“I think newsmen are inclined to side with humanity rather than with authority and institutions.” (Quoted Schechter, The More You Watch, The Less You Know, Seven Stories Press, 1997, p.36)
Or so U.S. TV anchorman, Walter Cronkite, would have us believe. Leading New York Times intellectual, Thomas Friedman, provides some of the reality:
“Like it or not, we are at war with the Serbian nation (the Serbs certainly think so), and the stakes have to be very clear: Every week you ravage Kosovo is another decade we will set your country back by pulverising you. You want 1950? We can do 1950. You want 1389? We can do 1389 too.” (Thomas Friedman, The New York Times, April 23, 1999)
Prior to becoming the BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr discussed how ‘we’ had moved from Cold War stalemate to 1999 hot war with Serbia:
“After the permafrost, the beasts. We are not well-prepared for this. The idea that our people should go and die in large numbers appals us. Killing our enemies appals us too. The war-hardened people of Serbia, far more callous, seemingly readier to die, are like an alien race. So, for that matter, are the KLA.” (Marr, ‘War is hell – but not being ready to go to war is undignified and embarrassing’, the Observer, April 25, 1999)
Ex-CBS producer Richard Cohen explains the underlying reality of the media-politics relationship:
“Everyone plays by the rules of the game if they want to stay in the game.” (Quoted, Schechter, op., cit, p.39)
One of the most important rules of the game is that the media present the U.S. and British governments as fundamentally benign and well-intentioned, so freeing them to wage war for ‘humanitarian’ reasons. This is a kind of fixed canvas on which world events must be painted. The illusion is maintained by overlooking crimes committed by us and our allies; by taking a moral motivation for granted, ignoring any possibility that corporate power might play a role in driving foreign policy; by presenting crimes as ‘mistakes’; by demonising enemies as lethal threats and then justifying massive violence against them as regrettable but unavoidable; by employing language that softens and blurs the emotional impact of our atrocities on the public mind. The last is extremely important – in politics, as in everyday life, our emotional reaction to events largely depends on how we label them: the phrase ‘genocidal massacre’ fills us with horror in a way that ‘human rights abuses’ does not.
To select examples at random, on May 24, 2000, John Irvine and Mark Austin of ITN’s 6:30 News, both reported that 900 Israeli soldiers had been killed over the 20 years that followed the Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982. No mention was made of the fact that 20,000 Lebanese and Palestinians had been killed, or that the majority of them were civilians; that hundreds of thousands of refugees were created; or that southern Lebanon and the capital, Beirut, were largely destroyed.
In 1979, when killing by the West’s Indonesian allies in East Timor was reaching genocidal levels, there was not one mainstream press article in the New York Times or the Washington Post on the crisis. Amy Goodman reports: “ABC, NBC and CBS ‘Evening News’ never mentioned the words East Timor and neither did ‘Nightline’ or ‘MacNeil Lehrer’ between 1975, the day of the invasion, except for one comment by Walter Cronkite the day after, saying Indonesia had invaded East Timor – it was a 40 second report – until November 12, 1991.” (Amy Goodman, ‘Exception to the Rulers, Part II’, Z Magazine, December 1997)
In 1999, long after it became clear that Indonesia was organising and arming mass murdering ‘militia’ in East Timor, BBC newscaster Nicholas Witchell described how Indonesian armed forces “have failed to protect the people of East Timor”. (Witchell, BBC 8:50 News, October 12, 1999) Much as the SS “failed to protect” the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto.
Sometimes the propaganda is close to subliminal. In January, ITN reported that British troops had been sent to Kabul “to stop Afghanistan from slipping back into… chaos”. (ITN Evening News, January 10, 2002)
In April, in similar vein, Rory Carroll of the Guardian wrote:
“Whoever is trying to destabilise Afghanistan is doing a good job. The broken cities and scorched hills so recently liberated are rediscovering fear and uncertainty.” (Rory Carroll, ‘Blood-drenched warlord’s return’, the Observer, April 14, 2002)
The broken cities and scorched hills were +not+ “rediscovering fear” after being “liberated”, of course – mass starvation exacerbated by bombing, violence and rampant warlordism ensured that fear and uncertainty were ever-present. Two months before Carroll’s comment, Refugees International reported:
“A new wave of flight from Afghanistan highlights the lack of security there. Nearly 20,000 Afghan refugees are waiting to get into Pakistan, and many more are on the way, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). So far this year, more than 50,000 Afghans have fled to Pakistan. They are trying to escape crime and fighting in their villages that are interfering with food deliveries necessitated by years of drought.” (‘New refugee flows from Afghanistan highlight lack of security’, Refugees International, February 25, 2002)
One month before Carroll’s comment, humanitarian agencies reported on what they had seen, and asked:
“Why, eight weeks after the worst of the war in Afghanistan was over, were people still eating grass just one inch away on a highway map from the major Afghan city of Mazar-I-Sharif?” (Jonathan Frerichs, Lutheran World Relief and Action by Churches Together, March 7, 2002)
Imagine the media of some superpowerful foreign coalition describing how British people subsisting on grass had been liberated by coalition bombs from fear, uncertainty and chaos.
