Inside Story: Instant pictures, instant policy: Is television driving foreign policy? ITN's Nik Gowing examines the 'something must be done' factor and picks out five examples from the bloody conflict in Bosnia
Sunday 03 July 1994
Once, there were long delays in getting news videotape through fighting and roadblocks to a distant television station and on to the air. In the 1980s, footage of the war in Lebanon had to be sent by boat to Cyprus. Pictures were often out of date when they were transmitted.
No more. Bosnia and Somalia represent the new generation of instant television war. Mobile satellite dish transmitters mean the delay in receiving pictures from the battlefield can be measured in minutes. Frequently there is no delay at all. Much of the coverage is real-time.
The greater immediacy increases the impact. When television shows terrible events in Bosnia, Somalia or Rwanda, , the public seems to demand that 'something must be done', and done now.
The pressure on politicians, officials and military men can be intense. 'Television has become the sixth permanent member of the UN Security Council,' quipped one Bosnia peace negotiator.
'Television has become part of the event it covers,' warns Boutros Boutros-Ghali, UN Secretary General. 'It has changed the way the world reacts to crises.'
But is this true? Does television really influence foreign policy? For four months I stepped back from the daily pressures of TV news reporting. In the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, I set out to test the conventional wisdom that images transmitted 'live from the battlefield' drive foreign policy-making.
When I began, I believed they did. By the time I returned to London, after conducting more than 100 interviews with diplomatic and military insiders in Europe and the US, I was no longer convinced. Whenever I asked ministers, advisers, officials or military officers about television's precise impact on their work, their reactions were predictable. First came a knowing smirk, then raised eyebrows and a chuckle.
Certainly, news pictures can shock policy-makers just as they do the rest of us. Senior officials on both sides of the Atlantic described to me how regularly they and their top ministers had been moved and troubled by the horrors on television.
They 'saw images of people who could have been themselves. Yugoslavia kept officials awake at night,' said one British source. 'People were genuinely upset by the substance of what television showed. (At times) John Major was upset,' said a former senior Downing Street official.
But television's new power should not be misread. It can highlight problems and help to put them on the policy agenda, but when governments are determined to keep to minimalist, low-risk, low-cost strategies, television reporting does not force them to become more engaged.
'Governments have to be prepared to cope and have bloody sticky moments,' said one official. 'They must be willing to sustain the policy line during (television coverage) then after TV has gone away.' According to another senior British official involved in the Bosnia issue: 'Politicians were prepared to withstand images. The Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary will always take a long view. We were driven by TV pressure, but it was never overwhelming.'
One paradox is that these pressures are being brought to bear on people who rarely watch television.
In Britain, most ministers have a set in their office, but few have the time or inclination to watch it. They and and officials describe how their wives, children, families, colleagues or friends see the appalling images, then express their horror. 'Did you see that . . .? You've got to do something,' or, 'Where is Douglas? He must see this]'
In America, television sets proliferate in government offices. President Clinton (who has CNN in his bathroom) zaps between channels, but 'does not really watch anything', according to his staff. George Bush's National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, watched television 'religiously, but only to validate the intelligence he was receiving', according to one former aide. His successor, Anthony Lake, rarely watches it.
Mr Lake says that gruesome television pictures of a dead US soldier in Mogadishu last autumn forced the Clinton administration to realise that 'the military situation had deteriorated in a way that we had not frankly recognised'.
For diplomats used to working 'methodically, slowly, systematically and reflectively', as one described it, television pictures from war zones can have a profound impact on the way they work. There is no time for leisurely reflection.
But when television pictures cried out for a determined, active response to end the Bosnian conflict, ministers made sure there was an appearance of action when in reality there was little or no policy impact. They have learned to resist the pressure.
'Television is a big influence on a daily basis, but the key is keeping a balanced, even keel over the long term,' said one British official.
On Bosnia, another conceded: 'TV almost derailed policy on several occasions, but the spine held. It had to. The secret was to respond to limit the damage, and be seen to react without undermining the specific (policy) focus.'
Or as Britain's UN Ambassador, Sir David Hannay, concluded: 'We are a pretty stubborn lot. When it comes to an earth-shattering event we will not be swept off our feet.'
Television pictures did not save Vukovar and Dubrovnik. Neither did they save Gorazde from Bosnian Serb bombardment, or tens of thousands in Rwanda from slaughter.
Television has merely highlighted the West's impotence and its failure to find a diplomatic consensus to prevent or pre-empt war. It has been a catalyst for humanitarian help and financial aid, but has not forced crisis prevention beyond carefully defined diplomatic limits.
