Martin Shaw

Crystallizations of media in the global revolution: 

news coverage and power from Kurdistan to Kosova

To be published in Briggite Nacos and Robert Shapiro, eds., Decision-Making in a Glass House: Media, Public Opinion and American and European Foreign Policy, Boulder, Co.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000. Contents: Understanding Media in the Historic Transition of Our Times; Media as Sites and Actors in Global Politics: Conclusions from the Iraqi Wars; Conclusion

See also comment by Karim Karim

Questions of media and foreign policy sit uneasily on the edge of contemporary international relations. Practitioners and academics alike agree that something has changed: hence this book. Nevertheless it is too easy to conceptually limit the significance of the changes, to the interpolation of new ‘variables’, the media and public opinion, into the relations of states and statesmen. This chapter argues that this is not enough: the expanded role of media should be seen instead as part of a sea-change in world politics, in which old ways of understanding are brought into question. Indeed, the problem of media is a litmus test of the adequacy, not merely of the old ‘realist’ international relations of inter-state relations, but of the newer ‘critical’ international relations of non-state actors. So far, the latter seems almost as incapable as the former of conceptualising media. Yet in so far as international relations fails to understand media, it also fails to grasp the new shape of world politics.

In this chapter I try to address this problem from two directions. First I explore, somewhat schematically, the limitations of current international understanding, and propose some key elements of an approach to world politics which explains media’s structural centrality. Second I elaborate these conceptions in the context of some key findings of my empirical research on the role of media in two key, intimately related moments of the emerging international politics of the global era, the (Persian) Gulf War and the Kurdish refugee crisis of 1991. In conclusion, I try to show, in the light of the Kosova war of 1999, how my general approach can help us to make better sense of specific issues of war and peace at the turn of the new century.

Understanding Media in the Historic Transition of Our Times

Historically, the discourse of International Relations has distinguished ‘international’ and ‘world’ politics, and while the latter has been recognised as more inclusive, the former has been seen as a stronger reality. While, indeed, an ‘international society’ based on states has been seen as maturing over the three-and-a-half centuries since the Treaty of Westphalia, a ‘world society’ has been seen as at most weakly emergent. (Bull, 1977) International Relations itself matured as a field, of course, in the shadow of the Cold War. This context had a contradictory significance for the relations of international and world orders. On the one hand, processes of transatlantic and European integration rendered many old international military divisions redundant, and provided a framework for the emergence of a much freer, fuller world market system. On the other, integration took place in the framework of new inter-bloc military rivalries of states, and depended very much on specifically international, inter-state cooperation within the Western bloc. In addition, integration took place with the clear dominance of one nation-state, the USA, so that concepts of ‘national’ interests remained strong even as policy was internationalised.

Up to and during the Cold War, media also appeared primarily national in form, and international communication across borders remained secondary. From the point of view of International Relations, media could be seen therefore as components of the ‘domestic’ order, relating to national politics and public opinion. Media were not seen as signficant components of the international order, except to the extent (generally considered limited) that the domestic affected the international. Increasingly, of course, international theory stressed ‘interdependence’ between national economies (Keohane and Nye, 1977), and the emergence of ‘non-state’ actors - such as multi-national corporations - in international relations. By the end of the Cold War period, such processes were seen as breaking down the divisions of ‘domestic’ and ‘international’ and leading to ‘post-international’ world politics (Rosenau, 1990).

Economic and cultural integration, moreover, was seen as taking the form of ‘globalisation’ in which borders were undermined. In radical versions of this argument, the proliferation of non-state actors included social movements - including, for example, women’s, peace and environmental movements - and was leading towards the formation of a ‘global civil society’ (Falk, 1995). This was itself seen as part of a wider movement towards a ‘global society’ (Shaw, 1994).

Curiously, media figured very little in these transformations of the International Relations debate. International media groups were of course recognised as one variety of the increasingly important multi-national corporation, and media were criticised in radical accounts as part of the dominant American hegemony (Chomsky and Herman, 1988). But the significance of media was often restricted to the interface of ‘foreign policy’ with ‘domestic’ public opinion in conflicts, which themselves were often conservatively theorised since war remained mostly a topic in the ‘realist’ end of International Relations. Because domestic politics too was seen as only an inconsistent, intermittent influence on international relations, it also figured fairly marginally in the field. Even the growing recognition of cultural phenomena in general in the newer International Relations debates, and the more radical, postmodernist attention to the fusion of cultural forms, brought little attention to the media through which much of these phenomena appear.

