Media: Taken in by the Nato line

Journalists were bombarded with information from the Nato and British forces media machines during the Kosovo crisis. Our war correspondent looks at some cases of combat fatigue and takes his colleagues to task for following orders

Robert Fisk@indyvoices
Monday 28 June 1999 23:02

War does strange things to reporters. A colleague of mine - a normally decent, thoughtful, rational man - went completely bonkers in the run up to the 1991 Gulf war. It was a moral war, he kept exclaiming. We were not trying to liberate Kuwait because of its oil wealth but because of the West's moral mission to stand up to dictators. If we didn't fight Saddam, it would be Munich all over again. Anyone who wanted peace now was an appeaser.

And when the press corps - thousands and thousands of them - turned up en masse at the Grand Hotel in Pristina in the wake of Nato's army this month, it wasn't difficult to spot those of our colleagues who had been taken over by events. Two gentlemen of the press arrived in full military costume and floppy camouflage hats; another - presumably unable to shake off his Gulf war experiences - marched into the cockroach infested hotel in desert fatigues, having not noticed that the Balkans are covered in trees and grass. And sure enough, there arrived, too, the "frothers", those journalists who had convinced themselves of the justice of this war and of the wickedness of the opposing side.

Even before Nato's advance, David Chater of Sky TV- a courageous journalist who was seriously injured in Croatia at the start of the Yugoslav war - was lecturing us on the "moral" cause behind the conflict; by the time he reached Djakovica and Pec in advance of Italian troops, he was announcing that "there's a sense of fear and a smell of evil... this evil... is still going on and I doubt that anyone is doing anything about it." Now I'm always a bit concerned for people who "smell" evil. Evil may be palpable and it's possible to smell the awful results of evil - in the case of Kosovo hundreds of murdered Albanians - but I suspect that people who think they can actually smell wickedness need a holiday. Or at least a reminder that they have not taken holy orders.

And the flip side of this moralising can be extremely unpleasant. In Belgrade, for example, a CNN reporter astounded one of his English colleagues after Nato had bombed a narrow road bridge in the Yugoslav village of Varvarin, killing dozens of civilians, many of whom fell to their death in the River Morava. "That'll teach them not to stand on bridges," he roared. This was not the kind of language he used on air, of course, where CNN's report on the bridge killings was accompanied by the remark that there had been civilian casualties "according to the Serb authorities" - all this when CNN's own crew had been there and filmed the decapitated corpse of the local priest.

But does any of this matter when CNN's cryptic warning about its own Belgrade reports being subject to "certain restrictions" effectively destroyed the credibility of its journalists? Serb restrictions there were aplenty for the TV boys - but was Nato allowing journalists to wander on to the Aviano airbase to interview its returning pilots? Were there not a few "restrictions" in our reporting of Nato and all its works?

Not that you'd need them in Brussels, for most of the journalists at Nato headquarters were so supine, so utterly taken in by Nato's generals and air commodores that their questions might have been printed out for them by Nato in advance.

There were a few exceptions - Christopher Dickey of Newsweek comes to mind - but most of the others allowed themselves to be used as a mouthpiece for the military, sheep who bleated appropriately when Nato boasted of the bombing sorties over Serbia or who passed on Nato's regrets when it killed civilians. By the time American jets had destroyed an entire hospital at Surdulica, they gave up, failing to challenge Shea even when he claimed - untruthfully - that the hospital was a barracks.

For challenging authority is part of a journalist's job. And challenging one's own representatives in time of war is a duty, albeit a difficult one, in a democracy. Serb journalists were largely too fearful - or too servile - to criticise Slobodan Milosevic. But that doesn't mean we have to behave like them. Not a soul among the Nato press corps attempted to question the extraordinary claims of military success against the Yugoslav Third Army in Kosovo - claims which now turn out to have been a pack of lies. (The Serbs, interestingly enough, say they lost 19 tanks - but Nato officials now privately think they only destroyed 13!) Is there not a lesson in all this for Matthew Chance of CNN or the BBC's Mark Laity who has shown himself, when talking to generals, to be a sheep in sheep's clothing?

