The War on TV

Philip Hammond

Broadcast (UK)
May 14, 1999

In its war against Yugoslavia, Nato has tried to silence all debate, 
criticism and dissent. The most grotesque instance of this was the bombing 
of the Serbian television building, killing an estimated 10 civilians and 
injuring dozens more. Prime Minister Tony Blair described this as 'entirely 
justified'. The attack was allegedly carried out in the name of Truth, since
the station produces propaganda. The image-conscious Blair explained that 
television is part of the 'apparatus' which keeps a political leader in 
power, so camera operators, make-up ladies and janitors are therefore 
legitimate targets.

Perhaps Nato also hoped reports by Western journalists in Belgrade-- filed 
from the TV building until it was hit--would become collateral damage. 
Certainly in Britain politicians have sought to stifle opinions and facts 
they do not like, most conspicuously by portraying John Simpson's reports as
Serbian propaganda. What are they scared of?

First, they are worried by suggestions that the Serbian people are united 
against Nato. Defence Secretary George Robertson argued unconvincingly that 
if an opinion poll were conducted in Serbia it would not show the united 
opposition Simpson had reported. Second, they are uncomfortable about 
interviewers questioning the success of Nato strategy. Development Secretary
Claire Short, for example, did a bad impersonation of the 'clever dick' 
questions asked by the likes of John Humphries. Third, politicians have been
rattled by reports of civilian damage and death caused by Nato, which began 
to come out within the first 24 hours of the bombing campaign and have 
continued steadily since.

'I only, as Nato spokesman, give out information when it is totally accurate
and confirmed', Jamie Shea told Channel Four News. In fact Nato information 
has been about as accurate as its bombs--several of which have landed 
outside Yugoslavia's borders. In this interview, Shea was giving out the '
totally accurate and confirmed' information that two Yugoslav pilots had 
been captured after their planes were shot down over Bosnia while they were 
attempting to attack Nato peacekeepers there. Nato later admitted no pilots 
had been captured and the MiG fighters did not have ground attack capability
. We have since been fed a string of stories - that 20 schoolteachers were 
killed in front of their pupils, that Pristina stadium was being used as a 
concentration camp, that the paramilitary leader Arkan was in Kosovo, that 
President Slobodan Milosevic's family had fled the country, that Kosovo 
Albanian leaders had been executed--all of which turned out to be false.

Nato even lied about its intention to bomb Serbian television. We were told 
people in Yugoslavia do not have access to the Western side of the story--
though in fact they do--and that airstrikes would follow unless Serbian TV 
carried six hours a day of Western news programming. When Belgrade offered 
to accept the six hours in exchange for six minutes of Yugoslav news on 
Western networks, Nato backtracked, saying it had only meant it would bomb 
transmitters also used for military communications. Nato also explicitly 
assured the International Federation of Journalists it would not target 
media workers. What are we to make of an organisation which kills others 
because it says they are lying, but consistently lies itself?

Hitting civilian targets has been the most sensitive issue for Nato. The 
technique for stage-managing the release of such information is to begin 
with a bare-faced lie, in the hope that the first headlines will leave a 
lasting impression. This is followed by an admission of limited culpability,
designed to indicate Nato's honesty and openness whilst continuing to imply 
the enemy is at least partly to blame. This procedure was established over 
the damage caused to civilian areas of Pristina, which Nato initially tried 
to pin on the Serbs. They then admitted 'one bomb' may have been 'seduced 
off the target'--as if the Serbs were willing reluctant Nato bombs to hit 
them. The same strategy was adopted to explain the attack on the refugee 
convoy: the Serbs were blamed, then Nato admitted to hitting one tractor.

British broadcasters have drawn some self-flattering comparisons, suggesting
that whilst Serbian TV is a propaganda machine, our news is impartial and 
balanced. It is true that some has been, particularly reporting by 
correspondents in Serbia able to see the results of Nato bombardment. But 
back in the studio there is a tendency to stick slavishly to the Nato line. 
When Simpson reported from the site of the downed US Stealth aircraft, his 
colleagues in London insisted Nato had not yet confirmed a plane had been 
shot down. Similarly, Sky's presenter tried to question the credibility of a
report by their Belgrade correspondent Tim Marshall on the bombing of the 
refugee convoy, even though Marshall maintained his sources were reliable.

