Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 745 - 759)




  745. Gentlemen, thank you so much for coming along. Apart from hardy veterans of the press corps covering our Committee, the only way we can get a full house is to drag journalists before us under threat of imprisonment in the Clock Tower. We are delighted you have come. It was not intended to be an invitation to the BBC canteen. I do not think we quite intended it to be the BBC's view of the world or at least the Kosovo crisis and conflict, but that is the way it panned out. Michael Evans has gone off to Sierra Leone. One or two others we invited were unable to come but if the BBC is like the Labour Party it will not be a homogeneous reflection of what is believed to be reality. It is rather amusing. I have been on the Committee 20 years and I have reread the report we did in 1982 on the media and the war relating to the Falklands. It was quite a staggering parallel and I am sure the questions we will be asking will be almost identical to the ones we ask of the Frank Coopers[1] of this world and your journalistic colleagues who covered the war. Our purpose this afternoon is to look at the handling of media relations during Operation Allied Force last year. We are concentrating on the dates between March and June 1999 and we are again deeply grateful to such a distinguished panel of journalists who have come here to give evidence. The session will last about an hour and a half. Some questions may be directed specifically but I think most of them will be generally directed. It is not incumbent on you all to answer each question, unless you wish. The first question is by way of backdrop, to set the scene, and not a difficult one to answer. Could you tell us what did you do in the war so that at least we know what perspective you are coming from?

  (Mr Simpson) I spent the whole thing from the end of March, when I finally managed to persuade the Serbian Government that I was not as totally anti-Serbian as they thought I was to allow me to go there, and I stayed in Belgrade with little side expeditions to Kosovo and other places in Serbia proper as and when the government media people allowed us to go out. I stayed there until June, after the end of the bombing, when I was finally thrown out and I have not been allowed back there since.

  746. With the wonders of modern technology and the famed competence of the BBC, were you able to follow closely what was happening in MoD briefings or NATO briefings?
  (Mr Simpson) I watched BBC World and Sky all the time. I was able to follow it on BBC On-line, except when there were major power cuts which did happen from time to time.

  747. You were not stuck out in a time warp, unable to follow what was happening outside your own area?
  (Mr Simpson) No more than I always am, no.
  (Mr Urban) In the run up to the war, I did some reporting from inside Kosovo. I reported the Rambouillet Agreement. I was unable to get a visa and found myself on attachment to another programme when the war started so in the first weeks my job was done by James Robbins on Newsnight. I then came in while the air war was still on and went to Macedonia, went into Kosovo, somewhat ahead of NATO and was there to watch them arriving.
  (Mr Marcus) I was in the States just before the war. I was at Rambouillet before that. I spent most of the war at NATO headquarters doing most of the radio reporting, both for domestic BBC services and the World Service, which is my principal job. In the immediate aftermath of the war, I spent some two or three weeks on the ground in Kosovo itself.
  (Mr Laity) In the run up I went to Kosovo and also to the Rambouillet talks. During the conflict itself, I was in Brussels, apart from two weekends, for the whole of the air war and immediately after it finished, on what was K day plus two, I arrived in Kosovo where I was for about ten days. Then I came out.

