Podium: The media had a bad war in Kosovo

From a speech by the Prime Minister's spokesman, given at the Royal United Services Institute in London
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The Independent Culture
I DO NOT believe the media took seriously enough the military significance of the Serb Lie Machine, or did enough to expose the way it was being used by Milosevic to promote and prolong the conflict through the fanning of ethnic hatred, and hatred of Nato, based on systematic lies about what Nato was doing.

I understand the pressures on journalists who fear being kicked out, but I believe they should be more open and honest about those pressures. The "health warnings" of Serb reporting restrictions at times became so weak as to be meaningless, and I know prompted speculation among TV journalists at home that this was driven by those pressures. One US journalist in Belgrade told me that whether they like to admit it or not, there did develop an unhealthy relationship between some Western journalists and Serb spokesmen.

The same journalist noted, too, the stark differences between the largely factual-based US print journalism, and the more opinionated, personalised news reporting by British broadsheets. I make no comment upon that - other than to say that this too changed the way that the broadcast media covered the conflict, particularly in the hundreds of hours of two-way conversations between studio and reporter.

It was also striking how few journalists got into Kosovo itself - and how few even tried. One did get there because - in our determination to break the no pictures, no news syndrome - we helped him to. But he was the only one who asked.

The day of the daredevil reporter who refuses to see obstacles to getting to the truth, and seeing it with his or her own eyes, seems to have died.

But surely the starvation of pictures, and the denial of access by the Serbs, increased rather than lessened the responsibility of the media to try to find out what was happening there. The fact that there were no pictures was part of the story. Of course they didn't want pictures of 1.5 million people driven from their homes, of systematic rape and of torture.

There should also be some discussion - as I know there was within the BBC - about whether our media should treat as equals, in terms of how they are quizzed and covered, the leaders of an Alliance of democratic governments and the spokesmen of a disgusting murder machine.

I didn't feel as strongly as elderly relations of mine, who lived through the Second World War - but I did at times feel, listening to some interviews, that George Robertson and Robin Cook must be the war criminals, and Arkan a pop star selling his latest single.

The broadcasters effectively ducked the difficult question of whether they should make a judgement about the relative reliability of Nato and Serb sources, and chose to see the truth as inevitably being somewhere in the middle. It was not. But the result in parts of the media was a moral equivalence between ethnic cleansing and a stray bomb that accidentally killed civilians.

And of course the stray bombs also made the story of military effectiveness a harder one to tell, when the only pictures available were from gun camera footage, which quickly became repetitive, or from the Serb Lie Machine bomb damage away-days.

I hope you won't mind me pointing out that some of the commentators and ex-military who jumped on the back of the Tory calls for a public inquiry (inspired in part by false Serb claims of what was hit) were among those who used to get very irritated when we went out yet again to say we didn't hit much last night because of the weather. So the idea that we exaggerated military effectiveness for propaganda purposes is one that I dispute.

As to what we did hit, the media cannot surely dispute that the balance of coverage did not remotely reflect the reality on the ground. We can all recall lead stories about embassies and convoys and hospitals. I can't recall many about successful strikes, which outnumbered accidents and mistakes by a gigantic proportion.

Both on justification and on military effectiveness, recent reporting inside Kosovo - with pictures - shows that the real Kosovo story wasn't blunders. It was war crimes and atrocities. It was progress towards military victory. What is being discovered suggests that if anything we underestimated the scale of the barbarism. We certainly did not exaggerate.

In the, end, I think we won the media battle during the conflict, and now new and different battlefronts open up. There are certainly lessons we can learn, and we should acknowledge that.

No doubt the media will want to take a similar look at its own role and learn lessons too.