Kofi Annan, the UN Under- Secretary General for Peace-
keeping, puts it simply: 'When governments have a clear policy, they have anticipated a situation and they know what they want to do and where they want to go, then television has little impact. In fact they ride it.'
But television can identify priorities in crisis management. Philip Zelikow, who spent five years in the US State Department and two years on the US National Security Council, said: 'Television is influential on problem recognition, but no television does it (crisis coverage) well enough to have an influence on policy.'
Occasionally, governments can be overwhelmed. When this happens, ministers and officials have confirmed how they found themselves fighting the tide of what one called a 'fantastically powerful medium which is often crude and where the words that go with it are often trite'.
Occasionally, there are moments of panic.' When there is a problem, and policy has not been thought through, there is a knee-jerk reaction. They have to do something or face a public relations disaster,' said Kofi Annan. The effect of television images is therefore profound and fickle. 'There are many times when there are horrific images and there is no policy impact,' says Rick Inderfurth, Alternate US Representative to the UN. 'It is difficult to work out how the CNN factor will come into play. It is like waking up with a big bruise, and you don't know where it came from.'
Policy-makers curse instant, real-time coverage of armed conflicts for its unpredictability, randomness and emotive character. 'The television camera puts an issue on the agenda when it might otherwise not have been there,' a senior Foreign Office official confirmed. Edward Bickham, until last year special adviser to Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd says television plays too much to the heart, too little to the head.
'It presents powerful, emotive images which conjure strong reactions. Anecdotes about individual suffering make compelling television, but they rarely form a good basis of policy. Foreign policy should be made by democratic governments, accountable to parliament, not in reaction to which trouble spots the news-gathering organisations can afford to cover.'
Television can present only a modest percentage of the ghastliness taking place in a war. Mr Hurd has spoken of the 'searchlight' of television, roving over war zones and providing 'patchy' coverage.
The absence of a satellite dish means less coverage of a crisis; often no dish means no coverage. But the presence of a dish can create news coverage because a television manager can feel obliged to justify the expense of its deployment. With its instantaneous appetite for words and pictures, the dish also places new pressures on reporters. In the words of Ted Koppel, the leading ABC news anchorman who reported from Vietnam: 'The capacity to go live creates its own terrible dynamic . . . Putting someone on the air while an event is unfolding is clearly a technological tour de force, but it is an impediment, not an aid, to good journalism.
'You write differently when you know that your piece won't make air for another day or two. You function differently. You have time to think. You have some time to report.'
Senior US officials were blunter. 'Television is often wrong. We have to make sure we are right,' said one. Another added: 'Television does not focus for long enough and it is often too sensational.' A third said: 'Television is a joke, and it is scary that this is the way many Americans get their news.'
In a conflict such as Bosnia, policy-makers do not trust television reporting, which by its very nature is random, piecemeal and therefore flawed. Diplomacy has been humbled in Bosnia, but so too has television, by its inability to represent even a modest percentage of the ghastliness. Aid workers and UN troops witnessed much more than cameras never saw.
In Bosnia, world attention became possessed by the Serbian siege of Sarajevo, where there was instant war within sight and sound of the satellite dish and the press hotel.
UN officials say that in many respects the Croatian siege of Mostar was more evil than that of Sarajevo. But Mostar received scant coverage because of the great dangers of reaching it and reporting its plight, and the reluctance of television organisations to risk deploying a satellite dish. As a result, it was never on the diplomatic radar screen.
On the ground, television often creates resentment. I heard complaints from UN military officers peace-keeping in Bosnia that governments often received their first information on a new development in the form of emotive television news packages rather than more considered military reports.
Real-time reporting can have a direct, short-term effect on events. Here are examples:
UN peace negotiators describe how, during talks in Geneva, the warring parties would see television reports of fighting. Without checking the details they used the information to justify toughening their position or threatening a walk-out, thereby undermining the talks process.
On several occasions the appearance of a camera crew halted, or at least postponed, atrocities. Worldwide transmission of incidents like the Croatian ambush of the Convoy of Joy at Novi Travnik in the summer of 1993 and the forced expulsions of hundreds of Muslim men from Mostar earlier that year had the welcome effect of forcing the aggressors to relent.
Television coverage of misery could have positive and negative impact on humanitarian operations. Sometimes by highlighting a particular instance of misery - such as the mental hospital in Tarcin - television could force a diversion of aid missions already planned and aimed at other targets. Aid officials often resented such diversions. Other coverage - such as Jeremy Bowen's BBC Assignment on Mostar - had such an emotional effect on UN staff that they decided to take great risks to alleviate suffering.
