The coverage of Kosovo has been quite wrongly criticised


We are at a point in the ongoing wars of the Yugoslav succession when it is possible to take stock of media coverage.

There are passionate and competing views. According to the international left, the media have been guilty of "cowardice, prejudice and gross oversimplification", functioning as a gutless and witless tool of Nato propaganda. This was Edward Said's argument in these pages on 17 May and it is extended with greater care by Noam Chomsky in this issue. News organisations are accused of conspiracy in playing down politically inconvenient moral outrages against other ethnic minorities (for example, in Turkey) before failing to report those aspects of the Rambouillet negotiations designed by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair to precipitate war.

This familiar critique of American new-world-order imperialism is related to the view that rolling television news, mostly American-owned, has so dulled public sensibility that it is now impossible for ordinary citizens to make sense of a complex world. CNN's "rapid-fire bullet-point summaries of events, combined with images that are heart- rending but sanitised, 'real time' but manipulated, have become the dominant model," writes Tim Allen in the introductory chapter of a new collection of essays, The Media of Conflict.

This book's underlying proposition is that "ethnic wars" have, since the end of the cold war, become a lazy way for journalists to identify the "goodies and baddies" which journalistic narrators prefer to complex political histories of places such as Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Jean Seaton, Allen's co-editor, also identifies the cause of this jaded and superficial journalism as being the operations of the cheaply manufactured news myths of "the multinational news factories", which are themselves a consequence of the unchecked power of the American- dominated global market, and which are driving out the sound currency of "corrective and well-founded accounts".

Seaton, however, is sharp enough to note a paradox: that just as journalists complain about loss of quality and loss of influence on public events, everyone else, including the politicians, behaves as if the news media are now potent actors - in this conflict we need only think of Tony Blair's publicly expressed anxiety about media "refugee fatigue".

Awkward facts, alas, pierce the flesh of all these arguments. The ethnic thesis runs up against the equally persuasive "mad dictator" theme in Yugoslavia, and there is no evidence I can think of that the media pushed Nato into this war.

Said's accusation that BBC journalists dared not question the rise in the number of refugees since the bombing began and that they failed to challenge Nato accounts of civilian casualties is simply misinformed. His charge that journalists failed to supply "real investigative reporting" from inside Kosovo offensively ignores the huge physical dangers of attempting to operate inside a country sown with landmines and dominated by Serb troops and bandits at a time when Nato was correctly perceived to have declared Serb journalists a legitimate target.

Said, Allen and Seaton are right to worry about the forces ranged against the construction of complex accounts of news events - the familiar charge of "dumbing down" - but they themselves consistently underestimate the complexity and diversity of the media.

Against the palpable decline in the US television networks' news services, and the echoing absence of ITN from British adult prime time, must be set the BBC, which has reported the Yugoslav crisis through thick and a great deal of very expensive thin, and which by any count had more journalists on the ground when the Kosovo war erupted than the rest of the British media combined: by no means all of this effort is devoted to sound-bites.

Although television current-affairs programming is nowhere near what it was - a Panorama special on Kosovo was shunted into the night - British viewers also saw the outstanding Death of Yugoslavia, re-cut for showing during the war, and Newsnight has enjoyed a deserved increase in its audience throughout the war.

It is also an unprecedented aspect of the Kosovo conflict that we have been able to hear consistently and directly from "behind enemy lines", not only from reporters in Belgrade, but on television and radio phone-ins and via the Internet. All the partisans' sites have been heavily visited, and the Internet even allowed the Belgrade radio station B92 to continue transmissions after it was closed down.

Nor has there been a lack of complex written analysis for those who want it. To take just one example, Timothy Garton Ash's work, in the best traditions of the reporter- essayist, has been available not only in the New York Review of Books, but also in the Independent. Nor could anyone accuse the British press of lacking diverse opinion. The Guardian supported the war but provided a daily home for dissidence. From the right, newspaper armchair generals thundered (erroneously, as it turned out) that no air war could humble Milosevic.

This may not have been a heroic war for western journalists or, indeed, for western soldiers, but it is a war about which the British public has, on the whole, been better informed than it was about conflicts in the Falkland Islands and the Gulf. If we fall for oversimplified accounts of media behaviour, we will understand neither the power of the media nor the limits of that power.

Ian Hargreaves is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 14 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kosovo: a rich and comfortable war