Friday, 16 December 2011

The Role Of The Media In An illegal Imperialist War

“A massacre in one place was a fight against terrorists in another, and what was unavoidable collateral damage from one perspective was a war crime from a different angle” (Bahador 2007, p.18)

On March 24th 1999, NATO forces launched an aerial bombing campaign on multiple targets inside the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The campaign lasted until June 11th 1999, when an agreement was reached to allow a peacekeeping mission to enter Kosovo. NATO’s official justification for the intervention was ‘humanitarian’. It suggested Slobodan Milosevic’s troops were committing crimes against humanity by massacring ethnic Albanians in its Kosovo province. The war against Milosevic was illegal under international law, having not received a sanction for the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Because of this, NATO fought a media war in conjunction with its aerial bombardment. NATO’s justifications for the intervention have been widely disputed, with academics such as Chomsky suggesting that the media was used as a tool to help justify what he calls ‘humanitarian imperialism’ (Chomsky 2008).

This article will assess how decisive a role the media played in generating support for NATO’s Kosovo campaign. To do this, I will begin by providing evidence of the high value that NATO placed on the use of media to get its message across during this conflict. After this, I will then use a number of theoretical frameworks to assess if the media did play a decisive role in generating support for the NATO campaign. The frameworks used will be the pluralist model which includes aspects of the CNN effect and the elite model which includes Herman and Chomsky’s propaganda model. Through this analysis, a discussion will take place on the influence of the media on the area of foreign policy.  Finally I will conclude that the strong emphasis that NATO placed on winning the media war shows that media did play a decisive role in generating public support for an illegal war.

We now live in an age of 24/7 news. It is rare that any major event happens in any corner of the globe that is not picked up by the media and beamed into our homes on a continuous basis. The internet has further intensified this process. The globalisation of media has added a new dimension to the area of war. Whilst wars are fought and won by military force, it has become increasingly important to win the media war for hearts and minds as well. The use of propaganda by both democratic and non-democratic states alike through history illustrates this. NATO knew that because their campaign in Kosovo in 1999 had not received UNSC sanction, they would have to win the war for hearts and minds in justifying their intervention. Initially they relied on their Deputy Director of Information and Press Jamie Shea and his small staff to get the message out. However, after the Djakovica incident, where NATO bombed a convoy of refugees and then proceeded to blame Serb forces, the NATO media war was on shaky ground and British PM Tony Blair’s press secretary Alistair Campbell was brought on board to shore things up (Stourton , 1999).

Campbell, the spin doctor for Blair’s New Labour project in Britain, is an expert in media manipulation. An analysis of an article he penned after the conflict titled ‘Communications Lessons for NATO, the Military and Media’ illustrates his and NATO’s thinking about how decisive the media was in generating  public support for the campaign (Campbell 1999). In the article he points out “that NATO could win militarily was never really in doubt. The only battle we might lose was the battle for hearts and minds”. Campbell went on to point out on a number of occasions that combatting the Serb “lie machine” (Ibid) was central to the NATO media war. This presumably included the bombing of Serbian state television station RTS, killing a number of employees on April 23rd,   a target that NATO spokesman Air Commodore David Wilby called “legitimate” (Chomsky 1999, p.129), although Campbell does not allude to this. Campbell’s assertion that the media war was essential to NATO’s campaign illustrates the high value that NATO placed on the use of media to get its message across during the campaign. An analysis of different theoretical frameworks can help us to understand this viewpoint more extensively.

Frameworks for understanding the relationship between the media and foreign policies can be grouped into two models. The pluralist model assumes that in liberal democracies, power rests with the media who keep governments in check, and also with the public whose opinion dictates the policies of their representatives. The model suggests that if the media is oppositional to the idea of a war, then the influence that they have would make it very difficult for a state to engage in military action. It also suggests that if media and public opinion are strongly in favour of a military intervention, then the foreign policies of a state can be influenced in that direction (Robinson 2008, p.138). In contrast to this, the elite model suggests that power rests with wealthy elites control the political system and society. In line with this view, public opinion and the media are acquiescent to the wealthy and powerful who control politics and indeed the media itself (Ibid). Both models suggest that the media plays a role in foreign policy, however whilst the pluralist model suggests that the media influences foreign policy, the elite model suggests that societal elites use the media as a tool for generating public support for their foreign policies.

In line with the pluralist model, the CNN effect is perhaps the most famous theory to emerge in recent times. According to Steven Livingston the CNN effect has “three conceptually distinct and analytically useful understandings of media’s effect on the foreign policy process”. These are a policy agenda-setting agent, an impediment to the achievement of desired policy goals, and an accelerant to policy decision making (Livingston 1997, p.2). The policy agenda-setting refers to the way emotionally charged coverage or framing of events may encourage influence public opinion which in turn influences foreign policy.

In line with the idea of media being a policy agenda-setting agent, research conducted on media representations of the Kosovo conflict before the NATO intervention shows that American television networks framed coverage in a pro-Albanian way during and after a number of crucial incidents in the conflict. Whilst there were two sides to the story in each case, after the Drenica incident, the Gornje Obrinje incident and the Racak incident, all of which contained causalities on both sides, the American television networks contained a majority of pro-Albanian framed stories on the incidents. During the Drenica incident, the pro-Albanian stories made up forty-one per cent of coverage, compared to five per cent pro-Serbian coverage. The Gornje Obrinje incident produced pro-Albanian stories in seventy-seven per cent of the coverage, compared with zero per cent pro-Serbian. Finally, the Racak incident resulted in eighty-six per cent pro-Albanian stories, to zero per cent pro-Serbian (Bahador 2007, pp.75-89). The author of the research suggests that there is “substantial evidence” to suggest that media framing in a pro-Albanian way led to a gradual policy shift towards war (Ibid, pp.161), although he does note that this was not the only factor pushing this policy forward.