  748. We are not just discussing a war and the role of the media. We are looking, as we are making recommendations, at lessons to be derived. Do you think that NATO and the Ministry of Defence succeeded in their objectives in terms of media relations, which does beg the question what you would see the objectives to be of the Ministry of Defence and NATO or any government in prosecuting a war and utilising the media no doubt to that objective. How successful were the different agencies of government, national and international, in communicating what they wished to communicate to you and, through you, to the broader public?
  (Mr Simpson) Mediocre, I would say, as a pure onlooker, watching the television reports and watching the live coverage from the press conferences. I would have thought it was one of the main objectives to persuade people at large that the whole thing was successful and had a serious purpose and was being followed properly. It seemed to me that there were so many hostages to fortune handed out; it was so weakly done often on all different levels, that I must say, as a pure onlooker, I was profoundly unimpressed by the quality of the public relations put out.
  (Mr Laity) The question about what were the objectives is germane. I am not quite sure that NATO had clarified objectives in the sense that it improvised very heavily. The improvisation was very obvious when you were in the audience. They did have a media plan but that was changed very heavily: the staffings, where they did the briefings, how they did the briefings, how they got information and so on was extremely heavily improvised and was clearly not delivering good enough information, fast enough, for what they wanted to do. As the conflict progressed, they started producing more clear-cut objectives. After the clear failure of information provision during the Djakovica convoy, there was a fairly radical reform which improved things, but I do not think it solved the problems. They had a multitude of problems which primarily reflected the fact that there was a division between military and civil, the military at SHAPE in Mons and the civilians of NATO in Bussels and also they had 19 nations viewpoints, so they found it difficult to pull together. That was what led to the improvisation. That meant they relied very heavily on their spokesman, Jamie Shea. I was more of an onlooker here but the British had what you would expect to be a better focus of a single nation. They had a clearer line, a clearer message. The briefings initially were crisper and so on. NATO's media objectives were quite broad, basically to put over information, but they had to improvise a lot to improve it and there were a lot of lessons being learned as it was happening. You would expect there to have been problems and, as a receiver, there quite clearly were. It improved as the war went on but it took a long time.
  (Mr Marcus) I would echo Mark's comments on improvisation. It certainly appeared to me that the media strategy had been devised for a very short war, a short, sharp shock, a matter maybe of days, after which Mr Milosevic would have crumbled. As the air campaign dragged on in the early phases with very bad weather, as we know, and obviously very few results on the ground, I think the pressures on that media strategy were evident. NATO as a whole began the media war, if you like, with a fundamental problem and that is of being a multinational alliance. Clearly, the public sense and the mood of public opinion in the different alliance countries were very different. In a sense therefore, there was a basic public relations line, on the one hand, as we heard from the political rhetoric, not least from the British Government spokesmen, to play this up as a major humanitarian catastrophe, with Mr Milosevic a dictator on the scale of Adolf Hitler and so on. There was very strong rhetoric, if you look back to that time but, by the same token, there was a lot of talk that this was not really a war. The word "war" was never mentioned. This was an air campaign and something much less than that. That kind of lowest common denominator line was forced on NATO perhaps because of the different sensitivities in different countries. I wonder whether that line would not have been better replaced and maybe it would have been acceptable in Britain, which is perhaps a little more robust, with a much more honest approach, setting out why the war was being fought, accepting that unpleasant things were going to happen, people were going to get killed, bombs were indeed going to go astray. I really wonder at that lack of preparation because, as we were hearing this morning, we were heading so close to the possibility of a ground war with the possibility of real casualties on the NATO side. I wonder how well that media strategy would have really prepared public opinion for what might have lay ahead.
  (Mr Urban) I would try and put myself in the MoD's position and go for the glass is half full version of John's mediocre, rather than the glass is half empty. From the point of view of getting their message across, they did reasonably well. Whether or not the use, for example, of the MoD daily briefings by certain Cabinet Ministers to almost outdo one another in emotive language and propagandistic language was a good use of the channel they had created is another issue, but their remarks were being picked up and used by the media and, from their point of view, I would have thought that was pretty successful. I was saddened at the time that the climate for reception of that kind of information, for debate of a war and defence issues, was sufficiently bad and sufficiently uninformed that, from the journalistic side, I was sorry not to see more questions being asked, for example, of the nature of early on in the war, at this rate of sorties, how long is this going to take? You have hardly any aircraft dropping bombs. There were some attempts to question along those lines, but at the time the MoD must have been pretty relieved that they got by without a thorough grilling on those issues. As we saw, as the war went on, the number of aircraft was increased two and a half fold because the numbers were inadequate. Inevitably, an uninformed climate of debate on those things also results in things that they would be less happy with—e.g., the great emphasis given to mistakes. The specialist can regard the bomb going astray as a fact of war. To the person with little understanding, it is an easily understood cock up and therefore comes to dominate the news agenda for a day or two.