Specific media phenomena (e.g. CNN, the Internet) have achieved totemic status - the former in discussions of foreign policy, the latter in globalisation debates. However it is fair to say that no systematic, general rethinking of media has appeared in any of the critical debates in International Relations. Media studies retain a cinderella status in all main theoretical schools. A survey of six leading American and British International Relations journals shows that less than 2 per cent of all articles were concerned with any aspect of media.(Mekelberg, 1998). There was little difference in the level of attention between the journals, despite other differences of orientation among them. This data confirms a fundamental neglect, to change which requires a radical reorientation, the scope of which can only be suggested in broad terms in this chapter.

What is at stake is more than adding media as a significant category of ‘actor’ alongside states and other ‘non-state’ actors. The idea of ‘the media’ as a single powerful agent, whether a faithful servant of state and corporate interests (as radicals allege) or an intruder into their realms (as statesmen sometimes complain), is thebane of serious discussion, and indicates that we have not even reached the beginning of real analysis. What is needed, on the contrary, is a complex conception of media as structure and agency. An indication of the way in which this might be approached can be found in the conceptualisation of the state by the historical sociologist, Michael Mann. He sees the state as both a space, in which a variety of actors operate, but under certain conditions also an actor. Mann’s approach does not adopt the taken-for-granted conception of the state as unified actor, nor does it collapse the possible unity of the state into the multiplicity of interests which battle within it. Against both these one-sided views, it invites us to examine the processes through which, for some purposes and in some situations, states - for all the complexity of their component institutions and the actors within them - may become constituted as relatively unified agents, as well as the obstacles to such processes. Mann also suggests that the ‘same’ state may ‘crystallise’ in different ways in different situations - so that the American state appears ‘as conservative-patriarchal one week when restricting abortion rights, as capitalist the next when regulating the savings and loans banking scandal, as a superpower the next when sending troops abroad for other than national economic interests. These varied crystallizations are rarely in harmony or in dialectical opposition to one another; usually they just differ. They mobilize differing, if overlapping and intersecting, power networks.’ (Mann, 1993: 76).

We might adopt a similar approach to the understanding of media - even if media as social constructs are rather different from states in important respects. Media in general can be seen as social spaces within which individual and institutional actors of all kinds produce representations and communicate to audiences. Journalists and editors both help to reproduce the self-representations of other social actors, and produce their own individual and institutional representations. In this sense, media are both spaces in which many social actors act (including journalists), and can become themselves collective actors, as when for example a newspaper takes an editorial position, or television news and current affairs consistently focus on certain issues.

Media are thus both constitutive spaces of society and distinctive kinds of actor. We need first to take on board the implications of the fact that many individual and virtually all collective and institutional actors relate with each other in important ways through their representations in media. To take the example of states, relations of different centres of state power are represented simultaneously to each other and to mass audiences both within ‘their’ societies and worldwide, through media. Through theserepresentations - and the ways in which they are consumed, processed and re-represented by institutions and individuals - states like all other actors are surveyed by others.

We can take further the question of the centrality of media through the concept of surveillance. This, Giddens - following Foucault - suggests is a fundamental aspect of modern social relations, and the institutions concerned with it represent one of the four key ‘institutional clusters’ of modernity (Giddens, 1985).However as an international critic of Giddens maintains, surveillance is not confined to the internal relations of the nation-state, nor is it a one-way process.(Rosenberg, 1990). States survey each other, and they both survey society and are surveyed by it. Although residues of the old geopolitical privacy of states remain (in diplomacy, for example), such activity coexists with the surveillance of states themselves by many other social institutions as well as of millions or even hundreds of millions of individuals.

Mass media are clearly central institutions of surveillance in modern society. Their centrality is not merely to do with the quantities of information which they produce. Media’s crucial importance is that they are at the heart of the public character of surveillance. As Thompson explains, ‘The development of the media has created new forms of publicness which are quite different from the traditional publicness of co-presence.’ (Thompson, 1995: 125-26). Because of media, states, social institutions and individuals do not simply carry out discrete mutual surveillance, through their own independent data-collection, monitoring and analysis. Instead, they all have access to a common sphere in which the surveillance function is concentrated and celebrated. Media produce publicly constituted surveillance processes. Through their consumption of and input to media surveillance, everyone’s and every institution’s surveillance is related to everyone else’s.