The controversial British airlift after the BBC report about Irma Hadzimuratovic on a light weekend news day last August showed the power and resentment television can create.
Irma's story struck an emotional chord with viewers in a way less personalised coverage could not have done. The media clamour for action saved Irma, and resulted in offers of 1,800 hospital beds worldwide, which the aid agencies could not otherwise have secured.
But the process created a bitter, destabilising inter-agency confrontation over the priorities in evacuation procedures for the injured. Some found it hard to comprehend the actions of the news organisations and the British government. 'I felt like a humble foot soldier in an army whose high command had taken leave of its collective senses - and I told them so,' said Martin Bell.
BOSNIA, Somalia and Rwanda will not be the end of the horror. In Africa alone, the International Committee of the Red Cross has identified 2,000 possible future ethnic conflicts. In the former Soviet Union and its fringes, ethnographers have pointed to 260 possible 'battle lines of the future'.
Bosnia and Somalia were probably diplomatic watersheds. They defined starkly the limits to any moral imperative for foreign intervention in future conflicts. Rwanda has produced the most horrific pictures of all, yet the public pressure on policy- makers has been negligible. Television cameras will cover some of the carnage. They will create deep emotions. But they are unlikely to make the kind of difference to the fundamental calculations in foreign policy-making that many expect.
From now on they will merely highlight conflicts that Western governments have no ability to prevent or the decisive political will to solve - that is, until the participants themselves are ready to stop fighting.
As the number of territorial disputes, armed ethnic conflicts and civil wars increases, the chances that horrific images will stir governments into decisive action are diminishing fast and are probably already negligible.
Nik Gowing is diplomatic editor of Channel 4 News. His full paper on television coverage of armed conflicts, from which this article is adapted, is available from the Joan Shorenstein Barone Center at Harvard University. He presents his findings in a BFI lecture at the National Film Theatre in London on 19 July, at 6.30pm.
CASE 1: SARAJEVO: A QUESTION OF BALANCE
QUESTIONS have to be raised about the reporting of some elements of the Sarajevo crisis.
At critical moments the accuracy of real-time television coverage - and therefore its impact - was skewed by the absence of crucial facts in the reporting. Bitter UN officials describe some journalists and their reporting as 'glamour without responsibility'.
That Bosnian Serb forces surrounded Sarajevo, deploying heavy artillery in the hills and snipers within the city, is not disputed. Neither is their intention to inflict terror on the population. But diplomats and UN military sources I interviewed questioned the picture painted by the media, and by television in particular.
When, in July 1993, the Bosnian Serbs tightened their grip on Sarajevo, there followed a flood of reporters and camera crews expecting allied air strikes and sensing what one correspondent called 'more than a whiff of Baghdad Mark II'. UN officials noted a 'blood-lust' among journalists. One leading correspondent asked a colleague over breakfast: 'What is it going to take to get the US and their allies to intervene here?'
UN sources say that during this critical period Sarajevo was not totally cut off, as most reporting suggested. 'Sarajevo was not strangled. That's an emotive phrase,' one British official complained long after the crisis.
However, an emotive wave of television reporting and alarmist newspaper headlines followed. Pressure for determined Western military action was intense and before long Nato authorised the preparation of air strikes. One official said: 'Air strikes have been wound up by television.'
Lord Owen, the EU peace negotiator, also questions the balance of coverage. 'The Serbs on Mount Igman was one of the worst examples of bad reporting,' he said.
'Negotiations were held up by (the issue of) the Serbs on Igman when it was not an issue. But the press was saying that this was a big strategic change. Izetbegovic (the Bosnian president) sat in his
hotel and would not come to the negotiations.'
My research appears to support complaints by an anonymous UN official who wrote in Foreign Policy magazine: 'The press corps developed its own momentum and esprit. Much of it set out to invoke international military intervention against the Serb aggressors. . . That induced in some a personal commitment . . . that lay uneasily with the maintenance of true professional standards.'
UN officials complain that reporting often omitted crucial facts. One example was the barely reported refusal of the Bosnian government - not the Serbs - to reconnect Sarajevo's gas and electricity supplies in the summer of 1993.
Many of my fellow journalists reject such criticisms, but some of them concede privately that there are grounds for complaints of distortion, whether inadvertent or premeditated.
Acknowledging the problem last April, the Daily Telegraph questioned 'the credulity of some sections of the media' and concluded that: 'The media do no service to the international
community by over-simplifying the issues.'
