UK MEDIA OPERATIONS
238 Before Operation Allied Force, the MoD had renamed
Psyops (Psychological Operations) 'Information Support'.
But the concept had changed little from the traditional objective
of influencing the perceptions of selected target audiences. The
precise aims will depend on the nature of the operation and of
the target audience. For instance, against an opponent's armed
forces the aim may be to demoralise the troops (a technique used
during the Gulf War). Against a civilian population, the aim may
be to win over 'hearts and minds' amongst those on whose support
an enemy may depend. At home, the aim may be to mobilise and sustain
support for a particular policy and interpretation of events.
In the Kosovo campaign tactical and operational Psyops, including
leafleting Yugoslav forces in Kosovo, were mainly undertaken by
The UK's main contribution was in terms of media operations.
239 As far back as the Falklands campaign, media
operations were identified by the MoD and our predecessors as
an important area of weakness.
Kosovo demonstrated that media operations are taken more seriously
than in the past. Jonathan Marcus of the BBC World Service observed
This is a very particular
sort of war ... This is a war of choice, in this rather fortunate
phrase that has come to be used. In a war of choice fought by
a democracy, fought by a multinational alliance, this aspect of
public support for the war, the whole mobilisation of public opinion
and so on is very, very important, as the MoD clearly knew only
But planning and preparation appear still to have
been ad hoc and under-resourced. The MoD admitted that
"there was a lot of improvisation" during the campaign.
Preparation and planning within the MoD appear to have been good
in parts: for example, doctrine, in the form of the Green Book,
had been drawn up between the MoD and the media and served as
a reasonably effective guide to operations, and media operations
had been included in the MoD's regular exercise programme.
It is less evident that senior MoD civilian and military staff
had adequate support and training in media operations. Efforts
had apparently been made prior to the crisis to build relationships
of trust with journalists and to understand the media target audience.
This appears to have been a limited activity reliant on individual
240 There was, apparently, little effort to brief
journalists before the campaign.
Mark Urban of BBC Newsnight commented in his written submission
Compared to the period preceding
the 1991 Desert Storm operation, there was very little activity
by the Ministry of Defence in briefing journalists. This was a
shame as it might have provided valuable background on such subjects
as the state of Yugoslav air defences, Milosevic's force build
up around Kosovo and the difficulties of bombing mobile or hardened
targets. In general the atmosphere for informed coverage of defence
issues has declined markedly. Many news organisations have decided
they cannot afford dedicated Defence Correspondents and the MoD
offers far fewer facilities or briefings than it once did. Contacts
within the armed forces have suggested that this is all part of
restrictive central information policy. While it may save the
Government the occasional embarrassment, alas it also means we
are denied the kind of informal contact with senior officers that
we used to enjoy more regularly and was vital to providing good
Planning for augmentation of trained personnel also
seems to have remained patchy, even though this problem had been
identified internally in 1998. The Army had more experience with
media operations and more trained personnel than the other Services
but, in 1999, the MoD did not have an adequate system for identifying,
training and incorporating media operations specialists to meet
the needs of a crisis.
241 According to MoD, the media operations campaign
had four key target audiences:
the UK public
Milosevic and his supporters
A further target audience was British military morale.
In conjunction with the Services, the MoD disseminated messages
to British forces covering British policy and Alliance objectives.
We were told that the key messages were 'the reasons for our action,
our determination and our confidence in the final outcome'.
In effect, there were two key audiences for the UK's media operations
and two key tasks, not necessarily complementary and possibly
sometimes conflicting. In relation to the UK public and NATO Allies,
the prime task was to mobilise and to keep on-side public and
political support for the campaign. The messages here were the
legitimacy of the Alliance campaign, the unacceptable behaviour
of Milosevic and the Alliance's determination to 'win'. In relation
to Milosevic and the Serbian élite, the main objective
was to persuade Belgrade of the Alliance's resolve and of its
commitment to inflict more pain than the Yugoslav regime could
242 The media operation operated in the context of
a number of constraints. These included:
The 24 hour news cycle, which meant
that, compared to previous conflicts, the media demanded vast
quantities of information at an unprecedented pace. The need for
frequent updates, especially on TV, radio and the Internet has
left journalists with a constant requirement for new 'news'.
