A dumb witness mouthing horror: Television images rub our noses in the atrocities. But we must be more than shocked, or even caring, to help Bosnia, argues Andrew Marr

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The Independent Online
The scene was a graveyard in the former Winter Olympic village of Dobrinja, now part of Sarajevo's front line. Martin Bell, surrounded by hastily dug mounds, was telling viewers of Monday night's Panorama that all outside intervention in this desperate place had failed: 'Peace-making has failed. Negotiation has failed. Diplomacy has failed . . .' Then he called for military intervention.

Generally, Mr Bell is a reporter in the BBC's best stiff-upper-lipped tradition. So his open anger was striking as he chastised Europe for its past failures and demanded a new policy: 'The case for intervention is not to help one side against another, but the weak against the strong; the unarmed against the armed; to take the side of the everyday victims of the war who, until now, have had no protection. It is really a question, finally, of whether we care.'

We care: no one who saw his film could avoid caring. It was extraordinary - the strongest, most harrowing piece of filmed journalism yet to come out of Bosnia. The sorrow and pain of ordinary, eloquent people, in some sense our neighbours, who have suffered from horrible savagery - Serbs and Muslims alike - was vividly shown. So was the frustration of aid workers. The film connected.

And, just by doing that, it may have made a difference. By rubbing viewers' noses in the truth about the horrors of Sarajevo, the Panorama team was setting out to change the domestic mood towards intervention in a way that few MPs dare to do. Certainly, television has the firepower to do this: editors from the BBC, ITN and Channel 4 News all say the horrors broadcast are as nothing to some of the stuff that they decide cannot be shown, such as what happens when children are operated on without anaesthetics.

As Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said last month: 'Where the cameras operate the facts are brutally clear, transmitted within hours in sitting rooms around the world. People reject and resent what is going on because they know it more vividly than before.' Rejection and resentment are, however, a long way from solutions. Sometimes public anger, fuelled by vivid television, can impede solutions. Indeed, in Washington that has happened.

The Serbs are war-weary. They are short of troops; sanctions are having some effect; and they are overextended. The Croats and Muslims, by contrast, are on the offensive. The Muslims have been receiving fresh arms (by some accounts, smuggled through UN aid convoys). They are in vengeful and determined mood and have been responsible for horrific anti-Serb atrocities - as Panorama showed. If the war intensifies, it will probably be they who are responsible, not the Serbs.

The very worst thing now, therefore, would be to give the Muslims further reasons to reject the peace plan negotiated by Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance, and to fight harder. But that is precisely what President Clinton has been doing. By arguing that the Owen-Vance plan is unfair to the Muslims and suggesting arming them, he is sending a message to keep fighting at all costs.

Why has he been doing this? Because his views on Bosnia were formed earlier on in the fighting, and in response to a vehemently anti-Serbian mood in the US media. Once that mood had taken hold, it was hard to see the other side or focus on the nuances. Television-driven politics also, inevitably, underplayed the importance of the Franco-British aid convoys. As the winter started, the experts predicted 500,000 people would die of hunger. The winter is not over, and many horrors may lie ahead - but the number of who have starved to death is thought to be around 2,500. The cameras were doing a wonderful job in sending a simple, vivid, message to America: but the message didn't change with the circumstances. Its very simplicity helped to lock Mr Clinton into dangerous policies.

There are signs that this is now slowly changing. Mr Clinton, assailed on all sides by domestic problems, is unwilling to abandon publicly his threat to arm the Muslims. His State Department, though, appears to be moving, as Lord Owen and Mr Vance prepare changes to their map of a cantonised Bosnia to placate the White House. They are also stiffening their proposals for the control of heavy weapons and a powerful war-crimes tribunal. It now looks possible that Mr Clinton might agree to US troops becoming involved in the humanitarian effort, and even in helping to police any settlement.

The peace negotiators are privately optimistic. But if Mr Clinton is brought round to agreeing a plan that might end the fighting, it will be despite, not because of, US media coverage of the war.

Television has goaded politicians and their voters. Come what may, it will carry on doing so. If the peace plan fails and British and French troops are mandated to defend convoys more aggressively, or defend safe havens, then the West's continued involvement will be because of television.

But television is, in one sense, a dumb witness. It can point, mouthing its horror, and jerk our elbows, and point again, refusing to let us forget. But it cannot go much farther. It cannot think for the politicians, argue for the diplomats or persuade on behalf of the negotiators. It is about the strengths and limitations of the medium. Mr Bell has no intervention plan; he simply feels that 'the idea of walking away from this is immoral and impractical'.

Even if he had had a proposal, most of us would already have forgotten it while images of violence stay burnt on the retina. When the question is 'Do we care?', television will keep us, rightly, on the Bosnian hook. The bravery of the Panorama team and the shock value of the programme it brought out of a European hell cannot be praised enough. But when the question becomes: 'What do we do about it?' then being shocked, like caring, is not enough.

(Photograph omitted)