KOSOVO AND THE MEDIA
“The orchestrated outcry over the 'massacre' at Racak led directly to the Rambouillet 'negotiations' the following month, at which--as one US State Department official confided to reporters--'the bar was set too high for the Serbs to comply' because 'they need some bombing.’ . . . Reporters apparently couldn't even spot that NATO's cockpit footage--said to prove that the bombing of a passenger train was 'accidental'--was being shown to them at three times its normal speed. I wouldn't trust these people to set my VCR, let alone report a war. . . . The basic assumption of the moral superiority of the West is the contemporary equivalent of assumptions of racial superiority 100 years ago. It's been accurately described as a 21st century version of the 'White Man's Burden'. That's what needs to be challenged. . . . I hope that the number of people prepared to question the received wisdom will grow. There will be a next time.”
Andrew Gallix interviews Philip Hammond
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
3AM: Do you agree that public opinion was consistently lied to in the run-up to the air strikes against Yugoslavia (especially over the number of casualties in Kosovo) and that Western policy was geared towards making those air strikes inevitable (the Rambouillet ‘accord’ which was simply unacceptable to the Serbs)?
PH: There was certainly very consistent lying, undertaken with the full support and co-operation of most Western journalists. Outstanding lies in the build-up to the war include those surrounding the key episodes of the alleged Racak massacre and the Rambouillet negotiations.
The official version of the 15 January 1999 Racak massacre, promulgated initially by the OSCE's William Walker, was that the Serbs murdered around 40 ethnic Albanian civilians, shooting them at close range and then mutilating their bodies. Even two years later we're still not supposed to know this isn't true.
This January, a German newspaper carried details of a forensic report on the incident, written by Finnish pathologists and commissioned by the European Union. The report fails to confirm the dead were civilian villagers, finds no evidence of bodies having been disfigured, and offers only one case (out of 40) in which traces of gun smoke might indicate an execution (Berliner Zeitung, 17 January 2001).
But the most remarkable thing about this report is not that it flatly contradicts the version of events given at the time by Western spokesmen and repeated verbatim by UK and US reporters. What's remarkable is that the Finnish report--already delayed for two years for no apparent reason--has been almost completely ignored by the British and American news media. It's been newsworthy elsewhere in Europe, so why not here or across the Atlantic?
The orchestrated outcry over the 'massacre' at Racak led directly to the Rambouillet 'negotiations' the following month, at which--as one US State Department official confided to reporters--'the bar was set too high for the Serbs to comply' because 'they need some bombing'. No one saw fit to report this deliberate provocation of war. Indeed, almost every British journalist seemed incapable of accurately describing the terms of the Rambouillet 'accord' until after NATO had done its work. The BBC's up-to-the-minute online news service ran the story that the talks had been 'designed to fail', but in March 2000--an entire year too late.
3AM: Milosevic spread the idea that there was an international conspiracy against Serbia and Western countries seemed to have done their utmost to fulfil this prophecy. Do you agree with this analysis?
PH: The Serbs are generally described as paranoid lunatics when they suggest the Western media might be giving them a bad press. Presumably Western news organisations think that portraying people as 'genocidal Nazis' is the height of professionalism rather than gutter journalism.
What gives the appearance of conspiracy is that international
institutions and Western organisations--from NATO and the UN war crimes tribunal, through 'independent' intellectuals and non-governmental organisations, to the mainstream media--share similar attitudes and assumptions.
For example, NATO bombs Serbian broadcasting: the Hague tribunal declares it isn't a war crime, but is instead evidence of Milosevic's crimes since he was allegedly warned of the attack (though NATO apparently forgot to mention this until two years later); the International Federation of Journalists agrees with the Hague; and Western intellectuals and reporters laud the tribunal as a fair and unbiased court.
Having said all this, I don't believe there's an international
conspiracy (see below).3AM: According to you, what was the ultimate goal of Western policy towards Yugoslavia?
PH: One can point to rational (though unstated) policy goals such as furthering US power through NATO expansion. However, I think it would be a mistake to see Western policy as entirely coherent. Much of it is reactive, opportunistic and motivated by political expediency. Hence I'm not a conspiracy theorist in these matters, since conspiracy implies something more conscious and deliberate. There is active collusion--for instance between the Hague and NATO governments, or between NATO propagandists and the media--but I think this generally happens spontaneously rather than in a conspiratorial fashion.
3AM: Do you think this policy was (at least partly) the result of a misperception of events in Yugoslavia? (Anthony Eden seeing Nasser as a new Mussolini, that sort of thing).
PH: Perhaps some politicians and journalists genuinely believe their own propaganda, even though it is often extremely far-fetched and involves a great many deliberate distortions.
Let's assume for a moment that Western motives were as lofty and moral as they are claimed to be, even though this is highly implausible on any reasonable assessment of the historical record. One would nevertheless have to conclude that the policy, in Kosovo and earlier, has been an unmitigated disaster even in its own terms. The 'help' that Bosnian Muslims and Kosovo Albanians have received from the West comes at the price of military occupation and colonial-style government-by-decree. Even if the moral concern was entirely genuine, the result is profoundly anti-democratic because the premise of 'human rights intervention' is that those on the receiving end cannot run their own affairs and need to be ruled by the West in some form.
