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Lies And The Laptop Bombardiers

Serbia and Montenegro

new internationalist
issue 314 - July 1999

Lies and the
laptop bombardiers
The barrage of words and images that accompanied the beginning of the
crisis in Kosovo was an exercise in official cheer-leading by both sides.
Richard Swift
looks through the smoke and mirrors.

As the refugees poured out of Kosovo and the bombs fell nightly on Belgrade, everybody knew that lies were being told but nobody could say where the dividing line was between the truth and the lies. For the average Western TV viewer or newspaper reader it was a lot easier to pick out Slobodan Milosevic’s lies than to detect the media management of NATO PR smoothie Jamie (‘You know NATO, we always tell the truth’) Shea. Equally, in Yugoslavia the heavy hand of Serb propaganda carried the distinctive odour of old-style totalitarianism, especially after its lively independent press had been silenced. In war, dissent becomes treason – as the murder of an independent Belgrade editor illustrated all too clearly.

Official Serbian disinformation, however, didn’t play well in Manchester and Montreal. What ethnic cleansing? What murder? What rape? What paramilitaries? Albanian terrorists! The integrity of the fatherland/motherland! Spies and traitors! The holy struggle to defend the historic national birthright! It was pretty hard to believe the claim by the Serbian refugee commissioner Bratislavia Morina that there were only ‘about 50,000 (Kosovar) refugees’. The tally at the Albanian and Macedonian borders was closer to a million. We could see them with our own eyes. Or the Tanjug news-agency report that NATO had lost 32 planes by early April. Where were the wrecks and corpses?

NATO’s tactic was different. It admitted errors, regretted mistakes, apologized to the families of civilian bombing casualties. But each individual apology (always accompanied by assertions of ‘just cause’) avoided the bigger question of the advisability of the bombing policy in the first place. As the ‘mistakes’ – the column of Albanian refugees, the Chinese Embassy, the two civilian buses, the passenger train – mounted, the fiction of a ‘controlled’ war looked increasingly threadbare.

NATO’s propaganda efforts revolved around trying to change our very perceptions of war. They used a specialized military language and technical euphemisms (‘surgical strikes’, ‘mopping-up operations’) to ease our fears. The media amplified the official line, giving the public reassurance through the illusion of ‘special’ knowledge. We ‘shared’ NATO’s dispassionate understanding of the conflict, as everything unfolded as it should, or at least must.

But did it? The fact was that innocent people were being killed every night. World tensions were being perilously racheted up. Ethno-Stalinists in Belgrade had a free hand to brutalize Kosovar Albanians. A huge, Palestinian-style refugee problem was being created in the centre of Europe. The cost of the war would put pressure on social and aid spending for a generation. ‘Don’t panic!’ the authorities loved to say. Yet there may well have been good reason to panic – or at least dissent.

The NATO daily briefing on war events drew much from the example of media management during the Gulf War. Journalists become part of the war effort, flying in planes, visiting command bunkers, attending special briefings, sleepwalking through the war. In the Balkans they showed little knowledge of culture or history. Instead they concentrated on tactical debate – when and how ground troops should go in, which weapons systems should be used. They avoided fundamentals. Were TV stations, power grids and water supplies really ‘military’ targets? Had the bombing worsened the plight of the Kosovars? How effective was air-strike diplomacy in gaining democracy and human rights? What was the morality of the collective punishment of a people because of their dubious leadership?

Of course there were a few noble exceptions – veteran British journalists Robert Fisk and John Simpson, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Pacifica radio stations in the US. Fortunately, few journalists joined the ‘laptop bombardiers’ in the jingoistic tabloid press or columnists like the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman (‘give war a chance’). Most simply let the official frame of the war contain their reporting. No wonder US Balkans envoy Richard Holbrooke, in a speech to the prestigious Overseas Press Club, congratulated US media luminaries for their ‘extraordinary and exemplary’ coverage.

