War In Europe: Labour turns up the spin

The Government is resorting to old-fashioned war propaganda, but the BBC, at least, is refusing to play ball
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Indy Lifestyle Online
At 8.30 every morning, Robin Cook, George Robertson, and Sir Charles Guthrie, the chief of the Defence Staff, descend to the nuclear-protected war bunker under the Ministry of Defence to discuss the day's military strategy for Kosovo. But the meeting which takes place an hour later in the Cabinet office's secret Cobra Room is just as important. It is in this basement bunker - used only in times of national crisis - that the Government's media strategy for the war is devised.

The daily, hour-long presentation meeting, chaired by Tony Lloyd the junior foreign office minister, or Doug Henderson, the armed forces minister, is attended by a handful of the most senior officials from Downing Street, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence. At 9.30am they slip through the two bullet-proof doors into the Cobra Room and sit down around a rectangular table. On the walls around them are maps of Kosovo and the surrounding areas. They are there to be briefed on events overnight and discuss the coverage in that day's media but their main aim is to decide what message the Government needs to put out. Ministers are then informed of the theme for the day and documents are rushed out ready to hand to journalists at the daily 11.30am Ministry of Defence briefing. "Policy and presentation go hand in hand," one insider said. "It's very New Labour."

In fact, this is nothing to do with New Labour; this is good, old-fashioned war propaganda. The enemy is no longer the Tories and the non-partisan Government military machine has sprung into action. The crucial difference with peacetime is that this time the message is aimed as much at the Serbs as at the British public. The presentation of policy is more important than ever because the Western media is the allies' only way to communicate with Slobodan Milosevic and his people.

The nature of spin changes at time of war. Last Sunday, George Robertson complained that Slobodan Milosevic had moved all the casualties of the air strikes into a single hospital near Belgrade and broadcast the pictures on Serbian state-owned television in an attempt to hype up the injuries. In fact, the British Government's strategy is just as carefully worked out but ministers are frustrated that news organisations in this country have not always been as helpful as they believe they could be. There have been several sharp exchanges on the Today programme between John Humphrys and Robertson or Cook - evidence that the BBC, unlike the Serbian television network, is not state-owned.

Tony Blair's media strategy team realises that the lack of live pictures from the war-torn province is a serious problem when it comes to putting the allies' message across. Firstly, the absence of footage from the ground means that there is no concrete evidence of atrocities being committed by the Serbs. It also means that the television networks are dominated by tragic images of refugees pouring across the snow and over the borders. At one level, this helps make the case for Western intervention in Kosovo to stop the ethnic cleansing. However, the strategists recognise that these pictures also fuel fears that the air strikes may have precipitated, rather than prevented, a humanitarian crisis. They have no way of combating these concerns by firing up patriotism with pictures of British planes in action against Serbian military installations.

Instead, the media strategy for the Kosovo conflict has become a war of words. Last week, the Serb initiative was described by ministers for the first time as "genocide" while Nato officials compared it to the activities of the Khmer Rouge.

The first task of the propaganda campaign was to turn Slobodan Milosevic into a full-blown James Bond style villain. Stories planted in the tabloids presented "Slobba" as a depressed alcoholic, who sunk two bottles of spirits a day while sitting in a darkened room. The Foreign Office let slip that it believed Saddam Hussein, perceived by the public as the most evil man in the world, was helping the Serbian leader plan his war effort.

The strategy team then decided to widen the net to include other tyrants. On Monday, the Ministry of Defence targeted the Serbian war lord Arkan, saying he was believed to be at work in Kosovo. The papers carried full profiles, detailing his sinister dark glasses and his pop star wife. There were reports that his troops, the "Tigers", had once gunned down 2,000 people in a gym and pictures showed Arkan standing in front of masked men holding a baby tiger by the scruff of the neck. On Wednesday Arkan was formally indicted for war crimes and ministers warned Slobodan Milosevic and other Serb military leaders that they would be next.

Officials now admit that this was a carefully constructed story which was designed to push the message forward for the British public on a day when there had been little live action because the weather had stopped the planes dropping their bombs. It was also aimed directly at Belgrade. "It was a clear warning to Milosevic - we are absolutely determined that the people at the top are not going to be able to blame the people at the bottom," one Downing Street source said.

According to Government insiders, it is usual for every media briefing on the war to have "two audiences". On Friday, for example, journalists at the Ministry of Defence's daily briefing were told that the allies believed Milosevic was planning to mount a coup against the President of Montenegro. The real aim was to inform the Serbian leader that Nato knew his game.

The Government is using news organisations to give warnings to Milosevic as much as the Serbian leader has been exploiting the media to demonstrate strength by broadcasting images of the three captured American soldiers.

It seems that in these times of mutli-media an important battle is being fought on the airwaves and the internet, as well as on the field in the war-torn province.

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