- BRENDAN SIMMS. Review of Bosnia by Television - Edited by James Gow, Richard Patterson and Alison Preston.
Perhaps the best-known image of the Bosnian war was that of skeletal Fikret Alic filmed by ITN at the Serbian camp of Omarska in the summer of 1992. It should come as no surprise to find it on the cover of this book on the role of television in the war in the former Yugoslavia.
Unlike the "managed" conflicts in the Falklands and the Gulf, the media in Bosnia had a relatively free hand not witnessed since the Vietnam war. Day by day, satellite beamed shattering images of destruction and suffering into western living-rooms. On more than one occasion, reluctant governments appeared to be spurred into action by the impact of the last atrocity. This led to frequent accusations that policy was being guided by emotion rather than reason, or, more sinisterly, that media manipulation was guilty of grossly over-simplifying a "complex and many-sided war".
Ironically, the image of Fikret Alic has become the most recent focus of these charges, John Burns's article - which comes complete with an editorial "health warning" - claims that the man in question was no Muslim, but a Serbian looter suffering from tuberculosis not malnutrition. Since then, a freelance German journalist has argued that the pictures were taken inside the wire, giving - among other alleged distortions - the false impression of caged captives.
Most probably, these charges are quite groundless: the man in question has been unambiguously identified as a Muslim refugee and the image corresponds too closely to what we know - from a wide variety of sources - about radical Serbian atrocities in 1992 for it to have been faked.
But even if the image were not genuine, what would that prove, beyond undeniable journalistic sharp practice? After all, some classic images of the second world war are now known to be fakes without that changing our fundamental perception of what was at stake in that conflict.
As James Gow and James Tilsley point out in their thoughtful contribution, it could be argued that what mattered was the "greater truth of the war which was the Serbian project to create new borders and ethnic maps".
In any case, as Nik Gowing of Channel 4 argues, the media influence was more tactical than strategic. The prompt international response to the market-place massacres of 1994 and 1995, he shows, may have been accelerated by graphic media images, but it was underpinned by cool policy shifts decided in advance by the international community. Indeed, Gowing continues, television images themselves exercise relatively little pressure on governments; influence is exerted via the op-ed columns in newspapers and magazines. It was the failure of these voices to swing decisively towards intervention which defused pressures for a more pro-active policy.
Conversely, though this is never explicitly addressed in this collected volume, the strongest "op-ed" lobby for intervention was to be found in the United States, where "popular" media-driven opinion on Bosnia was not particularly strong. In the end, therefore, it was the cool American realpolitik of Richard Holbrooke, Bob Dole, Sam Nunn, George Shultz, Benjamin Gilman and many others, which overturned Britain's longstanding policy of appeasement, not supposedly ill-informed mass hysteria whipped up by allegedly manipulated media images.
Brendan Simms is a fellow, Peterhouse, Cambridge.