In the US, some correspondents blame their editors for exaggerating the beleaguered image of the Bosnian Muslims. As many sources confirmed, America can only cope with 'one black hat' in any given crisis. Stories critical of the Bosnians were often spiked or diluted.
'Editors did not want to believe it,' one reporter told me. 'Anyone who defies the conventional wisdom will find themselves in deep trouble,' said another.
David Binder of the New York Times described a 'tyranny of victimology' on Bosnia which was prompted by a 'herd instinct' among reporters.' Balanced journalism has gone out of the window,' he said.
'One of the reasons is that it is not entertaining. For the masses to be entertained we have to take sides. It is politically correct in New York and Washington to bash the Serbs on any and all occasions to the point where it becomes almost racist. Serbs are evil- ised virtually to the exclusion of any reporting that might balance that.'
United Nations officials became concerned that the skewed reporting of Sarajevo distorted impressions within the UN Security Council, which in turn distorted UN policy-making.
CASE 2: THE MARKET MASSACRE
CONVENTIONAL wisdom has it that the determined international response to the carnage in Sarajevo market on 5 February 1994 was a direct result of the horrific television images. The reality was different. Television was a catalyst, but equally important diplomatic and military factors had been quietly at work for several weeks.
'It did not take just the television coverage of the Sarajevo massacre to push things forward. Things were moving,' said Mark Gearan, the White House Communications Director. That view is shared by Sir Robin Renwick, the British Ambassador in Washington. The mortar attack, he said, 'would not have triggered action if people were not already thinking about action'.
In Washington, first reports of the market massacre were said to have 'outraged' President Clinton. He and some advisers quickly assembled in the White House. His political choice was between exercising caution and, as an official put it, a realisation that 'we've got to do something'.
The real pressure came not from television images of the carnage but on the phone from the French government. For weeks the French Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, had been mobilising EU countries and had already taken a tough line with the United States. By 5 February 'the US was already beginning to stiffen its position', according to one source. Then the market massacre happened. 'It helped the (French) argument,' said Mark Gearan.
Graham Allison, then assistant US Defense Secretary, confirmed that 'France was pressing for action. The Sarajevo market massacre crystallised for the Clinton administration that it had to do something.' While in people's minds the pictures seemed to mark a turning point for Sarajevo's plight, it was the incident itself more than the coverage that began to give a momentum towards a fragile peace for the city.
The UN's new, robust commander, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, had just arrived, determined to 'tell the Bosnian Serbs that if they continued to behave in a savage way they would suffer savagely - and to mean it'.
Also, after three years of war, all the institutional instruments in the diplomatic orchestra were playing the same tune: the UN, the EU, Nato and the US. This enabled a unique diplomatic window of opportunity to be seized.
Yet who fired the mortar? Was it indeed a Serbian emplacement or a mobile Bosnian mortar? The question is unanswered. After expert investigations, UN officials no longer say categorically that it was a Serbian mortar that killed the 68 people. Their verdict is 'neutral'. The UN, in other words, is no longer convinced that the mortar was fired from a Serbian position.
This ambiguity poses a vital and awkward question in relation to the power of real-time television coverage. The immediate assumption on 5 February was that the mortar attack had been planned, authorised and fired by the Serbs. The 'neutral' verdict now questions that.
What if world leaders such as Clinton, Major and Balladur had felt themselves forced by public anger over the television images to launch immediate air strikes against the Serbs, when later investigations questioned the Serb culpability for the market massacre? This is the ultimate fear of ministers, diplomats and the military.
CASE 3: GORAZDE
'THE LAST thing we want is pictures from Gorazde - we can only just cope with Sarajevo.'
This outburst from a senior British official in spring 1992, highlights the impact and resentment that real-time television reporting can generate.
The official had just been told that a BBC TV team had entered Gorazde three months into the siege by Bosnian Serb forces. Their report would show harrowing pictures of starvation, desperation and death. Instantly, the BBC coverage would widen the perception of the Bosnia conflict beyond Sarajevo into an area of terror not yet seen by television or newspaper reporters.
The pictures had an immediate impact. Western governments could no longer claim ignorance about ethnic horrors being perpetrated in vast areas of Bosnia not patrolled by the UN and EC monitoring teams.
As a result the UN was obliged to draw up policies for increased humanitarian aid which, many argue, became palliatives for more active diplomatic and military measures to end the war.
As Sylvana Foa, the spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, later confirmed: 'Television is our lifeline to the politicians who want nothing to do with us or hope that the problem will go away from public consciousness. Without you, we have no weapon at all.'
