Many in my profession – journalism –
were understandably outraged to discover that in a get-together with his partner
in crime Tony Blair in April 2004, President Bush allegedly made a bad-taste
gag about bombing the
Qatar headquarters of the Arab TV channel al-Jazeera.
There is a memo doing the rounds, leaked by two British civil servants to the
Daily Mirror, which reportedly refers to a conversation between Blair
and Bush, in which Blair talked Bush out of a "plot" to attack al-Jazeera's
buildings in the business district of Doha, the capital city of Qatar.
Some early reports suggested that Bush may have been seriously considering
whacking al-Jazeera as punishment for its perceived anti-Americanism. Now,
other, wiser commentators suggest that it was a bad, bitter joke on Bush's
part, an aside in which he wondered out loud whether a few bombs might teach
those pesky Arab journos a thing or two.
Either way, the revelations have caused a transatlantic firestorm. Al-Jazeera
staff held a 15-minute protest in Qatar, and more than 100 of them signed a
petition calling on the Bush administration to end its "attacks and incitement
against al-Jazeera." Britain's attorney general – the government's
legal adviser – has dramatically threatened to use the draconian Official
Secrets Act to prosecute anyone who dares to publish the contents of the memo.
British journalists have rightly taken umbrage at the attorney general's bully-boy
tactics. Boris Johnson, editor of the Spectator, wrote
in the Daily Telegraph that he was prepared to defy the attorney
general and go to jail to publish "the truth about Bush and al-Jazeera."
Jon Snow, who anchors Channel 4 News, denounced the attorney general's "heavy-handed
gagging," which seems designed to "save the government and George
Bush's blushes rather than national security."
It is not surprising that writers would wish to defend fellow writers and broadcasters
overseas from a trigger-happy president, especially since the U.S. military
has already bombed al-Jazeera's offices in Kabul in November 2001 and targeted
al-Jazeera journalists in Iraq. But I have a question. Why, right now, do some
journalists seem more outraged by the alleged threats and slurs made by President
Bush against a TV station than they were about an earlier president's actual
bombing of a TV station?
Why are they red-faced with rage and indignation over the Bush and
al-Jazeera incident, yet they turned a blind eye – or even tried to justify
– President Bill Clinton's outrageous bombing of Serbian TV during the
Kosovo War in 1999, which left journalists dead and maimed?
I don't mean to be a pain, or to rain on the current attacks on Bush for his
alleged scurrilous aside to Blair. Rather, this is a serious question – and
I think that in attempting to answer it we might uncover an uncomfortable
home truth about the inconsistent approach taken by some liberal-left
journalists to opposing bloody wars of intervention.
When NATO – with Clinton and Blair at the helm – bombed the headquarters
of RTS (Serbian state television and radio) in central Belgrade on April 23,
1999, it was no joke. It was the real thing. In the middle of the night –
at 2:20 a.m. – cruise missiles rained down on RTS headquarters, destroying
the entrance and leaving at least one studio in ruins. Over 120 people were
working in the building at the time; at least 16 were killed and another 16
were injured – all of them civilians, most of them technicians and support
staff. The BBC's John Simpson described seeing "the body of a make-up artist
… lying in a dressing room."
This was an intentional attack on civilian workers in the media. NATO
officials talked openly, and without shame, about using such attacks as a
means of scoring points in the propaganda war and further weakening
President Slobodan Milosevic's hold on Serbia. NATO declared: "Strikes
against TV transmitters and broadcast facilities are part of our campaign to
dismantle the FRY propaganda machinery which is a vital part of President
Milosevic's control mechanism."
Today journalists wonder whether or not Blair laughed at Bush's joke about
bombing al-Jazeera. Never mind all that. Here is what Blair said – on the
record and in public – about bombing and killing journalists in the Kosovo
campaign: the media "is the apparatus that keeps [Milosevic] in power and
are entirely justified as NATO allies in damaging and taking on those
Former British minister Clare Short – who resigned over the Iraq war and
who now fancies herself an antiwar warrior – also justified the bombing
of journalists in 1999. She said: "This is a war, this is a serious conflict,
untold horrors are being done. The propaganda machine is prolonging the war
and it's a legitimate target." Tell that to the family of the make-up girl.
