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BBC's Jim Fish
"There's nothing new about propaganda"
 real 28k

Wednesday, 5 January, 2000, 20:40 GMT
Propaganda wars in Kosovo and Chechnya

Belgrade TV: portrayed Nato as the aggressor Belgrade TV portrayed Nato as the aggressor


The Nato campaign in Kosovo and, subsequently, the Russian campaign in Chechnya have been fought as much by propagandists - the so-called spin doctors and media spokesmen - as by the military. The BBC's Jim Fish examines methods used in these conflicts to influence the public.

Nato's baptism of fire came in March with the air campaign to oust Serbian forces from Kosovo.


Nato launches air campaign to oust Serb forces from Kosovo Nato launches air campaign to oust Serb forces from Kosovo
It was from Nato headquarters in Brussels that the world's most powerful military alliance launched its first ever campaign.

Now 50 years old, Nato had come of age: in military terms, it was a victory.

Kosovo: Special Report
The Serbs were subdued. Nato's losses were minimal.

Nato takes to the airwaves

In the process, Nato found itself fighting two campaigns: against Belgrade, and in front of television cameras in Brussels.



The truth is a jigsaw puzzle and it consists of 1000 small pieces
Dr Jamie Shea, Nato spokesman
For more than two months, Dr Jamie Shea, Nato's spokesman, was the face and voice of the alliance at its daily press briefings.

However, it did not take long for the spin doctors in London and Washington to rush in a team of back-room spinners to help feed the frenzied press.

In an interview, he told me that he had good days and bad days confronting a hall full of journalists waiting to pounce on him.

"If you like, the truth is a jigsaw puzzle and it consists of 1000 small pieces," he said.


Jamie Shea: the face and voice of Nato Jamie Shea: The face and voice of Nato
"There were some days when I came in thinking I had about 650 and I think I can probably hold my own. There were other days when I thought I had about 65 pieces and I might have to improvise a little."

"The main point was making sure that the journalists always believed I had about 650 and not 65!"

"We had about 350 journalists permanently camped at Nato HQ. Many of them had a night shift. They brought camp beds and cooking stoves inside this building."

"They wanted briefings round the clock. And of course in a conflict, journalists are under pressure from their editors and their producers to come up with new facts, explanations virtually on the hours."

"We went from one briefing a day at the beginning to three a day at the end."



Nato was saying 'Look, we're ... dropping bombs on a European country - but this is justified because of the awful things ... happening in Kosovo itself
Dr Jamie Shea


I asked him if he thought that Nato was just setting itself up when things went wrong by giving the media such wide and instant access.

"Because this was a humanitarian conflict, because therefore national interests, national survival were not at stake, I think most politicians in Nato felt they were under pressure to justify what they were doing."

"By providing information, Nato was saying 'Look, we're doing something which may seem to public opinion to be rather brutal - dropping bombs on a European country - but this is justified because of the awful things that are happening in Kosovo itself. And therefore we ask for your support.'


Kosovo exodus: 'awful things are happening in Kosovo' Kosovo exodus: 'Awful things are happening in Kosovo'
"And therefore because we had to make the case for a somewhat unconventional course of action, I think the onus was on us to provide all the facts, all the explanation."

"And I think this is true of any humanitarian intervention. Winston Churchill used to say that in wartime you should surround the truth with a dense thicket of lies."

"That may be the case when your national survival is on the line, but that's certainly not the case in this type of humanitarian, very public intervention."

With restricted media access to Serbia, Nato governments relied on the harrowing images of the emptying of Kosovo to justify the bombing.

Milosevic fights back


Slobodan Milosevic: Slobodan Milosevic: "Refugees appeared ... as a result of bombing."
At first Belgrade alleged that these were not refugees - just actors.

More to the point, Slobodan Milosevic and other Serbian leaders had charged that there were no refugees - until Nato started bombing.

"Before 24 March when they started their damn bombing and they started their dirty aggression against this country, there was not one single refugee," Milosevic said during an interview.

"When they started bombing, refugees appeared of course as a result of bombing. And everybody knows it."


Slobodan Milosevic suggested that actors posed as refugees Slobodan Milosevic suggested that actors posed as refugees
When Belgrade Television put Nato in the dock with the Nazis, it was clearly aiming at its domestic audience.

Nato blunders

However, Belgrade's only real propaganda victories were Nato blunders, such as the bombing of the refugee convoy in April.

Nato took five days to come clean.


Nato blunder: refugee in shock after being bombed Nato blunder: Refugee in shock after being bombed
"These were the five worst days of the whole campaign for me. But I told the press that we were going to provide the facts, that there would be no cover-up," says Jamie Shea.

