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Geoffrey Goodman

Too many truths

British Journalism Review
Vol. 10, No. 2, 1999

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Contents - Vol 10, No. 2, 1999

Editorial - Too many truths

Cal McCrystal - The sub-secret underworld of the D-Notice business

Richard Keeble - A Balkan birthday for NATO

  The war in the Balkans has been a revelation. Amid all the confusion, the grim uneasiness, the sheer human horror and profound uncertainty about what we were doing and why and where do we go now – amid all this there has been some remarkable, even outstanding journalism in many sections of the British media. It is not the case, as some of the more frenetic of radical critics have claimed, that truth is again the first casualty. Not so. On the whole truth has not been savagely mauled.

To be sure there are exceptions: we need not bother to identify them because they have been, and still are, grotesquely obvious. But if we compare the quality of the journalism in this conflict with some of the other more recent wars – Desert Storm, the Falklands, Suez and certainly the Korean war – then we must conclude that we have not been badly served despite what Richard Keeble suggests in his article (see page 16).

The real problem is that there are so many truths. There is NATO truth; there is Clinton truth; there is Blair truth; there is Kosovan truth; Albanian truth, Montenegrin truth, Greek truth and, you bet, Serbian truth as well. Try being an objective (not by any means neutral but just objective) writer trapped within these mismatching voices and you will quickly discard the trite label of a single absolute truth. That is the only context in which to judge the effectiveness of John Simpson's courageous and subtle reporting from Belgrade under such difficulties.

Maybe too much fuss was made about the "Downing street spokesperson" who criticised Simpson for being "pro-Serb". It was a silly, unguarded, perhaps even flip remark; but whoever was responsible for the whispering campaign against Simpson, frankly, it made little serious impact. Nobody in officialdom – as far as we know – actually tried to pressure the BBC into bringing him back. So it is worth reflecting on the significance of this both in terms of the way we now cover war and, indeed, about the nature of modern warfare itself. Everything has changed.

Can you imagine a BBC correspondent remaining at his, or her, post in Berlin after the sirens went on September 3 1939? True, Chamberlain did declare war and neither Blair nor Clinton bothered to do the same. But one begins to wonder whether that matters anymore in terms of modern warfare. Clinical cynicism now seems to be the order of the day.

Can you imagine the Attlee Government, at the time of the Korean war, giving any form of approval to Alan Winnington of the then British Communist paper Daily Worker who was writing his pieces from the North Korean side along with the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett who was filing pieces for French newspapers as well as the Australian press. Both were providing the scene from "the other side" – somewhat akin to what John Simpson has been doing from Belgrade. Indeed the Government withdrew Winnington's British passport at the time.

Remember too how the incomparable James Cameron was sacked, or forced to resign, from Picture Post when that then famous weekly magazine refused to print his searing critique of American tactics in the Korean war? In the Suez campaign there was powerful dissent against the Eden Government's conspiracy against truth. Great national newspapers attacked the Eden Government Suez policy – News Chronicle, Daily Mirror, The Observer, The Manchester Guardian, (The Guardian from 1961) and all lost circulation as a result of their "treachery" (Eden's supporters' description). But they recovered and enhanced their reputations as outstanding examples of democratic journalism.

We forget just how often truth HAS been the first causality.


There was also that extraordinary parallel to Belgrade during the Gulf War when Peter Arnett created a global reputation for himself and his television network, CNN, with remarkable war dispatches from Baghdad as the missiles rained down. John Simpson was there too, of course. It is interesting, by the by, that Arnett who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam war reporting, was refused an assignment in Kosovo by his CNN employers. He now plans to leave the network.

Given these reflections on the nature of contemporary war reporting and the immense changes that have taken place it is also worth considering the vast change in the nature of modern warfare itself. Technological warfare now embraces the media – as we saw so vividly during the Gulf war – as never before. The media is part of the battlefield of modern conflict to a degree far greater than even Dr Goebbels conceived. Journalists are now "used" by the military establishment and by Governments in varying forms, sometimes with considerable sophistication, though, more often, quite crudely. The speed of communications, like the speed of a missile, affects and influences the substance of the message and its propaganda value just as the accuracy of the modern missile can select (if not always hit) an oil installation or a television station at the touch of a computer button. The media, and therefore working journalists, have now become prime targets – for destruction as well as for influencing.

When the Belgrade television station was smashed Prime Minister Blair declared: "It's very, very important people realise that these television stations are part of the apparatus of dictatorship and power of Milosevic... it's the apparatus that keeps him in power. We are entirely justified as the NATO alliance in damaging and attacking all these targets". That was Tony Blair speaking on April 23. Two weeks earlier, on April 9, Jamie Shea, NATO's chief spin-doctor, had declared differently: "Whatever our feelings about Serb television we are not going to target TV transmitters directly". (Daily Telegraph 24 April 1999).

Two truths on that issue as on so much else.

John Simpson – who actually used the Belgrade television headquarters to file his nightly reports into the BBC's Nine o Clock News – lamented on all this in a moving, on-the-spot piece for the Sunday Telegraph on April 25. A few nights earlier Simpson had begun his account with this opening par:

"This is a very strange war indeed...." (BBC April 20) Indeed it is. The whole business of British correspondents remaining in Belgrade at least until they are expelled. (Simpson is one among a score) is extraordinary witness to the oddity of modern, undeclared war. Of course, remaining with "the enemy" and reporting from the receiving end of the air strikes clearly provides useful intelligence for the home military base. Yet it sometimes seems that neither Government nor journalism has fully comprehended the significance of this remarkable change in the process of war reporting. It raises very big questions for both. And what is becoming clear in the Balkan scene is that journalism and journalists appear to be coming to terms both with the significance of this, as well as the grave personal dangers involved, rather faster than Governments.

No Government appreciates dissent either in war or peace. Certainly in war it is now regarded as an imperative that the media should be "under control"; reasonably, of course, – rather than with a crude bludgeon, – always provided one can get away with a tickling-feather. In total war. circa 1939-45, there was an incontrovertible case for control or, at least, regulation. But this was not "total war" even if the distinction is increasingly difficult to define. There are serious and genuine divisions of view throughout the NATO alliance and certainly within public opinion in Britain, and this is reflected in the media. People are divided and questioning. However evil the Milosevic regime may be – and this journal has no qualms about listing it as such – the fact remains that NATO has not declared war on Serbia even though that is what we have been engaged in.

Governments within the 19 nation NATO grouping can have their own views and truths on that. But journalists must remain with their own agenda – to report the truth as they see it, no matter how many uncomfortable truths there may be. Their role is to avoid the empty metallic clichés that officialdom so much prefers and which tend to dominate all conflict. That is their commitment – and on balance they are fulfilling that commitment, mostly, with honour.

In all life there are many truths; in outstanding journalism, often enough, there is always one truth too far, for the likes of the cliché mongers.