Al-Jazeera, Serbia, and Liberal Amnesia

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 we are entirely justified as NATO allies in damaging and taking on those targets.”

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 critics.”

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 to it.

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 revealing.

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.

Author: Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill is editor of Spiked in London.