  749. There are very few specialist defence correspondents any more, the old days of people who served in the Second World War, who were incredibly knowledgeable, prolific authors. Now, some newspapers do not have specialist defence correspondents.
  (Mr Laity) It is a major problem for all media and for NATO and Britain. When I first started as a defence correspondent 11 years ago, we would have meetings with NATO and they would probably be the night before the defence ministers' meeting. There would be 10 or 11 defence correspondents there. Now, at the last defence ministers' meeting I did with journalists, I think there were two. The effect is not just that people know less, and the ignorance is quite considerable, but they have less contact with NATO and the MoD. During the Kosovo conflict, the number of people in Brussels who had serious knowledge of people in NATO or of military affairs was very limited. There was some very sloppy writing in the aftermath about how all the media defence experts in Brussels had been misled but they were experts on the Common Agricultural Policy. They were EU reporters in the main. The number of defence correspondents there was about three and two of those were BBC. The Americans brought in people, Michael Gordon from The Washington Post, for instance, but the amount of expertise was very limited. This meant that a lot of coverage for instance on bombs missing was not a surprise to people who have been doing defence issues, the problems of weather, how laser guided bombs went and all these things, very few people knew it. It had a reflection not just on their analysis but also on their limited contact. They were extremely reliant on public information; whereas the defence correspondents spent the day on the phone, speaking to other people. The media lost out very badly. NATO, Britain or whatever also lost out quite badly but they had a gain because people were much more reliant on them. The lesson for the media is that expertise cuts both ways.
  (Mr Marcus) The media organisation obviously has to decide where it is going to deploy its people. In this particular war, you had three briefings a day essentially in London, Brussels and at the Pentagon in the States. What is quite interesting is that there was a very different level and order of information coming from those three briefings. They each had their distinctive element. The BBC chose to deploy its two defence correspondents to the NATO headquarters and to use that vantage point as the place from which to report on the military and strategic nitty gritty of the war. I think probably that was the correct decision. Most of the written press who still do have defence correspondents chose to keep their people in London. There were certainly very few defence correspondents at all in Brussels and, as Mark rightly says, a very expanded press corps at NATO, maybe more than 100 or 120 people on occasions. Virtually all of them were relatively junior reporters and mostly people who were well versed in very different issues.
  (Mr Simpson) Mr Chairman, you referred earlier on to the Falklands War, which I also remember from personal experience. There, it seemed to me, the MoD in particular was absolutely lamentable in its inability to understand what journalists wanted. It seemed to me, as a complete outsider stuck on my branch in Belgrade, that this time the MoD had understood very well what the demands of the journalists were; they just had problems filling them. 24 hour news organisations, whether they are nowadays newspapers or television or radio organisations, of course want updates constantly, but I am not sure it was very much in either the MoD's interests or NATO's interests, nor the interests of the governments and peoples taking part in this, simply to shove out spokesmen on a regular basis, several times sometimes a day or at least once a day at a weird time, in order to satisfy the voracious demands of the media. As a pure spectator of all this, it seemed to me that that simply led people to have to make statements about things they did not properly know about and to say things which sounded definite and clear when in fact they were very far from being that. A lot of the problems that both the MoD but more NATO came into were because they were too compliant, rather than that they were too restrictive.
  (Mr Laity) One aspect of the lack of knowledge is the unrealistic expectations about the speed at which we can get information. There was a tendency to think that if you were not getting information immediately either somebody was being incompetent or they were covering it up. The reality is that NATO could have situations where they did not know themselves. There has to be a very clear distinction drawn between a mistake made because people make mistakes or a deliberate cover up or a lie. Too often there were a lot of mistakes but they were made because people did not have enough information, acted in haste, had the wrong information, rather than because people were deliberately lying. We were unrealistic about the pace with which we could get information early on. It was told to us at the time by NATO press officers there was a recognition they were not getting it out fast enough and they needed to develop systems so that they could get the information more quickly, rather than relying essentially on the military battle damage assessment (BDA), which is much slower than the media reporting cycles.