The reality is not allowed to interfere with the key propaganda messages to be absorbed, namely: 1) Western military action +did+ free Afghanistan from fear, uncertainty and chaos, but meddlesome Afghans are now undermining our good work; and 2) The U.S. and UK +always+ act benignly, and ‘humanitarian’ military assault is always beneficial. These are vital – when the time comes to launch the next punchbag war, journalists will point to ‘successful’ interventions alleviating misery in Kosovo and Afghanistan. And the public will believe them.
Consider also as examples the reporting of alleged massacres in Racak in 1999, and Jenin now.
The assault on Jenin refugee camp by Israel’s armed forces began early on April 3, 2002. A neighbourhood in the heart of Jenin, a 400m by 500m area, was totally demolished – cinder-block homes housing some 800 Palestinian families disappeared. Palestinians claim 500 were killed, while 23 Israeli troops are known to have died – at time of writing, 50 Palestinian dead have so far been named. The destruction is “horrifying beyond belief,” said the United Nations’ Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, at the scene. He called it a “blot that will forever live on the history of the state of Israel”. (Quoted, Justin Huggler and Phil Reeves, ‘Once upon a time in Jenin – What really happened when Israeli forces went into Jenin?’, the Independent, 25 April, 2002)
Peter Beaumont of the Observer, however, was in no doubt that this was not a massacre.
“It is easy to be distracted by the presence of the bodies. On Friday, in their white plastic shrouds, they were stacked like stinking chords of wood outside the main hospital in the northern West Bank city of Jenin… By their very weight of numbers laid out on the ground – almost 30 on this afternoon – they suggested themselves as victims of a massacre. But a massacre – in the sense it is usually understood – did not take place in Jenin’s refugee camp. Whatever crimes were committed here – and it appears there were many – a deliberate and calculated massacre of civilians by the Israeli army was not among them. (Beaumont, ‘Brutal, yes. Massacre, no’, the Observer, April 21, 2002)
Some of the darkness of what happened in Jenin was thereby lifted by Beaumont – there was condemnation, but not the passionate, ringing condemnation regularly visited on the West’s enemies. Certainly the “deliberate and calculated massacre of civilians” is one definition of ‘massacre’. Another is the deliberate and calculated massacre of troops, or indeed of suspected guerrillas.
Beaumont was equally adamant in +using+ the word ‘massacre’ to describe the alleged killing of Albanian civilians in Racak by Serb armed forces on January 16, 1999. Beaumont and other Observer journalists reported:
“History will judge that the defining moment for the international community took place on 16 January this year… Albanians returning after an attack by Serb security forces discovered the bodies of men they had left behind to look after the houses. The dead of Racak, 45 in all, included elderly men and young boys, most shot at close range, some mutilated after death, eyes gouged out. One man lay decapitated in his courtyard. William Walker, U.S. head of the international monitoring group, called it unequivocally a Serb police ‘massacre’.” (Peter Beaumont, Justin Brown, John Hooper, Helena Smith and Ed Vulliamy, ‘Hi-tech war and primitive slaughter – Slobodan Milosevic is fighting on two fronts’, the Observer, March 28, 1999)
Beaumont has used the word ‘massacre’ repeatedly when describing what happened at Racak:
“Feriz Brahimi was returning to a village empty except for the dogs. After the massacre, no one wants to live here. Those who come – Brahimi, an Albanian actor and comedian, among them – visit only to make sure that their houses still stand.” (Beaumont, ‘How the end came’, Guardian’, October 6, 1999)
Like so many mainstream journalists, Beaumont considered Racak evidence pointing not merely to a massacre, but to actual genocide. Thus the Observer team wrote:
“His [Slobodan Milosevic’s] troops in Serbia are out of barracks. But in Kosovo they are scouring the fields, villages and towns, pursuing their own version of a Balkan Final Solution.” (Beaumont, Brown, Hooper, Smith, Vulliamy, op., cit)
This was a remarkable statement, given the sheer scale of the claim – the Observer was drawing comparisons between Serb actions and one of the most appalling atrocities in all history – but it becomes truly mind-boggling when we consider the Observer’s own assessment of the credibility of the evidence on which it was based:
“Without the humanitarian monitors, who left the south Serbian province seven days ago, and journalists, who were expelled last Thursday, it is impossible to verify the dark stories that are emerging.” (Ibid)
This presents no problem – with Serbia designated an official enemy of the West, journalists were free to present a “Balkan Final Solution” as fact, in the knowledge that no questions would be asked (talk of a ‘U.S. Final Solution in Iraq’ would have different consequences). In fact the tribunal investigating war crimes in Kosovo has discovered evidence for fewer than 4,000 casualties on all sides. In the months leading up to the start of NATO bombing, the alleged ‘massacre’ at Racak was exceptional, with deaths occurring at an average of one per day. The last NATO report prior to the bombing (January 16-March 22, 1999) cited dozens of incidents, with about half initiated by the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and half by Serb security forces. Casualties were mostly military and at comparable levels to preceding months. This was horrific enough, but to make a comparison with the Nazi’s ‘Final Solution’ is absurd.
