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Saturday, March 27, 1999 Published at 05:11 GMT

Analysis: Piercing the propaganda

Nato's "co-operative" approach: Explaining the plan to journalists

By BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy

It is sometimes said that the first casualty of war is truth, and recent events in the Balkans seem to reinforce that view.

Kosovo: Special Report
The mass expulsion of journalists from Yugoslavia may have been justified as a crucial step in preserving state security but to the waiting world it looked like a ham-fisted attempt to manipulate the news.

Andrew Bomford reports from the BBC's Monitoring Centre in Caversham: "A valuable source of information"
Although some foreign journalists were left operating in Belgrade and Pristina, as well as local staff, reliable sources are scarce and Western media were set to face great difficulties in obtaining accurate, verifiable reports.

But the expulsion order was rescinded on Friday and the BBC's World Affairs Editor, John Simpson, says Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic now seems to have been persuaded that the decision to expel the journalists was a mistake.

Past masters of spin

Not that this is a totally one-way street, says Michael Bromley, a lecturer in journalism at Cardiff University.

It is well recognised that since the Gulf War, America, and to a lesser degree the other Western nations, are past masters at "spinning" a conflict such as this.

The difference, says Mr Bromley, is between two different types of propaganda.

[ image: Aerial photograph of the bombing, handed to reporters]
Aerial photograph of the bombing, handed to reporters
For the United States "it's the Gulf War all over again," he says, outlining their "winning formula of 'propaganda by truth'," or "white propaganda".

"It's got to be a concerted action, that is there has to be more than one state involved in the attacks. It's got to be a demonised opponent, in this case Slobodan Milosovic," he says.

"It's got to be limited, clinical action where your targets are military and definitely not civilian. And it's got to have the support of the people inside the country, in this case I mean the Albanians in Kosovo."

Never say 'no comment'

Presentation is the key, and that means helping meet reporters' demands.

[ image: Preparing the stage for a Nato press conference]
Preparing the stage for a Nato press conference
Hence numerous press briefings on the impact of bombing sorties, backed up with military video evidence, maps, charts and interviews with, and photographs of, air force personnel.

"You never say 'no comment' and you never lie, in case you get found out. You just tell the truths you want."

Former war correspondents, Claire Hollingsworth and Max Hastings: "Trying to write a fragment of the truth"
The Serbian authorities initial decision to expel more than 100 journalists is a reminder that not all states wish to play an open hand.

To a "critical and informed" news-hungry public, such as the British people, it simply fuels suspicions that they have something to hide, says Mr Bromley, who observed the media close up during a visit to Yugoslavia last year.

Iraqi lessons

Even Iraq, which is viewed by the West as a relatively closed society, did not partake in this sort of "black propaganda", he says.

"The Iraqis were much more informed by the models we have in the West compared to the Serbs, who seem to be more informed by the old Soviet model."

[ image: Press were invited to survey damage after the bombing of Iraq]
Press were invited to survey damage after the bombing of Iraq
During the bombing of Baghdad last December, the Iraqi authorities worked with Western media to relay their side of story around the world.

For many journalists in Yugoslavia, it's been a wholly different story. Many were harassed and threatened with physical violence before being escorted out of the country.

Local radio stations and newspapers have been shut down, although one consistently independent voice from inside Yugoslavia, Radio B92, has continued to broadcast on the Internet.

Patriotic backing track

[ image: Chief editor of B-92, Veran Matic (centre), after police tried to close the radio station]
Chief editor of B-92, Veran Matic (centre), after police tried to close the radio station
Meanwhile, the state-controlled media has remained on air. State-run television has been showing film of soldiers in training and on field exercises, set to a stirring patriotic song.

This will rest better with the rural population than those in urban centres, says Mr Bromley.

"There are massive differences between urban and rural communities in Yugoslavia. Those in towns and cities are much more in the Western mould, and want various stories to complete the picture," he says.

"The people in the countryside are happy to rely on just one version. That is what they have been used to for so many years."

As hostilities deepen and the propaganda machines on both sides continue to pump out their preferred versions of events, the job of the journalist to seek a truthful account is getting ever-more difficult.

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