Which do we believe: Nato facts or Serb lies?


Reports that 50 US soldiers had been killed in a failed rescue mission in Kosovo would, you may have thought, be deemed newsworthy by the western media.

Apparently not. Such a story did indeed emerge from Kosovo last week - two helicopters and an F-117 stealth bomber were allegedly shot down near Blace, killing all on board - yet it was comprehensively ignored by the British papers. Even Sky and CNN, displaying a reticence unprecedented in the history of infotainment, chose to disregard the story.

The only broadcaster to report the news was the one that broke it: RTS, the Serbian state-run television station. And therein lay the problem. Stories on RTS are regarded as just that: stories. Its reporters and newsreaders are seen as crude propagandists for the Milosevic regime, modern-day Lord Haw-Haws.

Admittedly the evidence was sketchy. The pictures of smouldering, twisted metal - identified by RTS as aircraft wreckage - could have been just about anything. There was no official gloating by the Serbs, no parade of corpses and the only sources were local Serb "witnesses", whose reliability could rightly be questioned.

So perhaps the decision to discount the story can be put down to our more exacting journalistic standards. If only it were so simple. Consider some of the other "news" to come from the beleaguered province in recent weeks: that a sports stadium in Pristina had been transformed into a makeshift concentration camp and 100,000 ethnic Albanians herded inside; that Arkan, the Serb paramilitary leader and suspected war criminal, was at large in Kosovo; that Fehmi Agani, the head of the ethnic Albanian delegation at Rambouillet, had been executed; that Ibrahim Rugova, the moderate Albanian leader, had gone into hiding after Serbs torched his house.

In all these cases, too, the only source was the second- and third-hand testimony of refugees, mostly relayed through the Kosovo Liberation Army. But, repeated and given credibility by Nato, all were faithfully reported in the western media, including by our own state-run (as others see it, at least) broadcaster, the BBC.

Only later were these stories exposed as untrue: the Pristina sports stadium had been empty; Arkan had been in Belgrade all along (giving press interviews, no less); reports of Agani's death were false; and Rugova, far from being on the run, was giving interviews from outside his undamaged home in Pristina and calling for an end to Nato air strikes.

Selective news judgement has been a notable feature of the coverage of the war. Where Belgrade makes "claims", statements by the political and military leadership of the Nato bloc are treated as reliable facts. When George Robertson, the Defence Secretary, proclaimed that while "they tell lies about us, we will go on telling the truth about them" there were no murmurs of dissent.

To some extent, the journalists deserve our sympathy. War reporting is a difficult business. In Kosovo, it has been made all the more so by the Serbs' decision to expel western journalists, aid workers and diplomats. This has made it difficult to verify Nato's assertions - particularly claims about "precision bombing".

Though Belgrade is slowly waking up to the propaganda benefits of granting foreign journalists access to the war zone, for the most part reporters remain confined to the sidelines - the refugee camps dotted near the Kosovo border, where they are dependent on the unsubstantiated accounts of those fleeing the fighting. (The reporters' predicament explains the extraordinary breadth of coverage being given to a people whose plight hitherto had been largely ignored by the outside world.)

Whatever the constraints, much of the coverage of the war has been complacent. When last week, for example, the BBC produced a video of the "first evidence of alleged atrocities", no one questioned what evidence Nato had had to justify the previous ten days of bombing.

For the most part, the press has taken its lead from the politicians who, in the absence of any clear political objectives, have focused their energies on creating a climate of moral outrage to justify the bombings. The media have proved themselves willing and able allies, blurring the complex political, cultural and historical intricacies of the Balkan conflict and recasting it as a simplistic fight of "good against evil".

Prior to the onset of the bombing campaign, for example, the British press had been scrupulous in its references to the "ethnic Albanians in Kosovo". It was a clumsy turn of phrase but one that accurately alluded to the province's ethnic and cultural diversity. Within two days of the launch of the air campaign, however, they had become simply "the Kosovars", a misleading shorthand which cast them as the sole indigenous people and, by implication, the Serbs as an occupying, colonial power. (By a neat coincidence, this subtle change also made it less clear that Nato is bombing a sovereign state and therefore acting unlawfully.)

The Serb civilians, meanwhile, have become "unpeople", as John Pilger points out on page 13. Amid all the concern for the refugees, no mention has been made of the 200,000 Serbs who lived in Kosovo before the air strikes started. They may well be a minority and many may have been complicit in the killing of their Albanian neighbours, but how many innocent civilians have been forced to flee their homes by Nato's "humanitarian" bombing? Such awkward questions about how and why we are fighting are quietly ignored, as they were at the beginning of the first world war.

Perhaps we shouldn't care. Perhaps it will all be over by Christmas, anyway.

This article first appeared in the 19 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Prepare for a brave new world