3AM: One of the lessons of the Kosovo conflict is that (most of) the media accepted official spin lock, stock and barrel: are journalists simply incompetent or are they part of the West's propaganda machine?
PH: There is surely a high degree of professional incompetence. Reporters apparently couldn't even spot that NATO's cockpit footage--said to prove that the bombing of a passenger train was 'accidental'--was being shown to them at three times its normal speed. I wouldn't trust these people to set my VCR, let alone report a war.
However, this sort of incompetence--forgetting how to ask critical questions at an official press briefing--is clearly connected to journalists' close identification with NATO governments and with the cause of 'ethical foreign policy'.
3AM: How did media coverage of these events vary from country to country?
PH: There was little variation across the core NATO countries. To get a different perspective one had either to look to more marginal NATO countries (particularly Greece), or to countries outside NATO (Russia, for instance). However, the global reach of Western news is tremendous--in India, for example, news reporting relied on Western sources even though they were at odds with the commentaries provided by Indian journalists and editors.
I wasn't at all surprised by the British media's performance, since it drew on themes which had already been strongly established in coverage of Bosnia (see below).
3AM: If journalists are not doing their job properly, do you think it is the duty of academics to speak out?
PH: Well, there aren't many critical academics either! Liberal intellectual opinion is perhaps the strongest source of support for 'ethical' interventionism.
I think academics have a duty to speak out when they see public debate distorted by official propaganda and uncritical journalism. Such activity has never been popular, and is increasingly frowned upon.
3AM: Even if the truth is finally revealed, don't you think that it won't make any difference because history has already been written by the western nations' propaganda machine? The damage is done.
PH: Much of the truth has already been revealed, though NATO continues to fight a rearguard action. The claims of 'genocide' and 10,000 to 100,000 dead have been shown to be false, but the claims are still made.
A 25 January report on US National Public Radio (NPR) claimed that stories about the disposal of bodies at the Trepca mine complex--already discredited by the Hague's own investigators--were true after all. The NPR report was based on anonymous interviews with men claiming to have carried out the work, but the story as presented looks extremely odd: the units involved in the alleged disposal are described as
'Milosevic's personal praetorian guard', but its members are now apparently willing to help convict him of war crimes; first the men are said to have been 'disgusted by the work at Trepca', but are then said to have shown 'no remorse' and to wish they 'could have done more'; the OSCE say a 'forensic team with sophisticated equipment' failed to find any evidence at the site, but the radio journalists allegedly stumbled across a pile of discarded clothing.
NATO have been greatly helped by the way that stories which conform to the Western version of events get maximum publicity, while contrary facts receive little media attention. It would be unrealistic to expect much mainstream exposure of critical analyses. But I hope that the number of people prepared to question the received wisdom will grow. There will be a next time.
3AM: Truth has always been the first casualty of war, but do you think that media manipulation has got worse in recent years?
PH: Something is certainly worse, though I'm not sure that 'media manipulation' covers it, if by that one means the control of the media by governments and the military. They are perhaps better at it and do more of it, so arguably there's been a quantitative increase in news management and spin.
However, the more worrying development is the disappearance of the critical minority of journalists--generally liberal or left-of-centre--who in the past were sceptical about Western interference in other countries. The majority of mainstream reporters have always gone along with their governments, but there was at least a significant current of opinion which was prepared to question alleged Western benevolence.
One can still find a few exceptions--Robert Fisk and John Pilger in Britain, Paul Watson in the US--but what's changed over the 1990s is that it's now the liberal/left sections of the media (and of the intelligentsia more generally) which are the most vociferous advocates of interventionism. It's been called the 'journalism of attachment' or 'something-must-be-done' journalism--the idea that the role of 'critical' journalism is to pressure Western governments to do more.
This trend started at the end of the Persian Gulf War in 1991, with calls for further Western intervention to help the Kurds, and has been evident in every international crisis which has been in the news since then. It developed most strongly in Bosnia, where it was precisely the liberal sections of the media which fulminated that Western policy should be more 'moral' and involve more direct military force.
This is a truly disastrous development. It's notable that calls for 'something to be done', usually at the point of a gun, tend to coincide with the foreign policy priorities of Western governments. But even where they express disagreement over particular policy options, there is always broad consensus on the right and duty of the West to intervene.
This basic assumption of the moral superiority of the West is the contemporary equivalent of assumptions of racial superiority 100 years ago. It's been accurately described as a 21st century version of the 'White Man's Burden'. That's what needs to be challenged.
3AM: In some circles, Milosevic's downfall is presented as a coup rather than a popular uprising. Do you give credence to this rumour? In the same way, what proof do we have that Milosevic actually lost the election?
PH: There is no doubt in my mind about the extent of popular opposition to Milosevic in Serbia; he was extremely unpopular. I don't give credence to rumours, but I do believe the hard evidence of Western support for, and sponsorship of, the opposition. It bodes ill for the future.
Philip Hammond is a Senior Lecturer in Media at South Bank University, London. During the Kosovo conflict his analyses of the media coverage were carried in The Independent, The Times and Broadcast, as well as numerous on-line publications, and he worked as a consultant on BBC2's Counterblast: Against the War (4 May 1999). He is a contributor to The Kosovo News and Propaganda War (International Press Institute, 1999) and is co-editor, with Edward S. Herman, of Degraded Capability: The Media and the Kosovo Crisis (Pluto Press, 2000).
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