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Hacks Versus Flacks


Charles Glass

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

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