  750. One of the criticisms of the Ministry of Defence in the Falklands was that their public relations endeavour was not as professional as it should have been. The impression I have is that maybe the criticisms made of the Ministry of Defence in 1982 could be applied towards NATO in the last conflict.
  (Mr Laity) NATO was simply overwhelmed. NATO had a peacetime reporting machinery and the NATO secretariat was really quite small. When it suddenly got this bomb-burst of activity, it could not draw upon resources in the same way as the national Ministry of Defence did. It simply did not have them, so it ended up being extremely heavily reliant on, in effect, one person, which it should not have been.

Mr Viggers

  751. We have heard words like "efficient" and "professional" and that the MoD was there to provide information on an efficient and professional basis but there is more to it than that, is there not? The media is one of the front lines these days. There is the military front and the media front. I have a quotation, if I may, from Michael Ignatieff, whose series was on the BBC recently: "If a consensus in favour of humanitarian intervention can be shaken—as it was in Somalia—by the sight of a single US serviceman's body being dragged through Mogadishu, then keeping such images off the screen becomes a core objective of the military art." Do you feel this? Do you sense the pressure from government to present the war in their way? How do you feel that pressure? To rephrase it, do you think you have a different responsibility to your audience in reporting a war, responding to governmental pressure from your own governments? Do you sense that you have a different responsibility in reporting a war like Kosovo than you might have felt in some other war?
  (Mr Simpson) No, I really do not think that it would ever be right to say that circumstances altered the basic duty that we have. The duty can only be changed by a complete difference, it seems to me, in terms of the conflict itself. The Second World War was a war this country was fighting for national survival. It seems to me absolutely not only inevitable but a good idea that, at a time like that, journalists should understand that position and should frame their reporting in accordance with it. That is to say, not to give up the basic adherence to as much truth as we know it when we can give it, but to understand that there must be limitations which common sense and common decency impose on that. I have yet to see any significant sign that the Kosovo war was a war of national survival for this country, although lots of people, including some government ministers, behaved as though they thought it was. I think that the difference between this and other campaigns—whatever we are going to call it—that British and other western forces have been in, in recent years, was completely clear.
  (Mr Urban) Clearly, the media information operations, call it what you will, that side of warfare, is something that the military takes seriously. In this case, the conflict had been designed in such a way that the avoidance of having a body being dragged through the streets was almost a central feature of the military strategy and, in that sense, nothing to do with us. By the time the war had been conceived in the way it had, that sort of image was not going to be available or something had gone terribly wrong, particularly from the American point of view. I found myself talking to some US Marines very shortly before KFOR moved in as they came up the road. I assumed they were much further ahead in their deployment than they were. They said, "No, we are just the recce group. The others are still on boats in Greece." I asked around. I spoke to their CO. He said, "No, it was absolutely decided in Washington that we would not get off the ships until the military technical agreement had been signed. We were not allowed to be seen in Macedonia, lest it be suggested that we were going to be ready to fight a ground war." Under the circumstances in which strategy has been conceived in that kind of way, clearly all the rules are changed. This was meant to be a conflict, an exercise in modern gunboat diplomacy, in which the NATO Alliance would do the equivalent of sending a few broadsides into the Third World harbour and pacifying the locals without risking their own people in a purposeful way. That was obviously inherent to the whole exercise. Had we been able to get images of that sort, we would have done so within the normal restrictions that John has mentioned of taste and decency and I think we would have done so in exactly the same way, regardless of the nationality of the troops involved. I think your question contained an element of "Would we behave differently in the case of British forces?" and I certainly do not think we would.
  (Mr Laity) The primary duty of the journalists, regardless of what they saw on the screen, I would have said was fairness and accuracy. It is not whether this is good for the war, bad for the war, good for one side or the other. Where we do have a duty is in our analysis of the images. If we see a dead body being dragged through the streets, how do we analyse it? That was an area where sometimes we had problems. When the three Americans were picked up after they strayed across the border, there were people who were saying to me, "Can the Americans sustain public support in the face of these losses?" I said, "So what?" The analysis of many in the media was that there was an expectation of an inability to accept casualties and that is where we have to be right. We were almost talking up the inability to take losses, even when in this case they were not losses. We had the same thing when the Stealth fighter bomber was shot down. The whole tenor of the questions was that this was a catastrophe, that it was a seminal point in the conflict, and I was continually asked questions about what did this mean; will they be able to keep going; is support going to ebb away. It was just absurd and ridiculous. In that sense, we have a responsibility to analyse accurately. This was an inconsequential loss but we were almost turning it into a consequential loss. Perception is all and our perception was bad. That again was part of ignorance. The loss of one aircraft was irrelevant. A lot of people genuinely did not think it was.
  (Mr Marcus) Before one goes ahead and looks too deeply at the MoD's handling of the thing and NATO's handling of the thing and our reporting, you have to accept the very peculiar nature of this campaign or war—call it what you will. It was a campaign that was waged, if you like, at one remove, although, with respect to John, he was rather more on the receiving end than the rest of us in this room. In essence, it began and the story was as it was in the first few days. Not a great deal happened in news terms. Once we had the outflow of refugees and so on, essentially the story remained the same. The daily briefings were that we were going to carry on as we had been doing. Managing the news agenda on the part of the MoD and reporting that story on the part of ourselves had a number of great problems in that context. There was not a lot happening. Small issues became inflated because they appeared to have novelty. They appeared to have added significance. That very peculiar nature of the campaign led us into some of the problems. There were two areas of course that we had knowledge of at all. One, exactly what was happening on the ground in terms of the Kosovar Albanians and the Serbs and the other, exactly how much damage NATO was doing. This was a war in which those two key factual elements were hidden from most of us and we had to go on the information that we were being given and analyse the information using one's experience. That posed a number of particular problems.

