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

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'