Returning to Jenin, one might think that the bulldozing alive of men, women and children, the use of human shields, the hampering of medical aid to the wounded, summary executions, and the massive destruction of property bears comparison to the alleged slaughter at Racak. Other factors lend weight to the idea.
The Serbian action in Racak, a KLA stronghold, took place with TV journalists, and observers from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), invited and present, whereas the Israelis blocked all observers. In the Observer article, Beaumont et al quoted William Walker, the head of the OSCE’s Kosovo Verification Mission, who denounced the alleged massacre. Walker did indeed say:
“It looks like executions. From what I personally saw, I do not hesitate to describe the event as a massacre – obviously a crime very much against humanity.” (Quoted, Philip Hammond and Edward S. Herman editors, Degraded Capability – The Media and the Kosovo Crisis, Pluto Press, 2000, p.118)
What the Observer failed to mention was that this was the same William Walker who was U.S. ambassador to El Salvador in 1989 under Reagan, at the height of the U.S.-backed bloodbath there. Walker said of the Salvadorean army’s murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter: “Management control problems exist in a situation like this.” (Ibid, p.118) Walker more generally dismissed the vast massacres of unarmed civilians by the Salvadorean government, saying that “in times like these of great emotion and great anger, things like this happen.” (Ibid, p.118) Walker’s pedigree as an apologist for U.S. crimes during the eighties at least deserves mention when reporting his views on alleged Serb atrocities.
Although the Guardian and other UK media have constantly accused the Serbian government of hiding bodies, they did not notice the curious failure to remove bodies at Racak. French reporter Christophe Chatelet, who arrived in the village after the fighting, found the site calm. He spoke to OSCE observers helping some elderly people who told him that nothing important had happened. There were no signs of a massacre.
The Guardian and the Observer also ignored a 2001 report in a German newspaper, Berliner Zeitung, on Racak. Deutsche Presse-Agentur gave a summary:
“Finnish forensic experts in a final report on the circumstances of the deaths two years ago of some 40 people in the village of Racak in Kosovo found no evidence of a massacre by Serb security forces, a German newspaper reported Wednesday.” (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, ‘Finnish experts find no evidence of Serb massacre of Albanians’, January 17, 2001)
The report was by a panel of Finnish forensic experts, led by Helena Ranta, which was asked by the European Union to investigate the killings in the spring of 1999. The panel was unable to confirm that the victims were villagers from Racak. It was unable to reconstruct events prior to the autopsies of the bodies, reporting that even the exact site of the incident had not been established. There was also no evidence that the bodies had been disfigured after their deaths. The 40 bodies examined were found to show between one and 20 bullet wounds – only in one case did they find traces of gun smoke that might point to an execution. Deutsche Presse-Agentur noted that Belgrade authorities at the time of the ‘massacre’ insisted the bodies were slain rebels of the KLA, which they said had deliberately set up the scene to make OSCE observers believe there had been a massacre. Ranta described Racak as “a crime against humanity”, but added, “all killings” are crimes against humanity. (Quoted Edward Herman, ‘The Milosevic Trial (Part 2): Media And New Humanitarian Normalization Of Victor’s Justice’, Z Magazine, forthcoming) The final report has never been made public, which suggests that it does not support the official story, Edward Herman notes.
Recall that this was described as “the defining moment” in Serb-West relations by Beaumont and his colleagues, and many other journalists.