The attacks were designed to cause maximum damage to the TV station and, in
the words of one U.S. official, it was hoped that the bombings would have "maximum
domestic and international propaganda value" for NATO. The military journal
Jane's Defense Weekly reported in July 2000 that NATO military planners
assessed which parts of the TV headquarters were most likely to contain the
controls for fire alarms and sprinkler systems – and the missiles were
programmed to hit these spots so that the fire caused by the bombing would spread
fast and prove difficult to put out.
Clinton, Blair, and their NATO cronies justified these attacks as "legitimate"
attempts to weaken the enemy by taking out his propaganda machine. Are we expected
to believe that camera operators, sound editors, and a make-up artist were somehow
key to keeping Milosevic in power? In truth, the bombing marked a new low in
the "humanitarian" warfare favored by Clinton and Blair: it was directly
targeted at civilians; it was designed to cause maximum fire damage; and it
was about boosting the "domestic and international" standing of America
and Britain. Clinton and Blair clearly considered the lives of a few technical
TV staff as a small price to pay for achieving these cynical, self-serving aims.
And yet, outrage among journalists about this attack on fellow journalists
was notable by its absence; it was certainly far more muted than the hand-wringing
that has greeted revelations of the Bush-Blair incident. In Britain, some journalist
trade unions refused to condemn the bombing of RTS headquarters. The broadcasting
union BECTU did not even comment on the attack and ordered that BECTU banners
should not be taken on antiwar marches.
There was almost a celebratory tone in the Guardian's initial coverage
of the bombing of RTS. In its first report after the attack, the paper repeated
NATO's justifications for the assault without question, declaring: "NATO
targeted the heart of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's power base early
today by bombing the headquarters of Serbian state television, taking it off
the air in the middle of a news bulletin." That news report ended by congratulating
Blair for continuing "to claim the moral high ground against opponents
of the bombing by placing Kosovo in the broader context of international obligation."
Some journalists condemned the bombing, not because it was morally and politically
bankrupt, but because it handed a "propaganda victory" to those who
opposed the war. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, a supporter of the
Kosovo bombing campaign, said "it was a pointless act of folly to bomb
the RTS TV station," since it only provided a "gift to NATO's many
Of course, there were journalists who took a stand against the bombing of Serbian
TV. In Britain, for example, the spokesman for the National Union of Journalists
vigorously opposed the attack. But in general – at a time when many in
the media not only supported the intervention in Kosovo but positively cheered
it on – there was a muted response to this outrageous assault on media
workers, and more a sense of embarrassment about it rather than outright opposition
This disparity between the mainstream media's challenge to Bush over
al-Jazeera and their earlier response to Clinton's bombing of Serbian TV is
From Clare Short to Guardian reporters to union officials, some of those
who today ridicule Britain and America's illegal war in Iraq were at the forefront
of supporting an equally illegal war over Kosovo (that intervention also did
not win the unanimous backing of the United Nations). Indeed, some of the arguments
they used to justify the attacks on Yugoslavia – including the need to
punish a "genocidal dictator," to protect a "vulnerable population,"
and to fulfill an "international obligation" to spread peace and harmony
– have been repeated by Bush and Blair in relation to Iraq.
Journalists, especially of a liberal-left persuasion, are strikingly
inconsistent in their attitudes to Western wars of aggression. This means
they are not in a very good position to complain about aspects of the war in
Iraq, considering that their unquestioning support for the Kosovo war can be
seen as helping to pave the way for subsequent interventions in Afghanistan
in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
It also means that, sometimes, their current criticisms of Bush ring a little
hollow. It is time we were consistently critical of the claims made by our leaders
about the need for military intervention overseas.