All actors in the public sphere must necessarily be aware of the most intensive and extensive monitoring of their behaviour, reaching even into previously ‘private’ arenas. Established institutions - state and non-state - which wish to reproduce or extend their public roles must maintain and manage media attention, and individuals within them who wish to be recognised must adopt strategies for their own media visibility. Conversely, new institutions and individuals increasingly become recognised as ‘public’ figures and actors through being picked up in media surveillance. This process applies in such diverse cases as the ways in which marginal political groups become ‘international terrorists’, or specialist entertainers become ‘celebrities’. The means used to attract media attention may vary - from kidnapping and bombs to sex and drugs - but the nature of the process is the same.

The contemporary forms of the relations of surveillance reflect fundamental changes compared to earlier periods of modern society. The early phases of the emergence of modern mass media coincided with the highpoint of nation-states’ control over society and the era of acute international conflict between major states. In this era, surveillance was both more national (confined within the state) and one-way (of state over society) than it has subsequently become. In that period, because media were primarily national (or sub-national) in scope, international relations between states were much less complexly mediated. States were often able to exert a great deal of direct control over media, and fashion their relationships with audiences according to state priorities. We can understand much about the roles of media in the Second World War, even in democratic states, in terms of propaganda, and indeed some scholars still see this as the dominant motif of international communication.(Taylor, 1997).

States were largely able to monopolise media spaces: individual and institutional action within and by media was largely structured by state strategies. Relations between states involved mutual surveillance of a much less public kind. Although different national media monitored each other and were monitored by states, there was little sense of a publicly mediated sphere beyond the nation-state, and the mutual surveillance of states was less dependent on it.

Not only has this particular balance of state-media relationships largely disappeared (the exceptions like North Korea increasingly prove the rule), but it is no longer helpful to think of media primarily in the national context. National structuring is only one, even if still a very powerful, context of media. Within an increasingly integrated Western-defined world society, there is a more-or-less integrated global media space within which states like other institutions operate. National media spaces exist as national segmentations of this increasingly common space, overlapping with other elements of structure. Within these mediated spaces, representations are contested by social actors of all kinds. States are the most powerful contesting institutions, but civil society actors, including journalists themselves, often challenge the kinds of representations which state leaders and institutions promote. Indeed, while it is helpful to consider media as constitutive spaces of the public sphere, in which all public actors - state and civil-society - interact, there is also a sense in which media belong to civil society, and state institutions’ self-representations increasingly take the character of interventions in the civil realm.

The distinction of state and civil society is a vexed issue. Clearly states and civil societies have developed historically in intimate relationships with each other, initially very much as nation-states and national civil spheres. Civil society, in modern history, can be seen the realm in which the ‘nation’, as opposed to the state, was constituted, and thus the necessary complement of the nation-state, and this is only now changing. (Shaw, 1996). The public sphere was classically constituted through a range of social institutions which changed through time. Media such as newspapers were part of this process from the eighteenth century onwards, but the national civil society of the mid-twentieth century was already a ‘mass society’ constituted by mass media in the modern sense - the mass-circulation newspaper, cinema, radio, increasingly television.

Although mass media initially consolidated the national form of the public sphere, it is widely considered that the transnationalisation of media has speeded the development of transnational forms of society and politics. ‘Nation shall speak truth unto nation’, proclaims the motto of the British Broadcasting Corporation, in an enlightened internationalist crystallisation of the classic, mid-century broadcasting remit. As media markets have become not only international, but transnational and global, the public spaces which they embody are no longer national in the same sense that they were. Broadcasters like the BBC still project national visions, but in a much more complex worldwide market and public sphere.

Moreover, it is wrong to counterpose, as so many do, a globalised media - or civil society - to still-national states. It is as well to recall that press and civil society were already partially internationalised in the nineteenth century. Just as the accentation of their national character in the early twentieth century reflected political developments, so did the renewal of international discourse in mid-century. Clearly the developing media and civil society internationalisation of recent decades has depended on the internationalisation of Western states and civil societies. This also dates at least from the Second World War - in which of course American and British media first developed strong international as well as national roles.

