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Spinning the war

Tim Gopsill, editor of the NUJ magazine The Journalist, considers the success of the public relations war

What was NATO's response when it was caught out lying over the bombing of the refugee convoy on the road from Djakovica to Prizren? Was Jamie Shea, the organisation's press officer, reminded to follow the first rule of good public relations in a tight spot and tell the truth, quickly? No. The reaction was to call on the services of Alastair Campbell, chief spindoctor of New Labour, to apply more varnish to the cracks. Since then NATO has again and again been caught out, yet the conduct of the PR war has for the British government been a huge success. According to the polls, roughly two thirds of the population are prepared to support the supposed war aims, even without knowing what they are.

The New Labour PR machine believes it can get away with just about anything. If it can sell Thatcherite dreams like privatisation without significant dissent, it is confident of selling an insane imperialist adventure like the destruction of Yugoslavia, provided it gets the marketing right. The conventional explanation is the compliance of the mass media, but there is more to it than that. The secret factor is the compliance of the institutions of labour, which have all but caved in after years of attack.

Of the new generation of self-proclaimed 'humanitarian warmongers' it is the liberal broadsheets that have attracted most amazement, but more instructive is the case of Tribune, the Labour weekly that puts 'Voice of the left' under its masthead and reflects the fluctuations in barometric pressure on the left of the parliamentary party. Tribune launched its pro-war campaign with an article by former Labour leader Michael Foot, headlined 'Confront enemy action', which argued that to 'reject resort to military force is to guarantee victory for the war criminals', and charged those doing so with 'direct responsibility for ethnic cleansing' (2 April).

Michael Foot is known to be heavily partisan in Balkan conflicts, but his article was simply a restatement of the compromised position of the Labour leadership in defence and security matters. When the Falklands armada set out in 1982 they called the Commons to a special Saturday sitting for Michael Foot to deliver an impassioned oath of loyalty on behalf of Her Majesty's opposition. Labour has, after all, been a committed party to the Atlantic alliance since it started in 1945, and Clement Attlee secretly armed Britain with atom bombs. The fact that this is so difficult to challenge is an important factor in the support for the war: it is hard for people to resist the seductiveness of the 'humanitarian' argument unless they grasp the more likely motives for the enterprise - the expansion of NATO, sidelining the UN, and so on - and to express such opinions is taboo. Now the party and the unions are cowed, not by discipline, but by the image merchants.

Not one trade union has taken a position against the bombing. There is substantial dissent within all their ranks, but from the TUC downward the line is 'no comment'. The NUJ has condemned the killing of journalists in Belgrade in the bombings of the RTS TV studios and the Chinese embassy, but no others have done even that; the broadcasting union BECTU, for instance, has failed to comment on the slaughter of TV employees at RTS, and has ordered that BECTU banners should not be taken on anti-war marches. The NUT has nothing to say about the killing of teachers; nor has UNISON on that of health or local government workers.

The unions were told that to step out of line would prejudice the party's chances in the May local and regional elections. After those, the rationale became the need for unity in the run-up to the Euro election in June. Nonsense, of course, but never put to the test. When the spinners say the image would be bad, then to resist is to be labelled an appeaser of fascism and lined up with the 'usual suspects' among the dozen-strong rump of left MPs - absolute anathema for a union leader.

Worse still, you don't get on the telly. The suppression of dissent is extraordinary. The BBC is being bombarded with calls and letters from irate citizens - the deputy editor of Newsnight replied indignantly to one: 'we have had Tony Benn on twice. I also heard Alice Mahon (on Radio 5 Live).' But, as the complainer pointed out, no opponent has debated with a minister, and ministers, generals and pro-NATO correspondents and experts are on the air the whole time. As NUJ general secretary John Foster said: 'It makes you wonder what the democratic values we are supposed to represent in this conflict are worth.'

Those values are supposed to embrace a free press, are they not? Yet the mainstream media have silenced opposition within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as well. Their voices are not heard - though they are readily accessible through the internet. (And what a comment this war has been on all the claims for the subversive nature of the internet; the Balkan web traffic is dense, but how much has surfaced?)

It has often been pointed out that the distinction between Western liberal media and those in totalitarian states is that, in the latter, nobody believes what they read and hear, while in the West they (apparently) do. In Belgrade, RTS has been derided as blatant propaganda for years. Among the people thronging to defend the Danube bridges from the bombers were many who, during the protests against Slobodan Milosevic four years ago, blew whistles, banged dustbin lids and generally made a din to drown out the pro-government RTS news. The NATO blitz on RTS was not intended so much to silence its propaganda - NATO doesn't care about that, and Western news is widely watched via satellite anyway - as to massage the image back home. It has been film beamed from that station - both Serbian and Western - that has persistently exposed NATO's lies: the smashed convoys, ruined houses, schools, factories and hospitals. It is not just the Yugoslavs they are censoring, but us.

By the start of May, journalists were beginning to say how boring the war had become. There is desultory attendance at the daily briefings, and independent reporting is virtually at a standstill. Kosovo's borders with Albania and Macedonia are crawling with media crews, all obediently waiting for more refugees - wonderful, wasn't it, how they were all there, waiting, in late March, when nothing had been done to accommodate the refugees? Pictures first, tents come later.

One defence correspondent told me that one reason the Americans are reticent to go to war on the ground is because they would lose control of the spin. Once the press starts roving around Kosovo with invading troops they would start filing stories and pictures, not just of 'allied' casualties but of atrocities committed by them. It happened in Vietnam, and it wrecked the media consensus.

Tony Blair's spinners, confident of their power over the supine media, haven't twigged that yet. They're winning too easily.

Reproduced from LM issue 121, June 1999

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