The battle over Kosovo may soon become the world’s most intensively
reported war. Satellite television, satellite telephones and the
internet are allowing information to flow freely into and out of the
Balkans. The NATO allies are having to cope with a multitude of 24-hour
news services, the presence of over 100 journalists in and around
Yugoslavia, and a further 600 reporters and cameramen posted to NATO’s
headquarters in Brussels; not to mention hundreds of reporters based in
European capitals and Washington DC.
The PR challenge facing the allies is how to manage the news agenda
under these pressures. Government communications advisers have worked
particularly hard to do so in the last two weeks.
London, Washington and Bonn have agreed to co-ordinate their
communications more closely following the stream of conflicting
information which was released on the bombing of a refugee convoy in
Kosovo earlier this month.
Now 30 press officers are to be seconded from national governments in
Washington, London and possibly Paris and Bonn, to reinforce NATO’s
press operation in Brussels.
To date, NATO has relied on five press officers (including chief
spokesman Jamie Shea), supported by ten people drawn from its liaison
service, which in peace-time is responsible for looking after visitors.
The 30 new arrivals in Brussels will be responsible for liaising with
their national governments, wider monitoring of the press, and preparing
question and answer materials for press conferences.
According to Jonathan Haslam, who was deputy press secretary to John
Major during the Bosnian conflict, talking to journalists is only
one-eighth of a press office’s work. What absorbs the most time and
effort is talking to those responsible for the operation, liaising with
counterparts, and checking facts.
Shea has to ensure messages are consistent between the 19 members of
NATO. Six are not involved directly, but are providing air space or
ports and, like the other 13 members, have agreed the action.
Haslam says that unity of message is vital. ’Strength comes not only
from military power, but from how the organisation is perceived’ he
Meanwhile, this week the Serbian PR campaign in London escalated. Since
Yugoslavia cut off diplomatic relations with the UK, the Serbian
Information Centre in London, funded by Serbian businessmen, has been
speaking for the Serbs.
The centre is staffed by two full-time press officers, with help from
around 15 volunteers working on a rota. It has raised enough money to
run a pro-active media campaign, which was launched on Monday. The
centre has started to send out two press releases each day, with extra
releases put out in response to major developments. These are sent to
the media and opinion and policy makers in the UK.
The centre does not have the resources to compete with the MoD, but a
pro-active Serb press campaign may force the allies into reacting to,
rather than initiating stories.
Observers believe the Serbian leadership is still arguing over whether
it is in their interest to allow Western media to remain in
When the bombing started, the Serbian military opened a press office to
deal with the international media in Belgrade, and ITN, CNN, Sky and the
BBC, as well as most of the UK’s national broadsheets, have been allowed
to remain. However, last week Times correspondent Tom Walker and the
Guardian’s Chris Bird were both expelled from Belgrade.
Western reporters serve a propaganda purpose in that they can report the
bombing damage, particularly of civilian targets, thus highlighting the
republic’s plight. But after repeated bombing of the Serbian Television
station, most Serbs are relying on CNN and Sky News for their
According to Philip Hammond, a senior lecturer in media studies at South
Bank University, UK politicians and the military have little to fear
from the media. He says: ’A lot of journalists have bought into the
highly moralised terms in which the conflict is being presented: good
Hammond claims most media debate has focused on the logistics of the war
rather than justification for the conflict.
NATO seems to have decided that one way of controlling the news agenda
is to bombard journalists with as much written and visual information as
According to ITN editor-in-chief Richard Tait, NATO and MoD press
conferences are now so frequent that they overlap. Live links have been
organised so that journalists can interview speakers in Brussels or
Macedonia from the MoD press centre, and cameramen have filmed bombing
sorties from US B-52s. The MoD provides colour maps to illustrate
sorties or refugee movements, and regularly shows footage from cameras
on planes and even bombs.
But, as MoD armed forces senior information officer Robin Banerji points
out, with such wide coverage of the war, press officers must draw a line
between trying to manage the news and creating a form of televisual
He says: ’People see all these shots of bombs dropping in the sanitised
environment of the press conference, but there are people in Macedonia
who have been kicked out of their homes. We need to draw a line to stop
the reality of war becoming a video game.’