The degree of military and political integration of the North Atlantic region after 1945 was itself unprecedented, and has been consolidated in the even more unprecedented development of the European Union as a new kind of polity. There emerged what I have called a Western ‘conglomerate of state power’ of increasingly interdependent, harmonised and overlapping jurisdictions (Shaw, 1997). With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the rival Soviet bloc, this conglomerate has attempted to construct a ‘global’ hegemony, legitimated by United Nations institutions, and partially incorporating the other main centres of state power.

This transformation of the state order has been very much a condition for the development of globalised communications and global civil society (and indeed ‘globalisation’ in general). The internationalised political order has been increasingly liberal in content, facilitating transnational, and increasingly globalised, communications and culture. It is in these circumstances that press and television have become more and more frameworks for transnationalised and globalised information and ideas. Although many have located the emergence of a global civil society in globalist social movements - environmental, feminist, human rights etc. - the common framework of this emerging form has been the transformed public sphere of mass media.

The development of transnational and global public spheres has coincided with the development of new media technologies, institutions and markets. Mass media have become less homogenous - technologies have multiplied, markets have fractured even as overall they have expanded, and interactivity has increased. However the transformation of the public sphere does not depend solely, or even mainly, on these developments, as the totemic importance of CNN and the Internet might suggest. It is important to emphasise the extent to which historic national media and institutions, such as radio, television and the BBC, have become primary vehicles for transnational and global trends. Just as state internationalisation has depended on the integration and harmonisation of nation-states’ practices, so the transformation of media and civil society has involved interlinked national media. The hugely expanded and speeded-up flow of information and images between media institutions means that core content is increasingly harmonised, even while its framing in public broadcasting retains many distinctively national characteristics.

The location of media in civil society is reinforced by the fundamental political transformations of our time. The movements towards democratisation in Latin America, east-central Europe and the former Soviet Union, and many parts of Asia, Africa and even the Middle East, in the last two decades have had deep significance for the roles of media. However uneven the spread of formal political democracy, and even more of the substance of democratic practice, a historic shift has taken place. Although the weakness of civil society is often seen as an index of the limits of democratic change, and the viability of autonomous civil institutions is still contested in many states, nevertheless there has been a great expansion of the possibilities for an independent public sphere. Media and journalists are often in the forefront, and at the cutting edge, of transformative processes.

Although democratisation and media development often both take specifically national forms, they are greatly dependent on the worldwide integration of both authority structures and media. The embedding of global institutions and democratic norms, however contested, and the creation of global media networks, go hand in hand to transform the character of media. Certainly, global media industries centre on markets for entertainment commodities, and corporations which dominate them may try to block the kinds of news coverage which challenge their authoritarian state partners (as in the notorious case of Murdoch and China). However, the diffusion of information through increasingly global media cannot be contained within bounds which even the most powerful state leaders would prefer.

It is the argument of this chapter, then, that there are powerful processes of change which are transforming the relations of states and societies and leading to the creation through global media to the constitution of a global public sphere, which is a crucial part of the infrastructure of an emerging global civil society. Any analysis of these trends needs however to emphasise their contradictory character and the contested character of all the movements involved. In particular this chapter draws attention to the manifold and shifting crystallisations of the roles which mass media play. The same media which figure in one context as entertainment commodities and vehicles of corporate profit, appear in another as instruments of state policy, and in yet another as representative of an emergent global-democratic civil society. The ‘polymorphous crystallisation’ which Mann identified in the state is also a characteristic of media. In order to explore it further, I turn to an emblematic case of contemporary, post-Cold War international relations: the Gulf War and its Kurdish aftermath.

Media as Sites and Actors in Global Politics: Conclusions from the Iraqi Wars

The Iraqi wars of 1990-91 present a considerable paradox in contemporary international relations. On the one hand, the (Persian) Gulf War appears as something of a limiting case, the first clearly interstate conflict after the Cold War to have involved the Western powers as direct protagonists rather than war-managers. It is therefore a standard against which other ‘new wars’ (as Kaldor, 1999, has called them) are measured, and only the Kosova war of 1999 has matched it. On the other hand, the Kurdish refugee crisis has been taken as a paradigm of a new form of ‘humanitarian intervention’ in which states use military power for ends distinct from the classic pursuit of strategic interest. Despite the obvious links of these two emblematic episodes, they have been studied for the most part separately. Moreover, despite the contrasting media roles which were central to the two cases, no attempt has been made to theorise the linkages between these experiences.

