In today’s chat we discuss the media’s role in reporting the Bosnian War and we discuss debates surrounding the importance of objectivity in war reporting – specifically the controversial notion of journalism of attachment.
If you are interested in reading more about media coverage of the Bosnian War I would strongly recommend:
- Martin Bell, In Harm’s Way, (https://amzn.to/3j0vS4x) This is a very good, albeit occasionally problematic, account of Bell’s time in Bosnia. Later editions contain some self-reflection and explanations about journalism of attachment.
- Gregory Kent, Framing War and Genocide: British Policy and News Media Reaction to the War in Bosnia, NJ, 2006 (https://amzn.to/2Ed3MnJ) A more specialist text but very comprehensive.
- Vulliamy, E. (1999) ‘”Neutrality” and the Absence of Reckoning: A Journalist’s Account’, Journal of International Affairs Spring, 52(2): 603-20
- Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 1997 (https://amzn.to/2YmRLmF) A very impressive body of work that goes into detail about the use of stereotypes and tropes used in the war reportage and how that affected people’s perceptions.
History Fireside Chats are produced, recorded and researched by Dr Kristopher Lovell. The audio was recorded using the Samson G-Track Pro: https://amzn.to/2YU2cit
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Hello and welcome to History Fireside Chats.
In his book, The End of History and the Last Man, Francis Fukuyama argued that fall of the Soviet Union marked not just ‘the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such’. But history did not end with the demise of the Soviet Union. For many, it was the beginning of some of the most difficult periods in their histories. The fall of the Soviet Union did not mean the end of history but renewed political confusion, economic chaos, violence and even genocide. One such example was the Bosnian War. The war has been described by some as the most ‘consequential war’ in the modern period – one that was both the epilogue to the Cold War and a preface to the War on Terror – but it is also one of the most misunderstood conflicts despite the extensive media coverage.
I’m Dr. Kristopher, and in today’s chat I want to talk about objectivity and the role of the media in the reporting the Bosnian War. This chat is not a comprehensive overview of the war, or the history of the region. That cannot be fully discussed in a short podcast – but what I want to discuss today is the role of British media in reporting events to viewers and listeners and the impact that reportage can have on perceptions of war. I particularly want to focus on the role of journalism and debates around objectivity, especially the notion of Journalism of Attachment.
Karoline Von Oppen has called Journalism of Attachment ‘fairly revolutionary stuff for a profession that regards objectivity as its guiding principle.’ But the idea has very deep roots. Journalists such as Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemmingway, who covered the Spanish Civil War often debated the importance of honest bias. But during the Bosnian conflict the debate was reignited after BBC War Correspondent Martin Bell called for Journalism of Attachment: a new kind of journalism, journalism that cares as well as knows. Martin Bell argued that journalists should not be mere neutral bystanders, detached from the wars they are reporting on, but should instead show the horrors of war and champion the victims. Journalism of Attachment, proponents argue, should try to force people in power to help citizens in distress whether through international support or intervention.
The debate today remains a pertinent one for all modern-day journalists as well as historians – facts, whether they come from a journalist or an historian, never come to the reader pure. As. E. H Carr put it in a discussion about the role of objectivity in history, the facts are ‘always refracted through the mind of the recorder’. This argument was echoed by Martin Bell when he noted, ‘All war reporting is glimpsed and fragmentary and seen through a glass darkly.’ That is true today just as it was true at the start of the Bosnia conflict which was widely reported, but narrowly understood.
Between 1945 and 1990, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had comprised six republics – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenian, Croatia, Serbia, Macedonia and Montenegro. However towards the end of the period, Yugoslavia suffered from rising nationalist groups, ethnic tensions (often manipulated by propaganda and political groups) and economic hardship – the relationship between the different republics quickly stretched to breaking point: Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence in June 1991, followed shortly by Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia. The nationalist and ethnic tensions between these groups and even within them saw disputes arise over territory and land – particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a country with extensive demographic diversity. Its population included the predominantly Muslim Bosniaks (comprising 44% of the population), the largely Orthodox Serbs (32%), and the mostly Catholic Croats (17%) as well as many other minority groups. The disputes turned into bloody conflict.
