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
The daily Ministry of Defence press conferences
were almost always given by a ministermainly 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
Our objectivesto question and glean as
much information as possiblewere not the same as the government's
as spelled out by Oona Muirhead. Questions very rarely produced
Having said that, the military briefers at the
press conferencesGeneral Guthrie assisted by RAF specialistswere
more cautious and relatively open. For example they were open,
about the problems, notably poor weather, that faced Harrier pilots.
They were cautiousmore cautious than
NATO in Brusselsabout damage caused to Serb units and equipment
in Kosovo. General Guthriebacked up by Air Marshal Daywas
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
The point I am making is that the mediacertainly
the more serious commentatorsrespect 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-makersas
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
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 reactionpassed on to methat 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