single witness. The report was based on 1,200 depositions, mostly from Belgian refugees in Britain, taken down by barristers. None of the witnesses had been placed on oath and their hearsay evidence was accepted at face value. And although the depositions should have been filed at the Home Office, by the end of the war they had mysteriously disappeared.
Finally, in 1922, with the Bryce report under attack as British propaganda, the Belgian government appointed a Commission of Enquiry. It was unable to corroborate a single major atrocity mentioned in the report.
The Bryce report is admired by professional propagandists because it achieved its aim. In order for the war to continue, for Britain to win, the British people had to be made to hate the Germans as they had never hated anyone before.
The atrocity story is a tried and tested way of arousing hatred. It fortifies the mind of the nation with “proof” of the depravity of the enemy and his cruel and degenerate conduct of his war. Your battle against him can then be painted as a righteous one, a test of civilised values over barbarity.
This is exactly what has happened with Kosovo. President Milosevic, from being a pragmatic leader that the West could do business with, became a new Genghis Khan and, significantly, a new Hitler. This link with the Second World War, a war for Britain of national survival, has strong emotional appeal.
So all those in government who supported the Nato war, from the Prime Minister down, began to pepper their speeches with words like “Holocaust” and “genocide” (on whose PR advice, one wonders?) until the idea was established that the new Hitler, Milosevic, was guilty not just of atrocities but of genocide against the Kosovar Albanians, and that a new Holocaust was in the making.
Don MacKay of the Mirror worked into a story a reference to “Auschwitz-style furnaces” that may have been used to incinerate Albanian bodies in a Serb-run copper mine. Or they may not have been, although the headline is unequivocal: “1,000 corpses destroyed in mine furnaces”.
This spurious association of Kosovo with the Second World War not only aroused the fighting fervour of the nation and brought back our finest hour, but made it almost impossible for those who felt disgusted, uneasy, or just doubtful about the war to speak out in protest without being accused of “appeasement” (shades of Chamberlain) or worse, of Holocaust denial (shades of neo-Nazism).
While the war was on and British journalists had little access to Kosovo, atrocity stories were limited to accusations of “ethnic cleansing”. This is a confusing and irrelevant term. Tim Allen of the London School of Economics pointed out in The Media of Conflict that all wars are ethnic wars. So, presumably, all victors could be accused of ethnic cleansing.
When the war ended, Nato was naturally anxious to uncover evidence of Serbatrocities in Kosovo. If there were none, then the whole edifice on which it had based its war would have collapsed. Fortunately, the media, militarised to a degree unknown since the Second World War, was anxious to help.
Teams of frustrated war correspondents raced each other into Kosovo with one story on their minds – atrocities. Who would find the biggest and the worst? The Ministry of Defence had even prepared a map indicating possible sites of mass graves to help them. Local assistance was also available.
Chris Bird of the Guardian was approached in the street by an Albanian “with the hint of the pornographer”. The man whispered: “Il ya un massacre pas loin d’ici.” And when no one was impressed he added urgently: “Twenty bodies without heads.”
In this scramble for atrocity stories, prudent scepticism was lost.
Reporters seemed ready to believe anything as long as it painted the Serbs as monsters. A basement used by the Serbian police was described as a torture chamber. But the evidence appeared rather sketchy. Did no reporter ask why it was that the Serb police could spend three days burning all their records – television showed us the pile of ashes – but had no time to remove allegedly incriminating torture instruments and knuckle dusters. Could these have been items which the police had seized from local criminals? Who knows? Who asked?
Mass graves reveal nothing. How did the people in them die? Forensic evidence may reveal the answers, but even then we are a long way from proof that would stand up at a murder trial in a British court. Albanian witnesses may be telling the truth but printing what they tell reporters and seeing how that story stands up under cross-examination are different matters.
Some correspondents offered sources for their stories. Few impress me. Maggie O’Kane of the Guardian is fond of “. according to intelligence sources”. Will she tell us, when it no longer matters, who they were? Others attribute stories to Nato or army spokesmen. These do not impress me either. It is interesting to note the complete reversal of the relationship between the media and the military since Vietnam. In Vietnam the media were reluctant to believe anything the military told them. In Kosovo the media tend to believe everything the military tells them because the military has stolen the moral high ground by claiming it is anti-war. It bombs in the name of peace, to save or liberate, so those who object are the war-mongers, appeasers, Nazis.
It was fascinating to watch the British Army’s spokesman being interviewed about the deaths of the two Gurkhas. He tried to avoid admitting that the men had died working on a Nato cluster bomb, so as not to embarrass his Prime Minister who had blamed the deaths on Serbs. Meanwhile, Albanian war crimes against the Serbs appear to have begun. How will they be reported? Dogmatic journalism with no room for honest doubt, no chance for the
public to make up its own mind, has brought us to the point where even to express the slightest reservation about the latest atrocity story, or to show the tiniest disagreement with Britain’s policy in Kosovo, is regarded as little short of treason, not just unpatriotic but immoral.
Sad days, but if you feel as I do that truth, the most abused and displaced refugee, has had a rough deal, remember that even the Bryce Commission was eventually exposed. So take heart.
Philip Knightley is the author of ‘The First Casualty” – a history of war, correspondents and propaganda (Pan).