In order to examine the significance of the conceptualisation of media in international relations, proposed in the first part of this chapter, I shall now use it to examine the Iraqi wars, summarising some of the arguments of my recent study (Shaw, 1996). My labelling of the conflicts is itself indicative of a theoretical starting-point. Instead of privileging, as most studies by both international relations and communications scholars have done, the ‘Gulf War’ as the focus of research, I examine the pattern of the interlinked wars centred on the crisis of the Iraqi state, in its relations with both neighbouring states and society within its borders. The crisis originated in the war with Iran and the genocidal repression of the Kurdish people in the 1980s. In 1990-91, it involved four distinct phases of war: the Iraqi army’s invasion of Kuwait; the UnitedStates-led coalition’s campaign against the Iraqi state; the Shi’ite insurrection in the South of Iraq and its crushing by the Iraqi state; and the Kurdish insurrection in the North and its defeat.

In these wars, there were three principal kinds of military actor: the Iraqi state; the coalition of the United States, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and over thirty other states, which fought under the United Nations; and the Shi’ite and Kurdish insurrectionists. There were however other, non-military, participants - and to a large extent, victims - within the zone of conflict: notably the civilian populations of Kuwait, both citizen and non-citizen (who were attacked and forced to flee by the Iraqi army), and of Iraq (especially those of Baghdad, Basra and other cities who suffered in the coalition bombardment, and those of Basra and other cities in the South and Kurdistan, who suffered in the repression of the rebellions by the Iraqi armed forces).

It was clear to all, of course, that the war was heavily mediated. The postmodern sociologist Beaudrillard (1991) even opined that the Gulf war did not take place: the war was a phenomenon of the media.Communications researchers briefly turned their attention to international politics, and international researchers to media, in larger numbers than ever. In neither case, clearly, was attention sustained. The most important studies confirmed the success of the principal coalition states’ governments and armed forces in managing media coverage, to reinforce the military campaign. (Taylor, 1992). There was little detailed attention to even this issue as it affected the Arab world. And almost all academic media studies ceased at the point at which George Bush attempted but failed to end the wars, with the coalition ceasefire of 28 February 1991. There was therefore very little close attention to the role of the media in the insurrectionary wars and their aftermath, the huge and desparate exodus of refugees from the repression of the Saddam Hussein regime.

This is extremely curious given that the totemic role of CNN, which arose first from its coverage of the coalition assault on Iraq, became identified in subsequent debates with the role of media in the Kurdish refugee crisis and the genesis of the Anglo-American-French intervention to create ‘safe havens’ in Kurdistan. The term ‘CNN effect’ - as emblematic of the media’s role in international politics today as ‘Vietnam syndrome’ was in earlier days - means the ability of dramatic television pictures of suffering to force Western governments’ hands in the way they are presumed to have done in the Kurdish case.

It is all the more striking that such serious attention as has been given to the ‘CNN effect’ in general - if not to the original Kurdish case - has come from media analysts rather than international relationists (Gowing, 1994). Interestingly, a recent review of this literature by a political scientist finds it wanting in its understanding of political complexity (Robinson, 1998). This is particularly notable given, as we have noted, that the Kurdish case became the paradigm for the debate about ‘humanitarian intervention’ which preoccupied many international scholars in the early and middle years of the decade and returned at its end with the Kosova war. International relations has mostly been happy to take the media’s role for granted, in order to concentrate on the forms of intervention it was presumed to have induced.

In what follows I identify six main issues in the understanding of these events, and I attempt to overcome the limitations of the literature on media in the Gulf War.

First, we need to understand the role of increasing interlinkages of domestic and inter-state politics in global politics. These are only partially and (compared to previous periods) less distinct fields within an increasingly common world political framework (Rosenau, 1997). The first mistake of Bush, John Major and other leaders, reproduced in many academic studies, was to believe that inter-state and domestic politics could be separated in the Iraqi situation. In effect, they mistook the convenient fiction of national sovereignty for a description of political reality. They intervened in the conflict of Iraq and Kuwait, apparently a straightforward inter-state conflict, only to find once they had succeeded in ‘resolving’ this issue that behind it lurked the complex social and political conflicts ‘inside’ Iraq. These ‘internal’ conflicts concerned, however, ethnic and religious groups which connected across the borders into neighbouring states (Iran, Turkey and Syria) and so involved international as well as domestic politics.