  752. Do you sense that the MoD has been in listening mode about the comments and criticisms which have been made of it?
  (Mr Laity) Yes.
  (Mr Marcus) Yes, I think so, in broad terms. I am not entirely sure how many things they might do differently in the sense that their job is to get over the headline message, which I suppose is essentially why the war is being fought and what the headline goal is. Their subsidiary job is to deal with the eventualities that come along the way. Our role is to both report on what is being said on all sides and subject it to some fair and accurate analysis as to whether methods correspond with goals and so on.

  (Mr Laity) The MoD, NATO and many other nations have actively sought out decent journalists. What they make of what they hear I cannot comment on, but they are certainly very much in listening mode.

  753. May I switch to the situation in Serbia? How good was the Serbian "lie machine"? That of course is a direct quotation by Mr Campbell. How good were we in making headway in winning the propaganda war within Serbia? In other words, telling people the truth in Serbia and getting them to believe us?
  (Mr Simpson) I thought the Serbian lie machine—and it was indeed a lie machine—was very ineffectual as regards external propaganda. They were careless, thoughtless and often openly lying. On the other hand, it was deeply effective in a country which was drawn together by the common experience of being attacked from the outside. Therefore, people within the country wanted to believe what they were being told by their own government and were of course very hostile to the kind of thing they were getting from abroad. What pained me was to see how ineffectual the NATO side of things was in respect of getting to the people of Serbia, who are the only people that can solve that country's particular problem. The more that people talked about Serbs, there was almost an offensive use; we almost lost the form "Serbian" and we just had the monosyllabic form "Serb", "Serb police", "Serb this", "Serb government" and "Serb other". It seemed to me to embody a lot of that sense in which the people of Serbia, not just the government, had been chosen to be our enemies. Even more than the war against Iraq, this was a conflict where it was really important to win the hearts and minds of people within the country that we were bombing and that was a complete failure.
  (Mr Laity) You have to be realistic about this. Serbs are strongly nationalistic. That is a pretty common characteristic of many nations, not just the Serbs. "My country, right or wrong" has a very strong appeal to many nations. If you look at the Serbs outside Serbia, they had full access to everything, not just what NATO, Britain or whatever was putting out, but what independent, objective, serious journalists were putting out. It made not a blind bit of difference. There were still demonstrations by Serb ethnic minorities in Canada, Britain and the United States. NATO continually said that they were not making war on the Serb population. The Serbs chose to differ on that. You can argue: was that an effective thing to say, because it is very hard to put over that difference. The message perhaps should have been, "We are sorry about this but that is the way it is. Because we do not like what you are doing, we are doing this." No one can disagree with John that the Serb population did not change its mind about what it thought about NATO bombing but, if you look at the effect that open, honest, objective journalism had on the Serb population throughout the world, it also made no difference. The Serbs had their view; it was their country, right or wrong. They are entitled to that view. Really, it is whether it was worth trying to change that view or just trying to persuade them, in this battle of wills, that the Serbs could not in the end prevail, and change their minds that way.