But the meat and potatoes of this kind of coverage was the pedagogy of war. A procession of uniforms mounted the NATO podium while aerial footage of what the pilot saw through his bomb site the previous night filled the big screen. The issues that count were those of military technology and tactics. How were the Stealth bombers or Apache helicopter-gun-ships to be utilized? The aerodynamics (but not the cost) of a Cruise missile. How a pilot approaches the target. How weather conditions affect target selection and weaponry. The big TV networks gave us teenage video-game renderings of how the Apaches would swoop down over Kosovo’s hills to incinerate army tanks. It was so antiseptic one could barely believe that young Serb conscripts were also being incinerated in the twisted metal. Our ‘advanced’ technology was simply teaching their ‘primitive’ technology who was boss.

A Canadian pilot involved in the raids told a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interviewer that he just didn’t have time to think about the effects of the bombs he dropped on the people below. Yet it was not immediately apparent why this long-distance killing was so superior to the act of putting a gun to the neck of a young Kosovar who might otherwise have ended up as a Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) militant.

The effect of all this techno-war propaganda on our own culture is hard to measure. Certainly it can’t be good. The connection may be speculative, but dramatic examples of social violence followed immediately after the start of the war: high-school students were massacred in Colorado and Alberta, nail bombs explode without warning on the streets of London, and BBC TV presenter Jill Dando was assassinated. University of California sociologist David Phillips did a study back in the 1980s of the effects of televising championship boxing matches on network TV. He was able to establish that there were an extra 11 murders in the US during the four days following each fight. How much greater the ‘permission-giving’ effect of a daily diet of war violence?

As the war continued, whatever humanitarian impulses underlay NATO’s original motivation were pushed into the background. And the propaganda war reflected that trend. The credibility of NATO and US global leadership were on the line. The Kosovar refugees become more a symbol for continuing the war than real people. Actual attempts to aid Kosovars still in the country through air drops of food were dismissed by US General Wesley Clark as ‘too dangerous a risk for low-flying pilots and planes’. NATO’s low-risk, high-tech machine couldn’t deal with the door-to-door, village-by-village reality of ethnic cleansing. The US commitment of a mere $55 million to help a million-odd refugees represented the cost of just a couple of days’ bombing.

The momentum of war distorts priorities. Obsession with victory is divorced from the mounting human cost. In such a situation it is standard practice to divert people’s attention from why to how a war is being fought. Propaganda replaces argument. Spin and media management are the order of the day. No-one must stray from the official script. Serbs show damage from the bombing; NATO responds with shots from refugee camps. Each strives for the moral high ground.

Others, like the KLA (with its own human-rights credibility problem), hire Washington PR firms to give them the proper spin. Their account is held by the Washington International Group, which is headed by former State Department officials. Previously their account was held with the PR giant Ruder Finn, whose long client list includes British Petroleum and Citibank. The KLA needed spin to take full advantage of being elevated from ‘terrorists’ to the West’s favourite ‘freedom fighters’ almost overnight. The Government of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia has the American International Development Group doing their lobbying. Montenegro had a contract with Preston Gates Ellis to help it carve out an identity separate from Serbia. The bombs fall and the professional PR spins simultaneously.

Meanwhile a coalition of 18 Serb civil-society and human-rights groups tried to carve out some independent space with a brave statement that called for an end not only to ethnic cleansing and bombing but to the lying as well: ‘We demand the Serb and international media... refrain from participation in the media war and from fanning inter-ethnic hatred, hysteria and glorification of force as the only reasonable way out of the crisis.’

When propaganda rules it is difficult to clear the air of stereotypes and search for humane solutions – to maintain a moral compass. Yet that is what we need to do. Those with power are clearly failing us, and trying to hide their failure. We must learn how to decipher the bullshit. The Australian Alex Carey, who pioneered the study of corporate PR, always claimed that the spin-meisters strive for a public reaction that is at once ‘intense and shallow’. This is doubly true in times of war and national emergency. The main enemy of the propaganda machine will always be those who reject emotive invitations and continue to think for themselves.

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