The speed of global media dissemination
forced the MoD to operate in a global environment. Messages therefore
had to be coordinated between the Balkan region, Brussels, London
and Washington to ensure that the media received a consistent
line and 'updates' to the story.
The decline of specialist defence reporters
across many of the media was both a problem and an opportunity
for the MoD. Most journalists were unable to enquire into the
strategic and military details of the campaign and did not understand
the complexities of military operations, especially over issues
such as 'smart' weapons and Battle Damage Assessment.
This led to a tendency to paint militarily routine events, such
as collateral damage or the loss of the Stealth fighter as major
It was an opportunity on the other hand, since most journalists
were unable to challenge the MoD line and relied heavily on official
briefings for their copy rather than on a network of contacts
or informed analysis.
243 The nature of the campaign, an air operation
conducted over a territory from which the media were excluded,
meant that there was essentially little new news to report.
The media were unable to visit Kosovo to report upon the insurgency
or the impact of the NATO campaign and so were left to report
upon the air campaign and on NATO's political strategy. Although
some British journalists were in Belgrade, their work was inevitably
very restricted by the authorities.
There was therefore a media tendency to focus on inconsistencies
and controversies in the NATO and UK presentation of the campaignhence
a focus on Alliance 'splits' and military errors.
244 Ministers could not be accused of neglecting
the media aspects of the battle. From the top-down, the UK government
committed its considerable media operations resources to the campaign
and to the task of mobilising international and British public
UK doctrine for media operations emphasises the importance of
winning the trust of the media and of target audiences. Few journalists
appear to believe that they were actually lied to by the MoD.
Asked whether he had been the victim of a deliberate, calculated
attempt to deceive, Mark Urban responded
The short answer is no ...
Jonathan Marcus said
I do not think they were
deliberately trying to mislead.
Mark Laity added
Was I lied to? No. Was I
given bum information? Yes. Was I given it deliberately? No.
Especially in a coalition humanitarian operation,
the damage to UK and Alliance credibility of being caught out
in an outright lie would have been serious. The complaints in
retrospect can be seen to have resulted from the inability to
collate and disseminate military information fast enough or from
simple lack of knowledge, exacerbated by the media's simplification
of a complex message.
There were two major areas of controversy which emerged in our
evidence from journalists.
245 The first was the claim, perhaps never officially
made but reported in the media, of 100,000 deaths of Kosovo Albanians
during the ethnic cleansing. Much play has been given since the
campaign to the argument that the Alliance wildly exaggerated
the numbers of Kosovo Albanian civilians killed by the Serbians.
It would appear, however, that UK and NATO officials never actually
reported that they believed 100,000 had been killed but rather
that they estimated this number as being missing.
Nevertheless, they do not appear to have done much to cast doubt
on the more sensationalist or exaggerated headlines of the tabloid
press. More could have been done to give accurate information
about the actual number of killings in Kosovo, and to provide
some corrective to the more lurid claims. This number was
calculated from the low proportion of men arriving in refugee
camps. Whilst some NATO officers privately believed that these
men had probably been murdered, officially NATO listed them as
missingin fact most had hidden in the forests or joined
The MoD still maintains its estimate that 10,000 civilians were
However, more recent estimates from other sources have been lower.
246 The second area, which has perhaps attracted
greater and more sustained controversy, was information given
on the effectiveness of air strikes. There is a general perception
that NATO and the UK exaggerated the effectiveness of air strikes.