  754. We used to talk about rogue states. Now we are encouraged to talk about rogue governments and trying to maintain dialogue with the people within those countries.
  (Mr Urban) A very quick point on are the governments listening. I am sure they will listen on such issues as when would you like the briefing in relation to your commercial breaks, or whatever may concern them with certain news channels. The fundamental issue which I think caused a fair amount of distaste in London, which was the use of the briefings in such a propagandistic and political way—I cannot see any reason to assume that would be different in a future conflict. That is too good an open goal for ministers and they will take their shots at it, notwithstanding that I think many of the criticisms one has seen of the government along the ethical foreign policy line or the war of values line that we have seen since in relation to such things as saying, "Why are we not doing the same thing for Chechnya?" or whatever, could in some sense be said to have originated with the kind of language that was used by ministers during the conflict. American Cabinet level politicians, for example, were much more careful in their language.

Mr Gapes

  755. Mr Laity's reference to the fact that NATO's objectives were unclear and that there was improvisation and the media plan changed: do you have any sense that there had been any prior thoughts or coordination or planning of the way in which NATO's media operation would have been run?
  (Mr Laity) Yes, there had been. In the run up to the conflict, we liaised with NATO because we wanted to know where to go. Were the briefings going to be in Brussels or Naples? There was a media plan but that was drastically changed. There was a lot of improvisation from there on with the basis being Brussels, as the heart of the matter. When the conflict started, although there was a plan, that plan was largely junked. We were aware of that at the time.

  756. Alastair Campbell's lecture which was written up talks about the inadequate resources that there were and how Jamie Shea was having to do so many different things. Was it a problem of lack of resourcing or was it a problem that relates back to this multinational organisation and an inability to get decisions or quotes quickly?
  (Mr Laity) It was lack of resources, quite clearly. Myself and Jonathan Marcus had been going to NATO year on year for, in my case, 11 and in Jon's case, for about nine years. We knew all the people there. They were basically organised around a political/military body which had peaks and troughs which were relatively small and connected to things like ministerial meetings and summits. They were neither culturally nor resource-wise equipped for what hit them. At the same time, you had some press officers in NATO and then in Mons you have SHAPE, quite a long way down the road. So organisationally it was hard linking those two up and then further links between Mons and the reporting chain down to the CAOC (Combined Air Operations Centre, based in Italy) added more delays. Getting all that information up the chain took a long time. At the top of the pile, Jamie Shea. Jamie was more or less on his own. For quite a long period of time, he lacked any real resourcing. We tend to think of NATO as a monolith but to anyone who has been reporting from it as often as I was it is really rather small. It has 19 nations of varying degrees, from small like Luxembourg to big like the US. The secretariat of NATO is actually not very large. Therefore, when something like this happens, they really need the resources of the individual nations. That is what happened ultimately. They created this thing called the MOC, the Media Operations Centre, which is basically other nations piling in with extra personnel to try and find out the information that was needed to feed Jamie. All of us who knew NATO were aware this was happening because we were bitterly complaining about why we could not get more basic information. I laugh when people talk about the NATO spin or media machine. It was not a machine.


  757. Did it get better towards the end?
  (Mr Marcus) It got a lot better in terms of there were more people to speak to. There were more people who were able to come up with a line. Inevitably, because of Jamie's prominence early on and by his very obvious characteristics, he became a shop window at the base of NATO and that was going to continue throughout the campaign come what may. He was better resourced. Some of the problems with getting military information improved. The initial military briefings were almost laughable in their lack of information. They sounded like a bad Second World War movie. They got somewhat better. I still come back to the point that not a lot happened during the campaign. We were not following the movements of troops. Thankfully, we did not have to look at setbacks and explain those away and so on. In a sense, you got this continual, repetitive message, day in, day out. Most briefings were pretty much the same from one day to another. Even with a very inventive collection of back-room boys who were coming up with little snippets from the intelligence gleanings and so on, it did not fundamentally alter the story. That is why I think the media by and large tended to get drawn off into the weaponry going astray, the "is NATO cracking?" and all these sorts of things. On the battle front, if you like, there was not a lot to say. There was not a lot that was new and also there was not a lot that we could see. We were not actually there.