Racak gave the West the pretext it needed for launching an assault on Serbia. Allan Little of the Sunday Telegraph quoted Madeleine Albright as saying to National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, after hearing of the alleged massacre, “Spring has come early”. (Little, ‘How NATO was sucked into the Kosovo conflict,’ Sunday Telegraph, February 27, 2000)
Academic Philip Hammond indicates the scale of the truth buried by the mainstream media:
“We may never know the true number of people killed. But it seems reasonable to conclude that while people died in clashes between the KLA and Yugoslav forces… the picture painted by Nato – of a systematic campaign of Nazi-style genocide carried out by Serbs – was pure invention.” (Hammond and Herman eds., op., cit, p.129)
By contrast, according to Israeli newspaper, Ha’aretz, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres initially characterised the Israeli military’s action in Jenin as a “massacre”, while unnamed military officers stated, “when the world sees the pictures of what we have done there, it will do us immense damage”. (Quoted, Mouin Rabbani, ‘Did Israel Perpetrate a “Massacre” in the Jenin Refugee Camp?’, http://www.zmag.org, April 25, 2002)
Forensic pathologist Derrick Pounder, who recently spent several days in the Jenin refugee camp as part of an Amnesty International mission, concluded that it is “simply not true” that most of those killed were armed fighters. “In Jenin,” he stated, “there have certainly been mass killings – both combatants and civilians.” (Ibid)
On April 25, Justin Huggler and Phil Reeves reported in the Independent:
“It appears to be the case that a minimum of many dozens of Palestinian civilians were killed through a combination of the deliberate and indiscriminate use of excessive and disproportionate force in a densely-populated residential area, in a number of cases for purely punitive purposes; sniper fire; summary executions; and last but certainly not least the systematic interdiction of medical and rescue services from the very outset of the invasion until many days after the final cessation of hostilities. Many would indeed characterise the grim results of the sum total of these measures as a ‘massacre’ – particularly if persistent allegations that Israel surreptitiously removed corpses or dug mass graves are proven true. Others would suffice with terming such conduct an “atrocity”.” (Huggler and Reeves, ‘Evidence of a Massacre’, the Independent, April 25, 2002)
Gore Vidal once noted ironically how the U.S. media manage to conjure “the image of America the beauteous on its hill, envied by all and subject to attacks by terrorists who cannot bear so much sheer goodness to triumph in a world that belongs to their master, the son of morning himself, Satan”. (Gore Vidal, quoted ‘Why America?’, William Blum, the Ecologist, Dec 2001/Jan 2002)
The UK media play a similar role, with an added emphasis on how the benign British government forever seeks to restrain its equally benign but somewhat over-zealous American allies.
Suffering caused by Western ‘enemies’ is forever highlighted, boosted and vilified. Suffering caused by the West and its ‘friends’ is forever ignored, prettified, explained away and forgotten. The effect of this continuous propaganda, is that many people find it literally inconceivable that the West could be doing anything very wrong in the world: We would not bomb a nation of starving civilians without very good reason, because we have always been a good people who do good things. We would not be imposing sanctions on Iraq without good reason, or without ensuring adequate protection for Iraqi civilians, because our leaders are good and decent people with pleasant smiles. We cannot be standing idly by while global warming threatens an unprecedented, perhaps terminal, holocaust within 10 years, because we are good, sane, sensible people.
This conviction is utterly crucial – the public will not tolerate the mass killing of foreign innocents unless they believe an honourable goal is being served. And so the media – especially the ‘liberal’ media in which people place so much trust – are up to their necks in blood.
We live in a world made up of the outrageously rich and powerful few, of the unbearably poor and suffering many. It is a world dominated by rapacious Western corporations legally obliged to pursue the bottom-line, and by allied Third World tyrants armed to the teeth with Western weapons. Yet somehow, always, without fail, the media portrays Western violence as moral, humanitarian, and defensive. Editors and journalists do not drop the bombs or pull the triggers, but without their servility to power the public would not be fooled and the slaughter would have to end.
If there is to be a way out of the nightmare of history, it will begin with our waking up to the complicity of the corporate mass media in mass murder.
Write to Peter Beaumont at the Observer:
Email: [email protected]
Ask him why he so adamantly rejects the description of Israeli military action in Jenin as a ‘massacre’, while accepting events in Racak as a ‘massacre’. Ask him why he failed to cover the 2001 final report by the Finnish forensic team casting doubt on the ‘massacre’ at Racak. Ask him if he still believes Serbia was responsible for a “Balkan Final Solution” in Kosovo.
Copy your letters to Observer editor, Roger Alton:
Email: [email protected]