"And many people thought that because it took five days we were going to cover up. But at the end of the day, I made a case that we had a duty to the press to set the story straight"

Ask any general what he most dislikes about warfare and he would probably say the media.


Nato admits to bombing passenger train in Serbia Nato admits to bombing passenger train in Serbia
Kosovo was different. This was the media's war almost as much as the generals'.

Why? Nato needed the media to justify the bombing and to try to win over public opinion on both sides.

Winston Churchill would have thought it madness to beam into living rooms everywhere almost live pictures of such blatant mistakes as an attack on a passenger train in Serbia.



If we did not own up to our failings, we would never be believed when we later claimed successes. This is a fundamental principle of credibility.
Dr Jamie Shea
Nato did just this.

Similarly Nato bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade - but insisted that it had made a tragic error.

What governments in the West crave is credibility at home.

Admitted mistakes are priceless chips to be cashed in when the time comes to claim success.


A wounded Chinese Embassy worker is rescued after Nato bombing A wounded Chinese Embassy worker is rescued after Nato bombing
"This is the most important thing. If we did not own up to our failings, we would never be believed when we later claimed successes. This is a fundamental principle of credibility," says Jamie Shea.

Nato fails to silence Milosevic

Nato's bombing of Belgrade TV, the heart of the Serbian propaganda machine, was not a mistake.

Though civilians were killed, Milosevic's mouthpiece was not so easily silenced.

Mladen Bilic is a Serbian media monitor at the BBC's monitoring service in Caversham in southern England.


Belgrade TV: Nato denies bombing was a mistake Belgrade TV: Bombing was not a mistake
"Belgrade TV was back on air soon. They had a contingency plan how to get back on air. So it was a completely wrong decision whichever way you look at it. They were using these mobile transmitters, and the propaganda victory was on the Serb side," he explains.

Lessons from Bosnia were learned. During that conflict, politicians were pushed to intervene by the effect of television pictures on public opinion.

In Kosovo, television was used by politicians to prepare the public for intervention.

Russian spin on Chechnya


Mikhail Margelov: Russia's Jamie Shea Mikhail Margelov: Russia's Jamie Shea
Ironically, the first people to apply Nato's lessons from Kosovo were Nato's old Cold War enemies: the Russians.

In Chechnya, the commercial NTV has shown a much cleaner war than the conflict fought five years ago.

Peter Feuilrade, a media analyst at Caversham, explains what the Russians learned from Nato's experience.



The Russian experience since 1996 is one of rapid and steady growth of public relations work practically in all spheres of the life of the country.
Mikhail Margelov
"I think it was a very conscious decision to copy the Nato effort of earlier in the year. Because senior Russian military officials admitted that their ability to control coverage of the 1994-6 conflict was absolutely disastrous," he says.

Mikhail Margelov, of Moscow's newly created Information Centre, is Russia's answer to Jamie Shea.

"We are trying to be more efficient, we are trying to be more clear, we are trying to sound more distinct and we are trying to be more transparent," he explained.


Russia's TV war: cockpit video from Russian bomber Russia's TV war: Cockpit video from Russian bomber
"The election of Boris Yeltsin showed the real force of PR and advertising, and the Russian experience since 1996 is one of rapid and steady growth of public relations work practically in all spheres of the life of the country."

So far Russian TV viewers have been shown a virtual war, even down to the cockpit video from Russian fighter bombers.

Moscow denies keeping foreign TV crews out of Chechnya. The foreigners already killed there are sufficient deterrent.

If things go badly for Moscow, the bad news could be that much harder to stifle.


Chechen video pictures show bodies of civilians Chechen video pictures are said to show bodies of civilians
In the battle for hearts and minds over Chechnya, Moscow has not had things all its own way.

Rare video pictures from the Chechen side - which are difficult to verify - show that it is civilians and not just so-called terrorists who are being killed.

Like Nato in Kosovo, the news from Chechnya could yet go against Moscow.

"What is really necessary is to bring our message across our borders, to be understood better abroad," explains Mikhail Margelov.

The battle of the airwaves continues.
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See also:
17 Dec 99 |  Europe
Getting into Chechnya
26 Dec 99 |  Europe
Opinion: A Chechen view of Russia's war
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Russia: "No evidence of Chechnya massacre"
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Russian media follows its paymasters
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Russian media sceptical on Grozny defeat
24 Nov 99 |  Media reports
Serbian media condemns Clinton visit
16 Apr 99 |  UK
BBC defends Simpson's Belgrade reports

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