Of course, even in London newsrooms there are honourable exceptions. Channel
Four's Alex Thompson introduced some Nato cockpit video footage by remarking 
pointedly that it was 'impossible to verify independently'. Yet his 
self-consciously even-handed use of this phrase was striking precisely 
because it was a departure from the norm. Most of the time, official 
briefings are faithfully reproduced complete with pictures supplied by Nato 
and the Ministry of Defence, and the prepared soundbites of politicians and 
military spokesmen are parroted by journalists. For example, when it became 
clear that airstrikes were precipitating a humanitarian crisis rather than 
achieving the stated purpose of preventing one, Nato covered its 
embarrassment by saying it needed to 'catch up'. This euphemistic 
description of intensified bombing was dutifully repeated by Mark Laity, the
BBC's man in Brussels, on both the evening's bulletins.

The problems with the coverage run deeper than an insufficiently questioning
attitude toward official sources, however. Some journalists have actively 
taken the part of Nato. When Robert Fisk's article in the Independent 
contradicted the outlandish claim that the Serbs had bombed Pristina 
themselves, one British television correspondent stood up at the briefing in
Brussels and urged his fellow reporters not to ask Nato any awkward questions
. Allegiances have been signalled in more subtle ways too. Reports which 
take us on board planes flying missions over Yugoslavia invite viewers to 
identify with Nato just as much as the 'bomb's eye view' cockpit video. 
Coming under fire with the Kosovo Liberation Army inside Kosovo, Jonathan 
Charles spoke romantically of 'the men who dream of liberating Kosovo' as 'a
symbol of hope for ethnic Albanians', while Channel Five News offered a 
human-interest story about the family of a Kosovo Albanian who had left 
Britain to join the KLA.

Many seem to have bought into the simplistic 'Good versus Evil' morality 
with which politicians have framed the conflict, and have joined in with 
Nato's demonisation of Milosevic and the Serbs. A Panorama special exhorted 
Nato leaders to prosecute Milosevic for war crimes. Brian Barron went to 
Montenegro in search of the 'grizzly details' of the 'troubled history' of 
the Milosevic 'clan'. Jeremy Paxman suggested a programme of 'thoroughgoing 
imposed de-Nazification' for post-war Serbia, echoing the view voiced by 
everyone from government ministers to the Sun newspaper that the Serbs are 
the new Nazis.

The heavy-handed moralism has made it difficult to ask questions, especially
about the plight of refugees. Yet questions demand to be asked: about the 
reasons for their flight, and the tales of atrocities they bring with them. 
Judging from British news reports, these must be the first airstrikes in 
history no-one has fled. Even when told they had been bombed by Nato, 
survivors of the attack on the convoy blamed the Serbs. This gives some 
indication of the reliability of refugees' statements. From the viewpoint of
ethnic Albanians who welcome Nato action, such statements are understandable.
But this does not explain why Western reporters should accept them, nor why 
the hundreds of thousands of Serbs displaced by Nato attacks are routinely 

Rather than admitting they don't know what is happening inside Kosovo, 
correspondents on the border repeat every horror story. The fact such 
accounts are uncorroborated is countered by the mantra that refugees' claims
are 'consistent and credible', despite sometimes flimsy evidence. The 
experience of Bosnia is cited as support for the tales of 'systematic mass 
rape', for example. Yet despite claims that more than 50,000 Muslim women 
were raped by Serbs in Bosnia, a 1993 United Nations commission scaled down 
to 2,400 victims - including Serbs and Croats - based on 119 documented 

No doubt civilians are being killed and terrorised from their homes by 
Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, just as Serbian civilians are being killed and 
terrorised by Nato bombing across Yugoslavia as a whole. That's war. But the
focus on atrocity stories obscures what little we do know of what is 
happening: a military campaign against armed separatists. Occasionally, this
hidden story leaks through. Panorama repeatedly mentioned attacks on 'KLA 
strongholds'. A Newsnight report on 'video evidence of the killings of 
civilians' let slip that at least one of the six 'civilians' was a KLA 
member and another a strong KLA supporter. But it generally appears no KLA 
members are ever killed, and no-one is killed by them.

Every war produces atrocity stories, and it is difficult to chart a course 
through propaganda and rumour. A useful start would be to discount the 
obviously ludicrous claims, such as the story of the 'mass graves'. Nato 
asked us not only to accept a grainy aerial photograph as evidence of 
atrocities, but also to believe that the Serbs forced ethnic Albanians to 
dress up in orange uniforms and bury the dead in 'neat rows of graves facing
Mecca', in the words of Nato general Guiseppe Marani. Presumably this too was
'totally accurate and confirmed'?



Philip Hammond is senior lecturer in media at South Bank University, and 
worked as a consultant on BBC2's Counterblast: Against the War (May 4, 1999).