When the media discovered that relatively few strike missions
were delivering ordnance on target and that initial assessments
of the damage done to Serbian fielded forces in Kosovo were vastly
over-estimated, there was a view that NATO and the UK had deliberately
deceived the media in order to pretend the campaign was having
more impact than it was. We have discussed the shortcomings of
the Alliance's battle damage assessments and equipment earlier.
Again, it appears that this perception owes more to media misunderstanding
and to the difficulties inherent in the analysis and dissemination
of battle damage assessment than to a deliberate ploy to deceive.
A largely inexpert media understandably wanted quick and clear
answers on battle damage assessment and failed to understand the
time-honoured problems with this military science which includes
NATO's spokesmen naturally wished to portray its achievements
in a positive light, but in underestimating the experience and
therefore scepticism of its journalistic audience, they made a
rod for their own backs when the early claims for battle damage
came back to haunt them. Nor can it be said that subsequent efforts
to redress the damage done have been marked by a real readiness
to engage in open debate.
247 The MoD has identified a number of improvements
that need to be made to its media operations in the light of the
experience of the Kosovo conflict.
248 Defence Press Office. The Defence Press
Office was the focus for the MoD's 24 hour media operation. The
MoD notes that 'individual commitment and sheer hard work'
meant that the office was successful. However, it has acknowledged
that the office was understaffed, so that important tasks such
as specialist briefings and rapid rebuttal of Serbian stories
could not be carried out effectively. One reason for the lack
of resourcing may have been the hope that this campaign would
only last a few days. When Milosevic did not capitulate, structures
in place came under strain. The MoD has pledged to ensure that
a rapid surge capability is in place through use of augmentees
from the Services, civil service and the reserve forces for future
Overall, the MoD has acknowledged that improvement in its media
operations capability is a "very high priority" and
that "there shall not be a problem of resourcing".
We were told that improvements to the MoD's capability will not
be very costly but they will involve attention to training at
all levels, cultivation of technical skills and adequate manning
prior to a crisis erupting.
They may not be costly compared to a new weapons systembut
they will not be cheap, if done properly.
249 Press Conferences. The centrepiece of
the media operation was a daily London press conference, convened
jointly by MoD, the FCO and the DfID. This format, we were told,
demonstrated the benefits of joined-up government.
The decision to hold the press conference at 11.30 every day in
order to fit into the 24 hour news cycle (and influence the American
channels) appears to have been well judged. The decision to make
the press conference a joint political-military affair with ministerial
and senior military representation was also laudable in demonstrating
British commitment and unity of purpose.
250 Our media witnesses, however, levelled some criticisms
at the format of the press conferences, which were televised live.
It was noted that specialist journalists felt inhibited from asking
detailed and critical questions, for fear of revealing operational
details. Background briefs were designed to fill this gap and
to allow specialist audiences to receive "detailed facts
about particular areas of operations".
The media have complained that these were too infrequent and limited
in scope. The MoD has recognised this and pledged to make them
better planned and more regular. There was also, apparently, felt
to be a problem in gaining direct access to military experts.
Jonathan Marcus remarked
Speaking purely as a defence
correspondent it would be nice in a broader sense to have a greater
purely military element in the briefings and rather less of the
political side. ... If you go to the Pentagon, 99 times out of
100 your queries are dealt with by a senior officer and usually
a senior officer with experience of the area you are talking about.
99 times out of 100 in the British system you speak to a government
information officer who may be very wellintentioned and
reasonably wellinformed but it is not the same thing. There
is a small military element in the press side of the MoD but it
is very small ... underresourced, understaffed and
has too many other functions to do along the public relations
251 Media Monitoring & Rapid Rebuttal.
The MoD operated a 24 hour monitoring and alert service during
the campaign. Augmentees were used to monitor print and broadcast
media, and the Press Office responded through the press conferences,
briefing sessions or by direct contact with the journalist or
media outlet. However, this work is very manpower intensive and
the MoD has acknowledged the need to boost resources devoted to
252 Electronic Media. The MoD Press Office
notes that 'the increased use of the Internet was the single biggest
innovation of the media campaign.'