Even Nato's language went unchallenged. It exhumed that dreadful old Gulf war phrase "collateral damage"; and the use of "air campaign" for Nato's bombardment - as if hundreds of MIG 29s were attacking our brave bomber pilots - went unquestioned. But why shouldn't it when information about the war - for the first time in recent history - was directed almost entirely at a tabloid audience?

James Shea could quote Hobbes and Shakespeare, but it was his smug references to the turning off of Belgrade's lights and his illusion to Milosevic as Al Capone that caught the flavour of his media approach. This was a war for the bloke in the street and the more vividly Shea expressed his horror at all the mass graves to be found in Kosovo the more simple the conflict appeared to be. And the message was simple. Nato would bomb Serbia until Milosevic's "murder machine" ended its "genocide" against the Albanians and allowed the refugees to return home. The fact that most of the refugees were alive and in their homes when Nato began the war - the fact that Shea's lip smacking exposes of mass graves proved that Nato had totally failed to protect the people for whom it had supposedly gone to war - was totally ignored.

Nato's bombing brought a kind of peace to Kosovo - but only after it had given the Serbs the opportunity to massacre or dispossess half the Albanian population of the province, caused billions of dollars in damage to Yugoslavia's infrastructure, killed hundreds of Yugoslav civilians, destabilised Macedonia and gravely damaged relations with China. And the media called this a successful war.

As usual, the Second World War was trundled out. Milosevic was Hitler, the Serbs were no better than the Nazis, and the persecuted Albanians became the Jews of Kosovo. Most editorials followed a familiar theme: we could not appease the tyrants of Belgrade. And now another line is appearing in editorials; that the mass graves prove that the Serbs really were wicked (shades of Chater "smelling" evil) and that everything that Nato did - including the killing of all those Serb civilians - was justified.

What no newspaper picked up was the critical difference between the "peace" agreement which Serbia refused to sign in March, which would have allowed Nato troops free movement throughout all of Serbia and given the Albanians a three year opt-out clause for independence - and the watered down version which ended the war, which restricted Nato to Kosovo and insisted that Kosovo remained part of Serbia. Not one journalist asked the obvious question: if the world had offered this to the Serbs in the first place, might they have accepted? Might we have avoided war? For some reporters, the excitement of Kosovo's `liberation' - we shall see if the K.L.A. really believes this is the right word - proved too much.

As cheering Albanians flung roses at British troops in Pristina, my old friend Robert Fox of the London Evening Standard, began bawling in my ear: "Fascist Irish Guards Oppress Fleeing Serbs," he screamed. I was glad to note he had observed the fleeing Serbs. But what was he talking about? "I've just given you your `intro' for tonight," he shouted. Presumably I had not joined in the bestialisation of the serbs. Perhaps I had not supported the `morality' of Nato's war. I wish he had been around to help protect my Albanian interpreter's family from Serb gunmen the night before.

Amid the "frothers" and the sheep, however there were a few steady hands and - pain me though it does to say this of a Murdoch show - Sky TV's coverage seemed by far the most independent-minded. Jeremy Thompson's polite sergeant major approach to all interviewees had Serb killer Arkan squirming in his shoes while Keith Graves - a wolf in wolf's clothing - well and truly shafted Nato when he found French troops controlling the flow of Albanian looters through the streets of Graca. I should also add that when my Albanian interpreter's family were threatened by Serb paramilitaries, the only television reporter who was prepared - at great risk to himself - to come to their home with a crew to try to protect them was Jim Clancy of CNN.

But there is another CNN story - not involving Clancy - that still needs explanation. Two days before Nato bombed the Serb television headquarters in Belgrade, CNN received a tip from its Atlanta headquarters that the building was to be destroyed. They were told to remove their facilities from the premises at once, which they did. A day later, Serbian information minister Aleksander Vucic received a faxed invitation from the Larry King Live show in the US, to appear on CNN. They wanted him on air at 2.30 in the morning of 23 April and asked him to arrive at Serb Television half an hour early for make-up. Vucic was late - which was just as well for him since Nato missiles slammed into the building at six minutes past two. The first one exploded in the make up room where the young Serb assistant was burned to death. CNN calls this all a coincidence, saying that the Larry King show, put out by the entertainment division, did not know of the news department's instruction to its men to leave the Belgrade building.


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