Second, we need to start from the assumption that global politics as a whole is constantly mediated in a more or less common framework. The qualification is important, since clearly there is no simple unified ‘global media’ represented by an institution like CNN, and national segmentations of the global media sphere remain important. Nevertheless, it is clear that all politics is fought out in media as well as in political and military spaces. States like other actors require sophisticated understandings of media if they are to complement their political and military with media strategies - and without successful integration of media with other strategies, the latter may also fail. So Iraqi military-political strategy failed because it was based on an out-dated version of the Vietnam syndrome - the belief that media would amplify US casualties to the point of withdrawal - which the US pre-empted. Coalition strategy was more successful in the short term, but the second mistake of Bush and Major was to believe that it was enough to successfully manage the media coverage of their planned military campaign. They failed to foresee how the constant mediation of political events would move beyond the situation beyond the results of their planned campaign, and would thus rebound on the initial success.

Third, we need to understand that global media spaces are inherently contested, both by a wide range of social actors and by journalists themselves. Access to media is highly unequal, and states have major advantages over other institutions and actors, so that they can more or less manage the mediation of some situations. But if you can manage some of the media some of the time, you can’t manage all of the media all of the time. Indeed given the tension between the goals of political and military media-managers and the autonomist ideology of journalism, successful management in one phase is likely to produce a reaction. Some groups of journalists are likely to respond to successful control by states by looking for opportunities to reassert their independence.

In the increasingly unusual situation of open war, states are able to mobilise reserves of legitimacy and histories of media subordination to government. In cases where national military personnel are at risk, media generally exercise a great deal of restraint in criticising governments. Increasingly, however, military interventions by Western states are in wars between two or more local actors, do not amount to all-out war by the West and do not involve great risk to large numbers of nationals. In these circumstances, the space for critical voices, both of a range of social actors - local to the zone of conflict and transnational, mainly Western groups - and of journalists themselves, is likely to be considerable.

In the case of Iraq, the two insurrections and their repressions brought both local anti-regime fighters and transnational humanitarian agencies into contestation with the state actors, as well as transforming large parts of the civilian population into very visible victims for whom Western journalists could speak. The third mistake of Western political leaders was to underestimate the capacities of all these groups to gain voices, and especially the extent to which many journalists, having had to toe governmental lines during the Gulf War, would take the opportunities for independent coverage which the new situation opened.

Fourth, it is crucial to grasp the significance of media as a space of civil society, both in its national and emergent global forms. Broadcast media, especially, function as entertainment businesses, have developed in many places under the aegis of states, are owned by corporations which are politically close to ruling parties, and often accord state institutions privileged access. Despite all this, the location of media in civil society is very important. As purveyors of information from (in principle) all sources, and as fora for (again in principle) all legitimate viewpoints, media are necessarily more or less open spaces. The ‘more or less’ is important, since there is huge variation in the extent which media fulfill this role. However the dual ‘representational’ function of media, in the senses of information and advocacy, places them primarily in the sphere of civil society. To the extent that the independence of media and the expansion of civil society worldwide is growing, this aspect of media will increase.

In the Iraqi wars, there was a tension between the pre-existing national and emergent global civil society roles of media. Many media outlets, especially newspapers but also to a large extent mainstream television, fell back primarily on national definitions of the conflicts - echoing older experiences of national wars. This was the case even though the involvement of the armed forces was not primarily in a national role. Thus British media, for example, interpreted the Gulf as a national war, even though the UK was a secondary member of a multi-national coalition acting under the auspices of the UN and leadership of the US.

Nevertheless, television coverage in my British study was less trapped in older, nationally-centred narratives of conflict than was newspaper coverage. It was also less national than the responses of other civil society institutions and groups, such as parties, churches and intellectuals, including even some more transnationally-oriented sectors such as the anti-war movement and the emergent Muslim community. In the Kurdish crisis, there was a clear interdependence of television news journalism with the transnationally-oriented humanitarian organisations, in advocacy of globalist concepts of responsibility for victims. Kurdish political movements were not able to represent their goals effectively in the global mass media, but when Kurdish civilians were transformed into the pure victims of the Saddam regime, and indirectly of Western non-intervention, Western journalists engaged in powerful representation of their plight.

