Select Committee on Defence Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Mr Richard Norton-Taylor, Security Affairs Editor of The Guardian

  I covered the Kosovo campaign from London. The Guardian's Brussels correspondent covered the NATO briefings. We had a correspondent in Belgrade at the start of the campaign but he was told to leave after writing what were regarded as hostile reports about Milosevic.

  In common with the rest of the British media we had no one on the ground in Kosovo though, as you know, the Belgrade authorities escorted representatives from the western media to Kosovo from time to time, particularly after NATO bombing accidents.

  The daily Ministry of Defence press conferences were almost always given by a minister—mainly George Robertson, but occasionally by Robin Cook or Clare Short.

  To be honest, they rarely provided useful information either about the progress of the bombing campaign or parallel diplomatic and political discussions between the NATO allies and other parties, the Russians, for example.

  This was because the press conferences were in the main propaganda exercises (I do not use the term in any pejorative sense). They were fed live by BBC, Sky and other television stations to Yugoslavia, Macedonia, and Albania (indeed throughout the world), and it was clear the government was addressing those audiences as much as its domestic one.

  Thus we were treated to a lot of ministerial rhetoric, shrill references to "genocide", comparisons between Milosevic and Hitler and Saddam Hussein, about how Milosevic and his cronies had wrecked the Yugoslav economy, and about the appalling behaviour of Milosevic's "murderous thugs".

  That may have been all very well in a propaganda war, but it hardly shed light on NATO's objectives, the progress of the air campaign, and accompanying political and diplomatic maneouvres.

  Our objectives—to question and glean as much information as possible—were not the same as the government's as spelled out by Oona Muirhead. Questions very rarely produced much enlightenment.

  Having said that, the military briefers at the press conferences—General Guthrie assisted by RAF specialists—were more cautious and relatively open. For example they were open, about the problems, notably poor weather, that faced Harrier pilots.

  They were cautious—more cautious than NATO in Brussels—about damage caused to Serb units and equipment in Kosovo. General Guthrie—backed up by Air Marshal Day—was particularly adept in sympathetically (rather than and aggressively) fielding questions about the impact of the air campaign and the increasing speculation about a "ground war".

  We can read between the lines, though, of course, this is open to misunderstandings. Specialist journalists could have done with more background, off the record, briefings from defence officials. Such briefings from the Foreign Office were extremely useful.

  The point I am making is that the media—certainly the more serious commentators—respect those who can be as honest as they can given all the obvious constraints and do not appreciate being regarded as tools in a propaganda war.

  This is something not everybody in the Ministry of Defence responsible for press relations seems to appreciate.

  It was also entirely counter-productive for government spokesmen to brief against the BBC's John Simpson in Belgrade as it was for Robin Cook to berate British journalists not to escape from their Serb escorts and see for themselves what was being done to the Albanians.

  I do take issue with the assertion by Alastair Campbell, in his lecture to the Royal United Services Institute on 9 July 1999, that "in parts of the media [there] was a moral equivalence between ethnic cleansing and a stray bomb that accidentally killed civilians".

  I appreciate the frustrations caused by the Serb propaganda machine but the job of a free media surely is to scrutinise the actions of their "own side"—what is being done by their readers' governments and decision-makers—as much as they can. Since they have been commented on at length, I need not here go over the problems NATO in Brussels had in explaining those accidents.

  I would dispute Mr Campbell's assertion that "the media never adequately understood that for the Serbs, the information war was such a key battlefront". Public opinion is more sophisticated, sceptical, and robust, than many Whitehall press officers are inclined to believe.

  I also find disturbing Mr Campbell's suggestion that "after Iraq and Kosovo, the media needs to reflect whether it has not provided a kind of template to dictatorial regimes in how to use the Western media to their own advantage". The suggestion that we should somehow tailor our reporting to benefit the government's propaganda interests is not only wrong in principle, it will also be counter-productive and weaken our credibility with readers or viewers.

  As a postcript, I am concerned that some members of the Ministry of Defence press office have not learnt lessons from past conflicts and are still trying to influence media reports in an unacceptable and ultimately futile way. There were a number of reports, including in The Guardian, from correspondents on the ground in Sierra Leone describing the movements of British troops and comments by British officers there.

  The reports may not have been welcomed in the MoD but the angry reaction—passed on to me—that correspondents should check with the ministry's "media operations" staff in Freetown before filing their reports cut little ice. Quite the opposite.

31 May 2000

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