Compassion Fatigue: Part Two Reporting Kosovo

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The Kosovo crisis was the biggest military conflict to take place in Europe since the end of the Second World War. Not surprisingly, the coverage it received in the British media was extensive. For the first few weeks, television and radio news programmes were saturated with reports from Macedonia and Albania, Brussels and Belgrade. At the BBC's Television Centre the sheer volume of material feeding in from the Balkans pushed resources to the limit. Reporters on the ground filed stories to each of the Corporation's news services in rapid succession. After finishing a report on Radio 5 Live, they would be back on-air almost immediately to talk to BBC 2's Newsnight programme. Apparently endless studio-based discUS$ion and analysis ensued.

The press were equally enthusiastic. The front pages of tabloid and broadsheet alike were filled with images of refugees and distant burning villages. The Sun and Daily Mirror, both currently Blairite, were adamantly and predictably interventionist. 'Bomb Bomb Bomb' and 'Clobba Slobba' were two of the Sun's more obviously bellicose headlines while the Mirror called for the early deployment of ground troops. 'Time to send in troops' it blared on April 23rd, only three weeks after the air strikes began. Meanwhile the Daily Mail was suggesting caution. 'British troops facing years in Kosovo' it warned, implying, perhaps, that Kosovo could easily become another Bosnia or, worse still, another Vietnam.

In the broadsheets, policy and tactics were discUS$ed at greater length and often by high-powered intellectual observers like Susan Sontag or Edward Said. There was even room for dissent. Articles questioning the use of military force were published with reliable frequency. The role of the media in wartime became a favourite theme, 'truth is the first casualty of war' a favourite cliche.

For the British media, then, Kosovo was the biggest story to break since the death of Princess Diana. And yet other wars were already underway. The conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir was escalating. There was fighting in Sudan and Eritrea and unrest in Indonesia. None of these could compete with Kosovo.

In many ways the reasons for this seem obvious. Kosovo is in Europe. The war was a NATO campaign and Britain is a leading member of the alliance. British pilots flew thousands of sorties over Serbia. British troops were among the first to enter the province in early June. The war was both close to home and relatively accessible. Kosovo itself was out of bounds for all but the most daring reporters - some of whom accompanied the Kosovo Liberation Army (the KLA) on cross-border raids - but there were plenty of other inherently dramatic front-line locations from which to report.

Likewise Kosovo was a conflict with precedents. As far as the media were concerned, it fitted a pattern. It could be placed within the context of an ongoing 'Balkans tragedy' which, according to some commentators at least, could be traced back as far as the Serb defeat at the battle of Kosovo in 1389. For those who didn't wish to delve too deeply, the reasons for the war did not need much explanation: the Balkans are an arena in which various ultranationalisms are doomed to clash. Kosovo continued this tradition of internecine conflict. Nobody's worldview need be shattered by the news that there was war in the Balkans again.

More importantly, Kosovo could also be presented as a relatively clear-cut conflict. There were readily identifiable victims, heroes and villains. The victims, obviously, were the Kosovar Albanians. The stories they told were indisputably disturbing and graphic. Women had been raped. Men had been shot. They had been burnt out of their homes.

The heroes were equally easy to recognise. They were the NATO pilots and the Western politicians who were engaged in preventing - or punishing - genocide. The KLA, who, in other circumstances might have been accorded hero status were, as it turned out, too weak and erratic to warrant it. …