In April 1992, after Bosnia-Herzegovina was recognised by the international community, a bitter conflict ensured between the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska led by Radovan Karadžić (who sought to secure territory for the Bosnian Serbs). Karadzic as the leader of the Serb Democratic Party, had warned the Bosnian government as early as October 1991 that Bosnian independence would lead to violence: in a televised speech to the Bosnian Assembly he said: “This is the road that you want Bosnia and Herzegovina to take, the same highway of hell and suffering that Slovenia and Croatia went through. Don’t think you won’t take Bosnia and Herzegovina to hell and the Muslim people in possible extinction….”
(This quote was later used as evidence of genocidal intent in the trial of Karadžić)
The war, which would last for nearly four years and resulted in the deaths of around 100,000 soldiers and civilians, was indeed hell for many. It was a war characterised by intense urban fighting and the worst atrocities in Europe since the end of the Second World War including the Srebrencia Genocide of 1995 where 8,000 Muslim men and boys killed by members of the Bosnian Serb Army.
The Bosnian War represented a key change in war reporting for several reasons. Whilst other wars since the Vietnam War had been covered by broadcast television, Bosnia has been seen by some as the first truly televised war, with regular broadcasts being sent around the world. This extensive coverage meant that people sympathised with many of the victims in a way that might not have been possible in previous decade. Take for example the fact that in 1938 Neville Chamberlain tried to justify his appeasement of Adolf Hitler by stating that there was no need for Britain to go to war over Czechoslovakia – a country that ‘was so far away’:
‘How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a far away country between people of whom we know nothing’
By the 1990s however for many Eastern Europe no longer felt so far away. Satellite technology, regular nightly news reports full of visual images made distant wars feel much closer to home and overall the world felt much smaller. However, as Gregory Kent notes, whilst media coverage of Bosnia meant that people throughout the West were aware of the war, awareness does not equal understanding.  The reasons for the war were simultaneously depicted as clear cut yet incomprehensible.
Media coverage was also often uneven, or at least focused on particular events such as the Siege of Sarajevo. Sarajevo, the capital city was besieged between April 1992 and February 1996 – it was the longest siege in modern history. And in many way the siege of Sarajevo has become synonymous with the wider war – footage often focused on civilians running for cover under sniper fire and the bloody of mortar attacks in the city. Much of this early media coverage adopted the traditional style of war reporting – an objective and impartial outsider’s view of the war where all sides were equally at fault and the media depicted both sides as equally guilty of committing atrocities. This stemmed from the media’s bias towards balance.
The media depicted the war as one of tribal hatred. As Gregory Kent puts it, ‘such a war, born of fratricidal hatred passed down the generations, was a war in which all sides were guilty’. These depictions of a deep-seated ethnic tension were often little more than Balkanist stereotypes, full of racist discourse that framed the Balkans as a ‘European other’. Maria Todorova, inspired by the work of Edward Said, notes how ‘the Balkans has often served as a repository of negative characteristics upon which a positive and self-congratulatory image of the ‘European’ has been built’. This was historic throughout the C20th but rose prominently during the war in the 1990s. That Balkanism is seen clearly in the reportage that portrays the Balkans as inherent violent, a new land divided by old ethnic tensions. This narrative helped western government justify their non-intervention.
However during the Bosnian War some reporters challenged this bias towards balance, arguing that impartiality was not only false but dangerous. And one of those key figures in this debate was Martin Bell whose experience in the Bosnian War led him to call for a new form of war reporting: Journalism of Attachment. In Bell’s own words:
In place of the dispassionate practices of the past I now believe in what I call the journalism of attachment. By this I mean a journalism that cares as well as knows; that is aware of its responsibilities; and will not stand neutrally between good and evil, right and wrong, the victim and the oppressor. This is not to back one side or faction or people against another; it is to make the point that we in the press … do not stand apart from the world. We are a part of it. (Bell, 1997, p. 8)
For Bell the role of a journalist was not to act merely as a bystander, standing by in the face of atrocities and doing nothing. Journalists should care as well as know. His concept of Journalism by Attachment has been misunderstood by some people – Bell is not arguing that journalists should take sides, but that journalists should be ‘aware of the moral ground on which it operates.’ This argument has been supported by others such as Martin Woollacott who argued that ‘Objectivity is critical, but pretending that both sides or different sides in a war are equal or equally wrong is foolish. There is usually a side which is preferable and sometimes which is enormously preferable’
Other journalists have expressed similar arguments. Michael Nicholson agreed with Bell – How could you, he argued be objective in a place like Sarajevo when you were besieged, yourself when you were trapped as part of the story: ‘You can still report the facts. You can still be as close to the truth as any person can be and still show a commitment, an emotional anguish. I don’t see them to be contradictory.’ Nicholson clearly felt that his role in Bosnia was to be more than just an observer as he later became involved personally in the conflict when he helped rescue 200 orphans and adopted one himself.