The joint MoD/FCO website was regarded as "an enormous success",
receiving some 7.5 million hits during the campaign, of which
3 million were from the USA and some 50,000 from the FRY. However,
the MoD has acknowledged that it lacked sufficient staff skilled
in new media and failed to use the Internet to its full potential.
The MoD has committed itself to "think creatively" about
uses of the Internet, such as interactive applications.
It will need to follow up this thinking with action.
253 In-theatre media operations. Once operations
shifted to the ground in-theatre, the primary aim of the MoD media
operation was to provide evidence to demonstrate the validity
of the message concerning Serbian behaviour in Kosovo. It used
the pool system to manage media demand, an approach which had
mixed reviews from the media. On the one hand there was praise
for the professionalism of military public information and escort
officers, and the MoD has noted the importance of training good
escort officers. On the other hand, some British journalists have
complained bitterly about the restrictiveness and slowness of
the pooling system, particularly in a theatre to which the world's
media had easy access. Mark Urban commented that
The notion of a pool, with
its restrictions on the use of material, sits uneasily with the
anarchic nature of modern media communications.
The MoD has acknowledged that it needs to review
the pool process, in discussion with the media.
NATO MEDIA OPERATIONS
254 In contrast to the qualified, but generally approving,
verdict passed on the MoD's media operations, it is widely acknowledged
that NATO was completely unprepared to carry out high-intensity
media operations. Jonathan Marcus, who spent much of the period
in Brussels, told us
The initial military briefings were almost laughable
in their lack of information.
Although NATO had gained experience with media operations
in-theatre in Bosnia, it had no doctrine, plan or resources to
run a media operation from Brussels. Notwithstanding the efforts
of NATO's principal spokesman, Dr Jamie Shea,
the lack of prior planning and resourcing meant that the Alliance
media campaign was a shambles until well into the campaign. Jonathan
Marcus concluded that
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 ... 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 ... mood of public opinion
in the different Alliance countries were very different ... 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 really wonder at that
lack of preparation because ... 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.
During the campaign, the UK played a leading role
in 'rescuing' the NATO media operation. The intervention of the
Prime Minister's Press Secretary, Alistair Campbell, in mid-April
was instrumental in revamping the NATO press office. Once NATO
established its Media Operations Cell, with augmentation from
member nations and better information flows up the chain of command,
the NATO media campaign became much more effective. With the conflict
now over, NATO must address the weakness of its media operations
and has determined to improve resourcing and preparation to ensure
that the NATO press office can shape the agenda of future crises
rather than follow them.
255 Through experience of coordinating activities
such as Operation Desert Fox in 1998, the MoD had established
good working relationships with the Pentagon press office. However,
there appears to have been no prior coordination whatsoever with
NATO in Brussels. We were told, for example, that the MoD had
not held discussions with NATO prior to the campaign about media
and that the MoD's media operations officials only initiated regular
contact with Jamie Shea after the air campaign began.
We were also told that there were no joint exercises involving
NATO media operations prior to the campaign. These failures are
not only evidence of NATO's lack of preparation for the media
war, but also of a lack of foresight and preparation by the MoD.
NATO's early failures in the media war cannot all be ascribed
to a failure of imagination in Brussels. As a key player in the
media campaign, the MoD must bear some of the blame for the complete
lack of preparation.
256 The effectiveness of the media operations can
only be assessed in the context of the campaign as a whole. The
whole campaign was designed with one and a half eyes on media
perceptions. One journalist noted that, under strong American
influence, "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".
Mobilising and maintaining support on the NATO home front was
central to the operational concept. The MoD argues that it did
this effectively, claiming that 'we met the challenge' and that
the 'media operation was a success' in that 'we successfully communicated
our message to the public' and the 'UK was seen as leading NATO
in our steadfastness and purpose'.
