Hacks Versus Flacks
The London media world is under fire and taking shelter. Prime Minister Tony Blair's head flack, Alistair Campbell, has challenged the patriotism of the British press. It's as if Sid Blumenthal had questioned the loyalty under fire of the New York Times op-ed writers from Tom Friedman to Bill Safire. There are reminders of America's greatest vice-president Spiro Agnew's denunciations of the "nattering nabobs of negativism."
Anyone who visits London this summer will hear the howls of righteous indignation from the bar of the Groucho Club, the corridors of the Garrick, the rat-infested sewers of Canary Wharf and the ramparts of Rupert Murdoch's Death Ship Wapping. Hell hath no outrage like angry hacks declaring love of country and natural subservience to power. Campbell's McCarthyite smear on their collective character [sic] has brought their John Bull's blood to the boil and spilled it onto the pages of their newspapers. The battle within the media elite [sic], for Campbell himself is an ex-hack, will provide much amusement to a public whose intelligence is daily insulted by press and government alike.
Campbell led the assault on media loyalty in a speech to the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies, a research center and club mainly for ex-servicemen. Most of New Labour's ministers improved their public standing with their apparently heroic performances: no photo opportunity missed, aboard empty tanks and grounded bombers far from the field of battle. Campbell himself missed the glory, so widely was his mishandling the propaganda war criticised. At one stage, when his statements and those of Nato's British spokesman in Brussels, Jamie Shea, were too obviously in conflict, Campbell flew to Brussels to coordinate strategy - i.e., get their stories straight. Even after the Campbell-Shea flack summit, nearly every journalist who followed the war gave Campbell low marks for the ineffectiveness of his propaganda. If he had lied more effectively, they might have admired him.
Campbell declared victory over our hearts and minds and launched a counter-offensive against a press that increasingly resents his interference and bullying. "In the face of aggressive media," he told the old soldiers gathered in Whitehall, "you sometimes need aggression in return." No one, including fellow travelling New Labour editors of British nationals, can recall Campbell ever having been unassertive. "It may mean journalists getting annoyed when you criticise their reporting."
Campbell did not care for British press accounts of NATO bombardment of refugee columns, embassies, hospitals and schools. Not that they didn't happen, just that no one should have reported them. Referring to press accounts of one "convoy incident" (his euphemism for the NATO slaughter of Kosovo Albanian refugees), Campbell conceded that it happened. It was impossible to deny, although he tried at the time. His admission that "there will be accidents in war" preceded his lament that the media had reported "that different things were said in different parts of the operation." He neglected to mention that he and Jamie Shea were the ones who said the "different" (that is, mutually contradictory) things in the aftermath of an atrocity that only Campbell refers to as "an operation."
Campbell allowed himself a gentle back pat over the bombing of the Chinese embassy, which most of the world regards still as a diplomatic disaster. "By the time of the Chinese embassy bombing," he said, we had learnt our lesson." To stop bombing embassies? No. "Coordination was improved As a story, it reverberated for several days less [sic] than the convoy incident." That is, he and Shea were back in control.
Despite what he saw as media opposition to his crusade for truth, Campbell claimed to have achieved his objective. "In the end, our message got through. It got through to Milosevic, who apparently spent hours watching western TV." How it got through to Milosevic, when Campbell said that disloyal elements in control of broadcasting were wasting valuable air time on NATO bombs killing real people, is something of a mystery. Yet mystery, rule by smoke and mirrors, is what this government is all about. Anyone who reads the text of its new Freedom [sic] of Information [sic] Bill knows that mystery will remain at the center of the enigma of New Labour's Third Way.
A junior minister in the Foreign Office picked up Campbell's theme, saying the press was "just plain sick" to write that NATO provoked Serb massacres. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, whose officials had not recorded any refugees outside Kosovo until NATO's bombs fell, came to the same "sick" conclusion.
The journalists are fighting back by insisting that their reporting was plus royalist que le roi. Channel Four correspondent Alex Thomson wrote, "So, if you want to know why the public supported the war, thank a journalist, not the present government's propagandist-in-chief." Well, thanks. The Guardian's Maggie O'Kane, a brave Irish journalist who has covered all of Yugoslavia's wars, made the same point: "But Campbell should acknowledge that it was the press reporting of the Bosnian war and the Kosovar refugee crisis that gave his boss the public support and sympathy he needed to fight the good fight against Milosevic." John Simpson of the BBC joined the battle. An excellent reporter, he had already forced the government's spin-doctors withdraw their criticisms of his reporting from Belgrade when he considered suing for libel. Yet he too believes that journalists, rather than exposing the war as illegal or immoral, were vital to its prosecution: "Why did British, American, German, and French public opinion stay rock-solid for the bombing, in spite of Nato's mistakes? Because they knew the war was right. Who gave them the information? The media."
It was left to a few individual voices, notably Australian journalist John Pilger and novelist Andrew Wilson, to question the legitimacy and legality of an undeclared NATO war. Pilger wrote for the tiny readership of the New Statesman, "Thousands of men, women and children, including those Kosovars NATO was claiming to 'save', would now be alive were it not for the post-cold-war machinations of American power, egged on by Blair, [Defence Minister] Robertson and [Foreign Minister] Cook with their few ageing Harrier aircraft and squadrons of propagandists." Wilson asked in the Evening Standard, which does not circulate outside London, "But do you remember the British columnists telling us that the war was justified because Milosevic had killed tens of thousands? Where are the tens of thousands of graves? Milosevic has killed about as many people [in Kosovo] as the IRA has killed in Ireland."
Pilger and Wilson are in a tiny minority. Murdoch's Sun led the war coverage with headlines like "Clobba Slobba," and, in subtler forms, the others followed. Britain has nearly twenty daily, weekly and Sunday national publications Nearly all of them limited the debate to the effectiveness of high-altitude bombing. Only one paper opposed the war on principle: The Independent on Sunday. In the aftermath of Kosovo, its editor has just been fired. He is an accomplished journalist and honorable man named Kim Fletcher. His successor is, suitably, the former presenter of downmarket television talk shows.
© Charles Glass 1999