A War of Words and Pictures

It takes two sides to fight a propaganda war, yet critical commentary on the ‘war of words’ has so far concentrated almost exclusively on the ‘tightly controlled’ Yugoslav media. We have been shown clips from ‘Serb TV’ and invited to scoff at their patriotic military montages, while British journalists cast doubt on every Yugoslav ‘claim’. But whatever one thinks of the Yugoslav media, they pale into insignificance alongside the propaganda offensive from Washington, Brussels and London.

‘They tell lies about us, we will go on telling the truth about them’, says Defence Secretary George Robertson. Really? Nato told us the three captured US servicemen were United Nations peacekeepers. Not true. They told us they would show us two captured Yugoslav pilots who have never appeared. Then we had the story of the ‘executed’ Albanian leaders — including Rambouillet negotiator Fehmi Agani — whose deaths are now ‘unconfirmed’. When the Albanian leader Ibrahim Rugova, who was said to be in hiding, turned up on Yugoslav television condemning Nato bombing, the BBC contrived to insinuate that the pictures were faked, while others suggested Rugova must have been coerced, blackmailed, drugged, or at least misquoted. They told us the paramilitary leader Arkan was in Kosovo, when he was appearing almost daily in Belgrade—and being interviewed by John Simpson there. They told us Pristina stadium had been turned into a concentration camp for 100,000 ethnic Albanians, when it was empty. Robertson posing for photographers in the cockpit of a Harrier can’t have been propaganda. Only the enemy goes in for that sort of thing.

Nato’s undeclared propaganda war has involved a two-pronged attack. First, Nato has shamelessly sought to use the plight of Albanian refugees for its own purposes, cynically inflating the number of displaced people to more than twice that estimated by the UN. Correspondents in the region are given star billing on BBC news, and are required not just to report but to share their feelings with us. As Peter Sissons asked Ben Brown in Macedonia: ‘Ben, what thoughts go through a reporter’s mind seeing these sights in the dying moments of the twentieth century?’

Reports from the refugee centres are used as justifications for Nato strategy. The most striking example was the video footage smuggled out of Kosovo said to show ‘mass murder’. The BBC presented this as the ‘first evidence of alleged atrocities’, unwittingly acknowledging that the Allies had been bombing for ten days without any evidence. Indeed, for days beforehand the BBC had been inviting us to ‘imagine what may be happening to those left in Kosovo’. After watching the footage, Robin Cook apparently knew who had been killed, how they had died, and the reasons they had been attacked. Above all, he knew that the video ‘underlines the need for military action’.

The second line of attack is to demonise Milosevic and the Serbs, in order to deflect worries that the tide of refugees has been at least partly caused by Nato’s ‘humanitarian’ bombing. Parts of Pristina have been flattened after being bombed every day or more than a week. Wouldn’t you leave? And what about the tens of thousands of Serbian refugees from Kosovo – are they being ‘ethnically cleansed’ too? Sympathy does not extend to them, just as the 200,000 Serbian refugees from Kraijina were ignored in 1995. Instead, the tabloids gloat ‘Serbs you right’ as the Cruise missiles rain down.

The accusations levelled against the Serbs have escalated from ‘brutal repression’ to ‘genocide’, ‘atrocities’, and ‘crimes against humanity’ as Nato has sought to justify its bombing campaign. Pointed parallels have been drawn with the Holocaust, yet no one seems to notice that putting people on a train to the border is not the same as putting them on a train to Auschwitz. The media have taken their cue from politicians and left no cliché unturned in the drive to demonise Milosevic. The Yugoslav President has been described by the press as a ‘Warlord’, a ‘Serb butcher’, the ‘Butcher of Belgrade’, the ‘Butcher of the Balkans’, ‘the most evil dictator to emerge in Europe since Adolph Hitler’, a ‘psychopath’, a ‘Serb tyrant’, a ‘psychopathic tyrant’, ‘a man of no mercy’, and a ‘former Communist hardliner’. Searching for insults, the Star also described him as ‘dumpy’. He has been compared with Hitler, Stalin, Saddam Hussein and Pol Pot. The Daily Mirror also noted significantly that he smokes the same cigars as Fidel Castro. Just as they did with Saddam Hussein in the Gulf war, Panorama devoted a programme to ‘The Mind of Milosevic’.

Several commentators have voiced their unease about the Nato action from the beginning. But the media have generally been careful to keep the debate within the narrow parameters of acceptable discussion, while politicians have stepped up the demonisation of the Serbs to try to drown out dissenting voices. The result is a confusingly schizophrenic style of reporting, whereby we are offered limited but genuine debate one minute, then reassured that Nato action is fully justified the next.

The rules appear to be that one can criticise Nato for not intervening early enough, not hitting hard enough, or not sending ground troops. Pointing out that the Nato intervention has precipitated a far worse crisis than the one it was supposedly designed to solve, or drawing attention to the fact that dropping bombs kills people are borderline cases, best accompanied by stout support for ‘our boys’. What one must not do is question the motives and justification for Nato going to war. Indeed, one is not even supposed to say that Nato is at war. Under image-conscious New Labour, actually going to war is fine, but using the term is not politically correct.

The limits of acceptable debate were revealed by the reaction to the broadcast by SNP leader Alex Salmond. Many of his criticisms of Nato strategy were little different from those already raised by others, but what provoked the government’s outrage was that he dared to compare the Serbs under Nato bombardment to the British in the Blitz. Tony Blair denounced the broadcast as ‘totally unprincipled’, while Robin Cook described it as ‘appalling’, ‘irresponsible’ and ‘deeply offensive’. The way Labour politicians have tried to silence or sideline critics such as Salmond is similar to the way they have sought to bludgeon public opinion more broadly. Having started their undeclared war without the issue being debated in Parliament, the government clearly hopes to sweep aside public discussion too.

The very fact that Blair has felt it necessary to stage national prime-ministerial broadcasts indicates the underlying insecurity of a government worried about losing public support and unsure of either the justification for or the consequences of its actions. Though happy to address the nation under the watchful eye of Labour spin-doctors, Blair reportedly refused to be interviewed by Jeremy Paxman. Evidently the British Prime Minister is brave enough to send in the bombers, but too timid to explain and justify his actions to a BBC interviewer.

Audience figures for BBC news have reportedly risen dramatically since the air war began, and ITV’s dumbed-down news has been a flop. Yet viewers have been ill-served by their public service broadcaster. The BBC’s monitoring service has suggested that the ‘Serb media dances to [a] patriotic tune’. Whose tune does the BBC dance to that it reproduces every new Nato claim without pausing to ask for evidence?

Just as New Labour has sought to marginalise its critics, so TV news has barely mentioned the protests and demonstrations across the world – not just in Macedonia, Russia, Italy and Greece – but also in Tel Aviv, Lisbon, Tallinn, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Toronto, Sydney and elsewhere. Are we to suppose that these demonstrators are all Serbs, or that they have been fooled by the ‘tightly controlled’ Yugoslav media?

From: The Independent, 6 April 1999

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