Military Communications: NATO advisers fight a comms battle at home - With the Kosovo conflict coming under great media scrutiny, NATO, the US and the UK governments are fighting hard to control the news agenda

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 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

says.



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

Belgrade.



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

information.



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

versus evil.’



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

possible.



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

entertainment.



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.’



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