But not all journalists have agreed with Bell and his supporters. And the idea of journalism of attachment has been a very controversial idea. Mick Hume denounced it as little more than ‘a twisted sort of therapy and a menace to good journalism’. It presents the world, he claims, in very black and white terms, good versus evil.  Critics have pointed out that the good versus evil narrative of journalism of attachment was later allowed Western Governments and their militaries to justify their imperialist aims. Tony Blair, for example, used the narrative to justify his military interventions including the invasion of Iraq. But advocates such as Martin Bell, point out that there was a clear difference between the situation in the Balkans and Blairs later wars.
Journalism of Attachment has also been criticised by many for allowing journalism to become too partisan – but there is a difference as Martin Bell and Amampor notes between objectivity and neutrality. Accurate reporting, they argue, demands not only determining the truth but also ‘determining responsibility’. Those who argue for Journalism of Attachment are supported by the fact that attempts to portray both sides as equally at fault have been seen in hindsight as factually wrong – whilst atrocities were committed by all sides in the Bosnian War the biggest perpetrators of war crimes and atrocities during the war came from the Serbian side – the preponderance of victims were from the Muslim populations: this has been recognised after the war by the both the CIA and the UN who estimated 90% of the atrocities in the Yugoslav Wars came from Serb extremists: as James Waller notes, ‘All parties – Serbs, Croats, and Muslims – committed some verifiable atrocities in the conflict. Observers generally agree, however, that Bosnian Serbs bear responsibility for the overwhelming preponderance of war crimes.’
Can any journalist be objective, anyway, in the face of atrocities? Renowned reporter Christine Amanpour has argued that when it comes to reporting genocides and war crimes balance should not meaning treating perpetrators on an equal basis. During so can have very dangerous ramifications. As she notes, ‘Britain and France kept insisting both sides in that conflict were equally guilty. They were not. That has been recognised in retrospect, but in the meantime it caused international inaction and unnecessary loss of life, not to mention a sense of political impotence on the part of the west.’
Journalism of attachment has also been criticised because it changed the nature of war reporting. Instead of focusing on the facts of the war, critics complain that the journalist and their experience becomes the focus of the story instead.  This can be seen in the language used at the time. One of Bell’s own reports focuses on his experience of life under siege and how it affects him. ‘It is night-time in a war without end, and the supposedly fearless war reporter is flinching from the snipers’ bullets as they whip past his window’. But war correspondents have always been the heroes of their own narrative from William Howard Russell to John Simpson and Martin Bell is no exception.
The debate over the role of journalists was not just moral, theoretical or rhetorical – it also became a legal concern after the war’s conclusion. During investigation into atrocities committed during the war, the Hague called on several journalists to testify. This divided journalists fiercely with some raising concerns that if war correspondents were forced to testify in court then no military organisation would ever trust them again. Others claimed that the protection of their sources needed to be valued above anything else. But others such as Jacky Rowland and Ed Vulliamy have argued that journalists had a responsibility to testify – a responsibility to help justice. Fierce arguments remain today about the role of war correspondents and whether testifying puts journalists at risk.
The media coverage of Bosnia has had a long lasting effect on how the conflict has been remembered. The at times singular focus on Sarajevo means that many people associate sniper fire and urban combat with the war because it is what they saw. However much of the war was fought in the countryside, and most of atrocities happened there too. In fact, the focus on the city, it has been argued, enabled a lot of the crimes to be committed away from the camera – Nikola Koljević, who was later found to have been part of a joint criminal exercise by the UN, admitted to journalists that the focus on the city ‘allowed us to get on with what we had to do in northern Bosnia’. Gregory Kent has argued that it also ensured that the ‘genocide in eastern Bosnia never became a media cause celebre’ – where potential atrocities were reported, they were often euphemistically referred to as ethnic cleansing – a term that had no legal meaning or ramifications. The reluctance of the media to use the phrase genocide also again gave the international community an excuse not to get involved. It has been argued that had the media used the correct term genocide, that the international community would have been legally bound to intervene.
