who do they move?
By Nik Gowing
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
“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.
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
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 is a leading TV news presenter and foreign policy
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