Truth: still the first casualty
Where was it reported that the European Union last month lifted duties on goods coming from the Balkans — except for Serbia — in an attempt to influence the Yugoslav elections? It certainly wasn't considered newsworthy by the mass media in Australia. Brian Denny, of the British socialist paper Morning Star, reported that EU foreign ministers agreed that the EU would lift duties on 95 per cent of industrial and agricultural products from Croatia, Bosnia, Albania and Macedonia. NATO-occupied Kosovo also was to enjoy freer trade, while Montenegro, its pro-Western partner in the Yugoslav Federation, could send aluminium to the EU duty free. Britain sent 600 more troops to Kosovo and US warships took up positions in the Adriatic. The fascist KLA forces, supposedly disbanded by NATO, said they would be increasing their activities during the election. Where was all this highlighted in news reports on developments in Yugoslavia? The foreign ministers had already promised a radical EU policy shift if Serbia's Western-backed opposition won in the polls. That they did not win made not one bit of difference to the US and their EU backers. Nor did it effect the way the election was reported. Why weren't we told about the EU's so-called Asphalt for Democracy scheme, which involved the delivery of bitumen to ten Serbian Western-backed opposition-run towns to help local road repairs? Morning Star's PAUL DONOVAN looked at how the media manipulated, and continues to manipulate, its reporting on Western intervention in Kosovo. As in the case of Iraq some ten years earlier, a heavy bombing campaign pounded Yugoslavia and was followed up with devastating sanctions. The major difference between the war in Yugoslavia and the preceding Gulf conflict is the ease with which the whole venture was sold to the public. Again in the case of Iraq most people quickly realised that the war was not about the human rights of the people of Kuwait but the oil interests of the West. But how many are now aware that the war in Yugoslavia was about US and European strategic economic interests in the region? Who is aware that in Kosovo the US has built its largest military base since the Vietnam war just to the north of a proposed oil pipeline partly funded by the US Government? And how many British taxpayers are aware of the open-ended military commitment that the Blair Government has entered into in the region, which means that tours of duty in the north of Ireland are now to be replaced by annual tours of duty in the Balkans? I would hazard to suggest that most people still believe the rhetoric of the time that the intervention was humanitarian to stop Serbs slaughtering Albanians in Kosovo. The careful manipulations of the media laid the ground for this intervention and the ease with which it was achieved means that the next adventure will probably prove even easier to sell. Over the years author and journalist Phillip Knightley has charted the way in which truth becomes the first casualty of war. Knightley wrote The First Casualty: the war correspondent from the Crimea to Kosovo, which chronicles the manipulations by governments and the military of the media in times of war. First, there is the presentation of the war in stark terms of good and evil with one side being demonised, its leader depicted as mad, bloodthirsty and sub-human — in other words a modern-day Hitler. "The good side will be presented as the saviour of civilisation, humanitarian, caring, compassionate, forced to act because of the barbarity of the other side. "To this end — ignoring the fact that there are atrocities by all sides in all wars — old atrocity stories will be dusted off and recycled", says Knightley. This blueprint was steadfastly adhered to in both the Gulf and Kosovo conflicts. Knightley points to the manuals on managing the news during wartime — such as those the US and Britain compiled after the Vietnam war — which are updated after each new conflict. "It follows basic principles", says Knightley of the manuals. "Appear open, transparent and eager to help; never go in for summary repression or direct control, nullify rather than conceal undesirable news. "Control emphasis rather than facts; balance bad news with good and lie directly only when certain that the lie will not be found out during the course of the war." Britain and the US introduced the manuals when the military became convinced that the way in which the war on Vietnam was reported sapped the will of the US public to continue to support the campaign and led directly to defeat. The manual had its first test in the Falklands, was polished in the Gulf and was perfected in Kosovo, according to Knightley. Around 2,700 media people accompanied NATO forces when they entered Kosovo at the end of the bombing campaign. The war was the most comprehensively covered in terms of information provided via briefings and advanced technology, but in terms of providing actual understanding of the issues involved, all were controlled. In the case of British journalists, one cannot help but wonder whether the conditioned approach which most adopted to the war did not owe something to experiences of reporting the events in the north of Ireland over the last 30 years. The blanket acceptance of the government propaganda model that British troops were only in Ireland keeping the peace between two feuding tribes was set out in 1969 and never seriously questioned thereafter by the mainstream media. Knightley believes that the Kosovo conflict marked a victory for the military in a 150 year battle with war correspondents over how war should be reported. "The military had won the battle for their view of war which is to tell the public nothing until until the war is over, then tell them who won." The Kosovo conflict no doubt marked a high point in complicity of media to government manipulations. Dissident voices were largely frozen out of the coverage with a quite deliberate policy pursued of not reporting opposition to the war. Stories have emerged of lots of angry anti-war letters to the editor being being binned. Knightley questions whether war correspondents actually have a role to play and suggests that a skeptical view must be adopted to all reportage at times of war. While he is probably correct, the more worrying legacy that has been thrown up from Kosovo is: how is it going to be possible in the future to stop another lurch into conflict at the behest of the strategic interests of powerful nations. The complete failure to report the situation in Kosovo before, during and since the bombing is likely to have implications that stretch far beyond the region.