The lack of media coverage has been distorted by critics of Bush and Blair who have abused the facts of history in order to further their own arguments. Many of those who expressed concerns about Blair and Bush’s invasion of Iraq have attempted to deny the genocide at Srebrenica and downplay other atrocities. Figures like Edward Herman and Diana Johnson, specifically, have denied the genocide at Srebrenica – Herman claimed that genocides and atrocities were wildly exaggerated and misused by Western governments. He even claimed that the ‘8,000 executed have never been verified by forensic or credible witness evidence of anything like this scale of killing.’ But this simply is not true. The International Commission on Missing Persons has identified 90% of the victims in Srebrenica. Journalists and reporters therefore need to be aware of the dangers of uneven media coverage and its possible relationship to genocide denial.
Journalism of attachment was in many ways a new name for an old debate. It is often assumed that a balanced report is a better report, but that cannot always be the case. The media today continues to favour a bias towards balance in its coverage of wars, the environment and even politics. It is a debate that will long continue.
If you want to find out more about the debates about journalism of attachment I would thoroughly recommend reading Martin Bell’s In Harm’s Way, or Karoline Von Oppen’s article, ‘Reporting from Bosnia’. More broadly, Gregory Kent published a comprehensive historical account of the media’s reaction to the war. Maria Todorova’s account of dangerous stereotypical depictions, Imaging the Balkans, remains an important key text today.
This year marks the 25years since the Srebrenica genocide. The organisation Remembering Srebrenica has done amazing work ensuring that the communities remember, commemorate and learn from Srebrenica whilst promoting tolerance – their website contains lots of important resources, including videos and online exhibitions. The theme for the commemoration this year was Every Action Matters, a theme that is worth reflecting on and I would thoroughly recommend visiting Remembering Srebrenica and seeing the work that they do: https://www.srebrenica.org.uk/
I hope you have enjoyed this fireside chat. A full transcript as well as a list of sources can be found on my website KristopherLovell.com. And I hope you will join me next time.
- Gregory Kent, Framing War and Genocide: British Policy and News Media Reaction to the War in Bosnia, NJ, 2006 (https://amzn.to/2Ed3MnJ)
- Martin Bell, In Harm’s Way, (https://amzn.to/3j0vS4x)
- Karoline von Oppen (2009) Reporting from Bosnia: Reconceptualising the Notion of a ‘Journalism of Attachment’, Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 17:1, 21-33,
- Tumber, H. (2008). ‘Journalists, war crimes and international justice’. Media, War & Conflict, 1(3), 261-269
- Vulliamy, E. (1999) ‘”Neutrality” and the Absence of Reckoning: A Journalist’s Account’, Journal of International Affairs Spring, 52(2): 603-20
- Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 1997 (https://amzn.to/2YmRLmF)
 Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man
 Martin Bell, In Harm’s Way
 See E. H. Carr’s What is History?
 Bell, p. 5
 For more on the breakup see, Silber and Little, The Death of Yugoslavia
 As measured in the 1991 Concensus
 Kent, p.2
 Kent, p.2
 Gow, pp. 1-8
 Kent, p.4
 Kent, p.253
 Todorova, Imaging the Balkans
 Quoted in Greg McLaughlin, The War Correspondent p. 43
 Quoted in James Watson, Media Communication p. 163
 McLaughlin, p. 44
 McLaughlin, p. 45
 Tumber, p. 262
 Tumber, p. 261
 Tumber, p 261
 Waller, J., Becoming Evil: How ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, p. 262
 McLaughlin, p. 48
 McLaughlin, p. 45
 Bell, p. 1
 Kent, p. 417
 Kent, p. 417
Music used (Public Domain)
- John Michel, Bach’s Cello Suite in G – Prelude
- London Philharmonic Orchestra – Symphony No. 104 in D major ‘London’ (Haydn) – 4th Movement
- Tomaso Giovanni Albinoni – Adagio in G minor
- John Michel, Barber Cello Sonata Op 6