257 Whilst the campaign directed against home audiences
was fairly successful, the effort to influence Serbian perceptions
through media operations had limited impact. While Serbian external
propaganda was rather ineffectual and untrusted, within the country
it appear to have been effective. The régime's monopoly
on the media and the predictable response of a citizenry to being
bombed appear to have combined to strengthen support for the régime,
at least in the short term. Observers such as John Simpson of
the BBC, who reported from Belgrade, have argued that
... this was a conflict where
it was really important to win the hearts and minds of people
within the country [Serbia] ¼
and that was a complete failure. ¼
[It] pained me ¼
to see how ineffectual the NATO side of things was in respect
of getting to the people of Serbia.
258 The MoD has concurred with this assessment. It
has admitted that we "probably did not get to the Serb audience
as much as we would have liked".
Nonetheless, it argues that
... as the campaign progressed,
co-ordination and integration improved, allowing information operations
to become more effective in influencing Serb perceptions.
This statement is reinforced by the MoD's intelligence
... when [the Serbs] started
getting some exposure to some of our media, they thought it was
not quite so clear cut. Some people in Serbia started being a
little bit more unhappy about what was going on.
The weakness of MoD and NATO efforts to influence
Serbian perceptions stemmed from a number of shortfalls. At a
strategic level, as outlined above, there was insufficient attention
paid to crafting a campaign plan around information operations
principles that would have focused on Serbian psychological centres
of gravity. In terms of intelligence and assessment, as we have
also noted, there were only limited capabilities available, and
efforts made, to identify and understand the appropriate psychological
levers. Furthermore, direct channels to the Serbian populace and
élite over which NATO and the MoD had significant influence
259 The Chief of Defence Intelligence told us that
the Defence Intelligence Service predicted, correctly, an initial
rallying of support behind Milosevic once the air campaign started.
Subsequently, an inter-departmental assessment, supported by DIS,
identified a "slight swing in public opinion."
By the end of the campaign, the DIS was monitoring and reporting
increased popular unrest and declining military morale, but did
not predict a rapid collapse of morale. Aside from such general
assessments that differed little from those found in the media,
it was striking that the MoD appeared to have little capacity
to analyse the linkages between its air strikes, Serbian public
opinion and the government's decision making. The MoD has noted
... we know the sort of effect
we were having but how that worked its way through in people's
minds was another matter.
The MoD did not feel well placed to
... make an assessment about
what the Serb citizen really felt, let alone how much influence
individual Serb citizens had on Milosevic's behaviour.
But forecasting of Milosevic's behaviour, understanding
of the political and perceptual levers and assessment of public
opinion are all critical components of understanding whether a
coercive strategy is having effect.
260 The crucial underpinning for all aspects of successful
counter-propaganda is intelligence. Whether crafting an overall
campaign plan, a targetting strategy or the media operations component,
the crucial prerequisite is a fully-formed and detailed understanding
of the opponent and of the target audiences. This initial understanding
needs to be backed up by ongoing, rapid assessment of the effectiveness
of operations, judged against the overall campaign objectives.
The key factor in this campaign was the need to understand
the Milosevic regime's perceptions and to identify the levers
that could be used to influence those perceptions. In this task,
neither the MoD nor NATO were effective.
555 DoD, p.46. Back
p 74 Back
p 50-51 Back
Report, Session 1982-83, The Handling of Press and Public Information
During the Falklands Conflict, HC 17-I Back
Working Arrangements with the Media in Times of Emergency,
Tension, Conflict, or War (The "Green Book") Back
84, Q 795 Back
p 268 Back
33, Q 812 Back
p 247, para 33 Back
pp 112-113 Back
748, Q 751 Back
748, Q 751 Back
758, 759, 763 Back
4724, para 3.21 Back
Michael Clarke) Back
p 247, para 33 Back
p 247, para 33 Back
p 247, para 33 Back
p 248 Back
p 268 Back
893, Q 811 Back
802, 807-10 Back
604 ibid Back
p 247, para 33 Back
p 247, para 33 Back