In contrast to the pluralist model, the elite model takes a different view on the power of the media to influence policy. Instead, the elite model suggests that the media is used by elite political and societal interests to further their particular policy goals. At the forefront of this theory is the work on Herman and Chomsky in their seminal work Manufacturing Consent (2002)They put forward the propaganda model that suggests the media serve to “propagandise” on behalf of vested interests. This, they argue is not through a “crude intervention” but through journalists’ “internalisation of priorities and definitions of news worthiness” (Ibid).  Structural factors such as funding sources and ownership also play a role in defining what makes the news. So, essentially what the propaganda model says about the Kosovo conflict is that the decision of NATO to go to war was not one influenced by the media. Instead, it suggests that NATO used the media to gain support for its war efforts.

In order to fully understand this viewpoint, it is necessary to expose some facts of what occurred before the NATO intervention, and also how the media reported the unfolding conflict. As Chomsky points out, although western media was reporting that the NATO intervention was in response to a Serbian ethnic cleansing campaign on Kosovar Albanians, and the campaign allowed displaced Albanians to return to their homes, the truth was that the NATO bombing actually preceded the ethnic cleansing campaign and forced Albanians to flee their homes, thus creating a refugee crisis (Chomsky 2003, p.55). Also, as Nicholas Wheeler estimated, Serbs had killed five hundred Albanians before the NATO campaign, with an implied one thousand five hundred deaths attributed to the Kosovo Liberation Army (Wheeler, cited in Chomsky 2003, p.57). Therefore, this would suggest that the Serbs were not the solely aggressive agents that they were being portrayed as. With these facts in mind an analysis of media reports before and during the conflict reveal that an agenda that would increase public support for an intervention was being pursued.

Research has suggested that US print media have been complicit in using emotive terms such as ‘genocide’ in selective cases that enemy states are involved in, but using the term much less frequently when the US or its allies are involved. For example, an analysis of five major US titles between 1998 and 1999 showed that the term ‘genocide’ was used two hundred and twenty times against the Serbs in Kosovo. Forty one of these instances were on the front page of the title. Contrast this with the case of US ally Indonesia in East Timor. Over a ten year period between 1990 and 1999, the term was used just thirty three times, four of those times on the front page (Herman, E. and Chomsky, N. 2002, p. 21). This contrast is relevant because many more deaths and massacres occurred in East Timor during that period as during the one year period of Serbian attacks in Kosovo. A look back to the previous evidence of the pro-Albanian framing of stories used in the CNN effect example could also be used to support the propaganda model’s theory.

A further piece of discourse and propaganda analysis involving four leading daily newspapers from Greece, Norway, Sweden and the UK found that in line with US President Bill Clinton’s speeches on the conflict, the NATO / US propaganda view that the bombing was necessary to stop ethnic cleansing, and that responsibility lies solely with Milosevic was reinforced in the Norwegian, Swedish and UK dailies (Nohrstedt et al. 2000, P.400). The research also suggests that selective reporting was used paint over the lack of a UNSC sanction in the UK, and that there had been a Serbian peace offer the day before the bombings began (Ibid, p.401).  This does point towards the view of propaganda model that the media serves the interests of political elites, and rarely falls into what Hallin calls “The sphere of deviance”, where journalists and political elites reject news as unworthy (Hallin 1986, p.117).  This type of reporting suggests that a pro-intervention agenda was being pushed by the media, but in whose interests? Essentially that question has different answers depending on whether one subscribes to the pluralist or elite model.

The pluralist and elite models illuminate our understanding of media connections to foreign policy. They provide a framework for understanding how decisive the media was in generating support for NATO’s campaign in Kosovo. But to really understand how decisive the media are now were then during the conflict, the words of Alastair Campbell are crucial. During the same article mentioned earlier, Campbell pointed out that “our enemy was Milosevic’s media machine, but our judge and jury was the Western media” (Campbell 1999, p. 36). The words in Campbell’s article are taken from an address he gave to an audience of journalists. As Hammond (2000, p.384) has stated, “Campbell’s intention was evidently to drive home the importance of supporting the government in any future wartime battle for hearts and minds”. It is obvious from the reporting from Kosovo that he need not worry too much. Campbell knew well how decisive the media were in generating public support. It was the reason he was hired for the job.

Levels of public support for NATO’s Kosovo campaign varied from country to country. However research has shown that public support in the ‘big-three’ NATO countries was on average, France 61%, United Kingdom 67% and United States 68% (Everts 2001). These figures show that the media war that NATO and Campbell waged was won in the powerful Western states, and provided the catalyst for a war that was illegal in accordance with international law at the time. Whether one sees the media as influencing foreign policy or as a tool of it is a matter for one’s own ideology. However, what is clear is that is that when a NATO spokesman claims that a television station is a “legitimate target” for bombing,  then one has to draw the conclusion that control of media and information to generate public support for an illegal war was a decisive factor in NATO’s Kosovo campaign.

In Conclusion, I have sought to assess how decisive the media were in generating public support for NATO’s Kosovo campaign. What was clear from the words of NATO employed spin doctor Alastair Campbell was that the media war in Kosovo was just as essential as the military war.  The pluralist and elite models of media influence on foreign policy show different ideas on how public opinion is constructed and in whose interests. Each has its merits, however the emphasis that NATO placed on getting their message across shows how decisive they knew the media to be. It also shows that the elite efforts to generate public support for an illegal war was successful, as the average percentage public support ratings in the three major NATO powers above illustrates.

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Stourton, E. , How the Kosovo war was spun. Available: [2011, 7-12].

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