CASE 4: PRISONERS OF WAR
FEW WILL forget the television pictures of emaciated men in the Bosnian Serb prisoner camps. 'Haunting images of emaciated prisoners tore at our consciences,' said a US foreign policy official.
ITN's award-winning coverage of the camps, which followed the award-winning newspaper reporting by NewsDay's Roy Gutman, seemed to illustrate the power of television to catapult an issue into the realm of public concern and on to the diplomatic agenda.
Governments gave the impression of great shock. President Bush and British ministers moved swiftly to condemn the Serbs for abuses that were 'intolerable and must be stopped'. But a British spokesman said 'reports of death camps are exaggerated'.
Two years on, it is clear that for at least two months before ITN's reports, the Bush administration, the United Nations and to a lesser extent the Red Cross possessed some documentation, though incomplete, about deaths and inhuman treatment in the camps. Charitably, it can be said that the television pictures identified a policy vacuum; more likely, they revealed a determined policy of suppression and unwillingness to take action, especially in the United States.
But the impact of ITN's images was mixed and relatively short-lived. Thierry Germond of the International Red Cross said governments had been 'compelled through those pictures to put the issue of prisoners at the top of the agenda - at least for several weeks'. However, the international response waned as the news 'searchlight', which Douglas Hurd describes it, moved elsewhere.
It also assisted the main guilty party - the Bosnian Serbs. Their leader, Radovan Karadzic, exploited the international demand for closure of the camps to secure, as a quid pro quo, the 'humanitarian' removal of refugees from Bosnian soil by the Red Cross. In other words, the television images indirectly stoked further ethnic cleansing.
CASE 4: GORAZDE
'THE LAST thing we want is pictures from Gorazde. We can only just cope with Sarajevo' - this outburst from a British official in spring 1992 highlights the impact and resentment that real-time reporting can generate.
The official had just been told that a BBC TV team had entered Gorazde three months into the siege by Bosnian Serb forces. Their report of starvation, desperation and death instantly widened the perception of the Bosnia conflict beyond Sarajevo into an area of terror not yet seen.
As a result, Western governments could no longer claim ignorance about ethnic horrors being perpetrated in regions not patrolled by the UN and EC teams, and the UN was obliged to draw up policies for increased humanitarian aid which, many argue, became palliatives for more active diplomatic and military measures to end the war.
Sylvana Foa, the spokeswoman for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said later: 'Television is our lifeline to the politicians who want nothing to do with us or hope that the problem will go away from public consciousness. Without you, we have no weapon at all.'
CASE 5: SIEGE
ONE CENTRAL complaint voiced by officials, soldiers and diplomats concerned reporting of the shelling of Sarajevo.
The tragedy of a civilian population targeted by artillery cannot be overstated. But UN officials say the impression given by headlines such as 'Serbs shell Sarajevo, killing XX' was misleading.
As one UN military officer in Sarajevo put it: 'I would be surprised by what I heard on the news compared to what I saw.' Serbian shelling of the Bosnian army 'would be reported as Sarajevo under heavy shelling. Reports would say the Serbs fired 500 shells in Sarajevo, without saying 480 were aimed at the Bosnian army, and maybe 20 at the city.'
Given the horrors and emotions, the distinction here is a fine one. But in Sarajevo the Serbian forces were usually portrayed as the guilty party, when sometimes they had been provoked. 'A significant proportion of Serbian shelling is brought on by Muslim attacks,' said one British officer. 'TV portrays only Muslim weakness and Serbian strength.' said another.
The same officer explained how the Bosnian army often made a point of testing Serbian lines in a location where Serbian artillery would have to fire over the main hotel used by the international press.
'Muslims around Zuc would shell Serbian villages with a number of mortars. The Serbs responded from artillery in their barracks at Lukavica (on the other side of the city). Shells were fired over the Holiday Inn, and over the press's head. This was very loud.'
The fact that the Serbs had only artillery and mortars and relatively little infantry, while the Bosnian forces were mainly infantry with a few mortars, went a long way to furthering the image of the Bosnian side as disadvantaged.
But, as UN officials insisted and as a confidential report by Lieutenant-General Francis Briquemont, the outgoing Unprofor commander, confirmed in January 1994, the Bosnians attacked the Serbian positions with infantry, and the Serbs could only respond with their artillery.
UN officials ordered staff in Sarajevo to correct the media's impression. They failed. 'The media had a blank spot. The media turned a blind eye,' said one. 'It just did not fit their preconceptions of what was happening - of the encirclement.'
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