The War Correspondent: Hero or Myth Maker?
By Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth Maker from the Crimea to Kosovo
When groups of old war correspondents gather in a bar - as they have been known to do - they shed a nostalgic tear for Vietnam, the days when they were heroes, famous and important.
In Vietnam, the US military accepted them and called on all ranks to give them full cooperation. Free from censorship, the journalists went where they chose, reported the truth as they saw it and, according to the military, thus lost the US the war.
Robert Elegant, a long-serving Asia expert, wrote later: "For the first time in modern history the outcome of war was determined not on the battlefield but on the printed page and, above all, on the television screen."
The military was bitter. War correspondents had been patriotic in World War II and on side in Korea. What was wrong in Vietnam? "So you're Malcolm Browne," said Admiral Harry D.Felt when he met the legendary journalist. "Why the hell don't you get on the team?"
Fast-forward 25 years to Kosovo in March last year. More correspondents than ever were set to cover the conflict - an astonishing 2,700 media people accompanied NATO forces when they entered the province at the end of the bombing campaign.
Official arrangements for them were awe-inspiring. There was a daily briefing at NATO's headquarters in Brussels, a series of briefings at the Ministry of
Defense (MoD) in London, media meetings at the Pentagon, press conferences at the White House and statement after statement from President Clinton, Prime Minister Blair and numerous other Allied ministers.
The revolution in communications technology; the satellite phone - the star of the war; instant television links from the front to the studio and between correspondents in the field; electronic transmission of photographs; and the internet; all were available to provide the public with an unprecedented overview of the war. The ordinary, literate citizen would be able to know more about the conflict than any war in history.
Instead, we drowned in wave after wave of words and images that added up to nothing. "Kosovo... turned out to be the most secret campaign in living memory," wrote the British war historian Alistair Home. "We were given lots of material but no information," says Sky war correspondent Jake Lynch. British journalist Peter Dunn wrote that it was "the first international conflict fought by press officers."
What had changed between Vietnam and Kosovo? Basically, the military has won its 150-year battle with war correspondents: journalists want to tell the public everything; the military's attitude is: "Tell them nothing until the war's over, then tell them who won." Defeated by the military, governments and spin doctors, war correspondents now face an
agonizing choice. If they can no longer be heroes, do they want to continue as propagandists, subservient to those who wage the wars?
The turning point in the battle was the Falklands. The nature of the campaign - a seaborne task force sailing to invade a group of islands 13,000 km. from Britain and 650 km. from the nearest land mass - meant that correspondents could not get to the war unless the MoD took them. In return for access to the action the correspondents had to accept the MoD rules. These were crippling. British correspondents only; no impartial neutrals. The British applicants were vetted - no room, for example, for veteran photographer Don McCullin, because his photographs tended to be too realistic.
The 17 correspondents eventually accredited had to sign forms agreeing to accept censorship at source by six MoD "public relations officers." As a result, the war was reported exactly how the military wanted it to be.
From this success, a theory developed. If you confronted the media and told them that, unlike Vietnam, this was a war that they would not be allowed to cover, they would become so desperate that you could do a deal - they would be allowed coverage but only on the military's terms.
This theory was tested in the American invasions of Grenada and Panama, and worked well in the Gulf War. There the U.S. and Britain operated a "pool system." Only a limited number of journalists were allowed near the battlefield; they were escorted by officers who would decide what they would see; and the journalists would have to make their reports available.
Media groups complained that this amounted to censorship more dangerous than "blue-pencil editing;' but accepted the conditions because they had no choice. By the time Kosovo came around, the lies, manipulation, propaganda, spin, distortion, omission, slant and gullibility involved in trying to report the conflict brought war correspondents to their current crisis point. Their role has never been more insecure.
The most shameful event for the media during the Kosovo war was a U.S. Congressional fact-finding mission to Yugoslavia between April 18 and 21. Congressmen felt they could trust neither the administration nor the media to tell them what was really happening - what an indictment of war correspondents. How did they allow this sorry state of affairs to come about?
One difficulty is that the media have little or no memory. War correspondents have short working lives and there is no tradition or means for passing on their knowledge and experience. The military, however, is an institution and goes on for ever. The military learned a lot from Vietnam and these days plans its media strategy with as much attention as its military strategy.
The Pentagon and the MoD have manuals, updated after every war, which guide the way they will manage the media. These manuals follow basic principles - appear transparent and eager to help, never go in for summary repression or direct control; nullify rather than conceal undesirable news; control emphasis rather than facts; balance bad news with good; and lie directly only when certain the lie will not be found out during the course of the war.
We are learning only now what lies were told and what secrets kept from us during the Kosovo war. We were not told that the CIA helped train the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) before the bombing began. We were not told that the KLA realized its attacks on Serbian policemen would bring retaliation on ethnic Albanian civilians but it went ahead anyway because it hoped that Serbian atrocities would bring in the West - as they did.
We did not realize at the time that NATO was lying when it said it did not deliberately attack civilian targets. It was not until June that NATO's commander, General Wesley Clark, admitted that NATO planes were targeting "phase 3" [civilian] targets.
We believed NATO when it said that after the war it would disarm and disband the KLA. But Jonathan Dimbleby wrote in January that the KLA remained in control of the streets, NATO had delivered Kosovo from one catastrophe into another, and Western leaders had remained silent about outrages taking place there.
We believed NATO when it said it was systematically destroying the Serbian army in Kosovo, only to learn after the war that this was simply not so. We believed the figures the State Department and Pentagon released for the number of ethnic Albanians murdered by Serbs, only to see them come tumbling down - 500,000, then 100,000, then 10,000 - when NATO entered Kosovo and sufficient mass graves failed to materialise.
True, the nature of the war played into the military's hands in keeping the true face of battle from the public. It was fought entirely from the air by means of a high-altitude bombing campaign, so no one - except the victims - really knew what was happening on the ground.
Since they could not go to the fighting, correspondents either gathered at NATO headquarters or clustered along the borders of those countries surrounding Kosovo and tried to peer over. There they were interviewed on television by fellow journalists in studios in Europe and the U.S. - who often had to brief them on the latest news before the interview started because the reporter on the spot usually knew nothing.
According to veteran correspondent Robert Fisk, one of the few heroes left, this lack of access to the war produced two types of journalists - the "frothers" who had "convinced themselves of the justice of the war and the wickedness of the other side" - and the "sheep" who blindly followed NATO's word.
The Russians watched and learned. When Moscow began its campaign against Chechnya, it used a system of news
management based on NATO's. An information centre in Moscow offered NATO-style briefings that had to be accepted at face value, while at the front everything possible was done to hinder journalists and exclude them from battle zones.
The sad truth is that today, government propaganda prepares its citizens for war so skillfully that it is quite likely they do not want the truthful, objective and balanced reporting that war correspondents once did their best to provide.
Studies carried out after the Gulf War by Dr. David Morrison, of the University of Leeds, showed that if there was a British mistake that caused a war to go badly, most people in the study felt this mistake should never be reported, or only after the war was over.
Further, where reporting in the Gulf was dominated by television as in no other war, most viewers were quite content with the reporting and considered it to be accurate and fair. If viewers had any complaint at all, it was that television stations devoted too much time to the war.
Armed with information like this, the likelihood is that governments will find further justification for managing the media in wartime. I predict that control of war correspondents - both open and covert - will be even tighter, and that this will be accepted by most media groups because in wartime they consider their best commercial and political interests lie in supporting the government of the day.
Source: Guardian Weekly, March 30 2000.