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Moving images
who do they move?

By Nik Gowing
Conventional wisdom holds that real-time TV coverage of disasters like Bosnia or Somalia or Rwanda creates the demand that “something must be done”; that it drives the making of foreign policy. Not according to Nik Gowing.

Dreadful, compelling, real-time TV news images of war seem to cry out to governments to “do something” to end the fighting. Journalists and their colleagues often expect this. But politicians, diplomats, the military and government officials curse what they consider the emotive, skewered power of the pictures. Suspicion prevails. Instinctively, they distrust TV news coverage as trite, crude, incomplete and therefore unreliable. That is why they resent the explicit “something must be done” pressure and do all they can to resist it.



No clear paradigm

Some journalist colleagues challenge the findings of my Harvard University study1 that real-time television does not drive politics. “Of course our pictures put the wind up governments and makes sure they can’t get away with doing nothing,” one snapped at me recently. He had good reason. The relationship remains complex and uncomfortable. It is often contradictory and still evolving in an uncertain fashion that defies automatic assumptions.

Yes, real-time TV coverage of the Mutla Gap “turkey shoot” at the end of the Gulf War in February 1991, or the subsequent Kurdish refugees in the squalor of southern Turkey, or the misery of Srebrenica in April 1993, did force dramatic and instant rethinking of policy.

George Bush ordered a halt to the allied advance. John Major urged a “safe haven” for the Kurds. The “safe area” of Srebrenica was created by non-aligned nations at the UN Security Council who were horrified by the TV pictures.

But too often TV’s ability to provide rapid, raw images as a video ticker-tape service is mistaken for the power to sway policy-makers – which it isn’t. Providing useful, vivid information in real time is not the same as forcing policy changes. Nor should a high profile response from governments that makes good TV be confused for an underlying change in policy designed to force any conflict to a close.

At moments of what I term “policy panic” – like baby Irma in August 1993 or the cholera catastrophe in Goma in July 1994 – governments “do something”, but not by way of fundamental change in policy. Rather, they make knee-jerk, tactical responses designed to give the impression of action when the political will and national interest for the medium or long term is to do the minimum possible.

The humanitarian operation to deliver aid in the former Yugoslavia is the most vivid example of this. As Western officials readily admit, it was a palliative response. Yes, it was a policy. Yes, it “did something”; the humanitarian organisations were delighted that TV had focused attention and helped overcome resource shortages.

But humanitarian operations were a policy born out of political shame rather than a determination to “do something” to end the war. They were never conceived as a decisive policy to halt fighting or pre-empt further conflict.

Perceived power

Western government ministers and diplomats do not delude themselves that they have the power to halt a war that the belligerents are determined to keep fighting. They cannot. War, after all, is often an inevitable, inescapable part of human activity. The greater mobility of lightweight TV technology – especially satellite dishes and amateur Hi-8 cameras – has merely increased dramatically the international visibility of conflict. In television there is what I have christened a “supermarket war video”: more coverage from more wars than we have ever seen before, but often less interest in broadcasting it. Yet the availability (although not necessarily the use) of dramatic war video footage must in no way lead to the assumption that “something will be done”.

Graphic TV video as an early warning indicator of conflict suffers the same problems as the scores of other indicators now available. In a world where the new buzz words of diplomacy are prevention and pre-emption, such indicators are only useful if governments or international organisations with political clout have the will and national interest to act on the information. Routinely, now, they do not. And as the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Burundi and Chechnya have shown starkly, those intent on committing genocide or grabbing territory have great skills in deception and duplicity. TV coverage is a complicating but not a defining factor.

Indeed, on the issue of “something must be done” there remains much soul-searching. In Bosnia, while humanitarian operations prompted by early TV coverage saved lives, many argue that they prolonged the war by complicating the natural dynamics of the conflict. In Rwanda/Zaire they institutionalised the criminality and fiefdoms of warlords. In Goma, emotive TV coverage encouraged the legitimacy of refugee camps which humanitarian organisations now say should never have been created.

Virtually live TV images from the squalor of Goma masked the fundamental diplomatic impotence of the big Western powers. For three months they monitored the mass slaughter seen on TV and backed UN resolutions. But these same nations failed to provide the political will or heavy airlift capability to ship into the war zone the pledged 5,500 UN troops. Live pictures of the Goma cholera victims being bulldozed into pits shamed Western governments into responding somehow, but belatedly and inappropriately.

1 “Real-time television coverage of armed conflicts and diplomatic crises: does it pressure or distort foreign policy decision?” by Nik Gowing. Working Paper 94-1. Joan Shorenstein Barone Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy in the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University.

The case of Chechnya

In October 1995 the common misconceptions of this presumed cause-and-effect relationship were movingly brought home to me. A large number of those who matter in the British TV news business gathered at the BAFTA cinema in Piccadilly to celebrate the usually unsung work of freelance TV war cameramen and women.

Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Sudan, Kashmir. There was high-class coverage from almost every single regional conflict. Increasingly, freelancers supply the major news organisations and agencies with the majority of all TV news coverage of wars.

The new award in memory of Rory Peck, who was killed in crossfire outside the Ostankino TV station in Moscow in October 1993, recognises this new reality – and helps alleviate the financial hardships endured by families of those who are killed or maimed on the job.

The five-minute compilation of Farzhad Kerimov’s remarkable coverage from Grozny, which won this first Rory Peck award, continues to haunt me. Not because the submission was posthumous (Farzhad is dead and lying in a shallow grave somewhere in Chechnya) but because, in the terror and devastation, the Azeri cameraman recorded arguably the most compelling, dreadful and emotive TV news pictures of the war in Chechnya.

Unlike the excellent coverage of another Rory Peck finalist, Nigel Chandler, Farzhad’s compilation was shown that evening without the voice-over of a reporter giving his interpretation of scenes he probably did not even witness. For five minutes the panic, destruction and squalor passed before us unsanitised. Charred Russian corpses. The outlines of dead children and animals. Shells destroying buildings, leaving debris you felt you could reach out and touch. It was emotional stuff: the product of one brave cameraman out of many who risked death for months in the subzero charnel house of Grozny.

But on Western policy, neither Farzhad’s material, nor Nigel’s, nor that of my equally brave colleagues at ITN, the BBC, Sky, the news agencies and the new proliferation of Russian TV stations made a blind bit of difference. Fleetingly, it spoiled Christmas 1994 and New Year 1995 for maybe a handful of Western officials smitten by conscience. But nothing more.

In Chechnya, as in so many of the world’s regional conflicts, TV news pictures had made no difference. The killing and war went on uninterrupted and barely condemned. The national interest of the big powers was not vital enough to do something. So nothing was done.

Nik Gowing
Nik Gowing is a leading TV news presenter and foreign policy analyst.

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