Mr Gapes

  758. Earlier you referred to the lack of information on what was actually happening on the ground in Kosovo. Is that not one of the reasons that they tended to have these claims about the number of casualties, the number of people who had been killed, which were not substantiated? I would be interested to know from all of you: did ministers or NATO representatives say at the press conferences what was reported in the newspapers in this country, that hundreds of thousands of Albanians may have been killed? Did they use the figure 10,000? We know that the language in some of the reports in some newspapers talked about holocaust and genocide. Was that coming from the briefings you were getting?
  (Mr Marcus) Some strong language was used even in this country by government ministers to characterise what was going on on the ground in Kosovo itself. If we knew then what we know now, clearly things were different. There was a lot of unpleasantness going on. A very large number of people were being killed, not perhaps the levels that were being suggested at the time, though quite what difference that would have made to overall strategy I do not know. Clearly, NATO was very honest initially in that it was not doing very much damage certainly on the ground in Kosovo itself. That was one of the Alliance's early messages. Then it started upping the figures as the weather got better, making all sorts of claims. I went around with the US Air Force team that has just had this report into counting up the number of vehicles when they were beginning that process. We now know that those claims were wrong to a very large order of magnitude. If you ask me if I was looking at this, if NATO had another air campaign tomorrow would I be more sceptical about the claims they were making, I think I have to honestly say the answer is yes. Given the fact that one had assumed that their intelligence gathering resources were rather better than they in fact turned out to be, given the fact that we had no access to our own satellites and we had no access to individuals on the ground other than anecdotal reports of refugees coming out and so on, it was very difficult to get any sense. There are only so many times you can say, "NATO says this" or "It is reported that". We attribute everything and make it very clear who is making the claims but in certain areas of this story the media has no independent means of verifying what is being said.
  (Mr Simpson) When those of us who were in Belgrade tried to make it clear what the situation was as best we could find out, we were not only criticised, in my case, by the British Government and by the senior British civil servants in the MoD and various other places; but also even some journalists at NATO itself were quite anxious to jump in and say that these things could not possibly be true. It was just the lie machine of Milosevic. Some things were the lie machine of Milosevic but plenty of stuff was perfectly true.

  759. In essence, the problem here is that you are in a democratic society with a democratic media; yet, by the very nature of the conflict, you are not able to get access to the facts as they are on the ground and everything is coming through some kind of filter. You are being fed, on the one side, the Serbian view of the world which you do not believe and, on the other side, you are getting information from your own side which your journalistic training leads you to be suspicious of.
  (Mr Laity) You asked specifically about casualty figures and the 100,000 figure. To the best of my recollection, the figure of 100,000—the highest figure used at NATO—talked about 100,000 missing people. There were always a lot of caveats in NATO stuff and a lot of times the times especially the tabloids just dropped the caveats. The 100,000 missing became 100,000 dead. I tracked this one very carefully because I was asked a lot of questions about it. I was always very cautious because they always said "missing". What does that mean? It means missing; no more, no less. The fear was that they might be dead. I asked a very senior military officer at one stage, "What has happened to the 100,000 missing?" and he told me, "They are dead." I said, "This is quite a good story. Are you sure?" He said, "No. I just think they are." The point is that he genuinely thought they were and that is important. He was not lying. He was not trying to mislead me. He thought they were. I thought I could not go on this. Some other people did. It is quite difficult to disentangle this plethora of allusions, comments with caveats and, some journalist maybe goes a bit further, drops a caveat, reports it inaccurately and so on. It is quite a confusing thing but some people had been quite sloppy. NATO never said 100,000 dead.

1   Former permanent Under Secretary at the MoD. Back

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