Finally, it is important to grasp the dynamics of television, newspaper and other media coverage, especially the relations between film, commentary and text, in generating political impact. Television news programmes, no more than newspapers, are simple purveyors of information and images. What is crucial is the narrative within which these two commodities are presented. Although predominantly visual media construct narratives in different ways from those of textual media, the narrative is still king. The ability of news presenters to frame visual images and representations of actors is crucial to their power. Only when governments can more or less define the narratives within which journalists operate can they hope to manage coverage.

The unexamined consensus about the ‘power’ of the media in the Kurdish crisis of 1991 is that television was able to show shocking visual images of refugees’ suffering, the transmission of which aroused public opinion and forced the US and UK governments to change their policies. In my study of the two main British news channels in March-April 1991 I made two sets of findings which significantly qualified this assumption (Shaw, 1996: 79-96). The first concerned the original Shi’ite insurrection. I confirmed that it was weakly covered compared to the Kurdish revolt because of the failure of Western journalists to gain direct access to or virtually any film of the zone of conflict. I also established however that television news still reported it more consistently than all newspapers except the liberal broadsheets, at a time when governments were trying to ignore it. This suggesting the importance of journalistic investment in following through on the Gulf crisis, even against the political tide and even without fully reliable informational and visual sources.

The second set of findings suggested that the political impact of the coverage of the Kurdish revolt did not depend simply or mainly on striking visual images. Important as these images were, they did not work by themselves. Their impact depended on two additional factors. First, the presence on the ground of authoritative reporters, able to provide a first-hand gloss on the images which the cameras produced, was central. Secondly, the integration of both pictures and first-hand commentary into a general narrative - elaborated more or less consistently over a period of weeks by anchorpeople and through voiceovers as well as by the reporters on the ground - completed the process. I established that this narrative, while never elaborated in the overt manner of newspaper editorials, constantly repeated certain highly-charged themes. In particular it laid the highly visible suffering of the Kurdish people squarely at the door of Western political leaders such as Bush and Major. It established, and constantly underlined, a connection of responsibility between the actions and inactions of these leaders - their calls to remove Saddam, on the one hand, and indifference to the revolts, on the other - in ways which challenged the political strategies of the governments.

The narrative was sufficiently clear, persistent and strongly reinforced to constitute a campaign by the news programmes. This was reinforced in the newspapers - crucially the tabloids - in the final weeks before first the Major and then the Bush administrations made dramatic ‘U-turns’ towards intervention in northern Iraq. The power of this campaign made television the pivot of Western civil-society interventions in general, mobilising both general public opinion and the actions of other actors such as humanitarian organisations. However it also left the Kurds a walk-on role in their own salvation, as they were reduced to pidgin-English soundbites calling for help, their voices dwarved by the journalists’ own much more articulate and elaborated arguments.

This account has been criticised for neglecting non-media factors like the interest of the Turkish government in preventing refugee incursions into Turkey (Robinson, 1998). Since I argue against the simple ‘CNN’ view of ‘pictures driving policy’, I do not claim that the public, mediated surveillance of the crisis was the only factor in forcing policy change and intervention. Nevertheless, the timing of the British government’s turnaround (which in turn appeared to influence American decisions) fitted with the crescendo of the media campaigning, and the policy change was publicly elaborated in the ‘humanitarian’ terms which responded to the television news programmes’ narrative of the crisis. Given that governments’ power depends on re-election, and that electoral politics are conducted principally in the media, it is clear that no government can afford to ignore a sustained media campaign against it on an important area of policy.


I have summarised the findings of my study in general theses which relate to the theoretical argument in the first part of this chapter. Clearly we must not expect these processes to operate in identical ways in all conflicts of the global transition. Indeed, the Kurdish crisis was an almost unique conjuncture because of the investment of Western media as well as military resources in Iraq, the reaction of journalists against their subordinate role in the managed military campaign, and the very direct nexus of responsibility which television was able to exploit. These factors have not operated in the same ways even in Palestine, Bosnia, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti or Chechnya, in all of which large-scale global media coverage has occurred and played a political role - let alone in the dozens of wars around the world which have received minimal, episodic and generally unifluential coverage. Nevertheless, the dynamics of the media campaign over Kurdish refugees set precedents which have been influential in these subsequent conflicts, even if the results have been different. The anticipation of negative coverage of Bosnia, for example, in the run-up to the US presidential campaign of 1996, was a highly influential pressure towards the Dayton settlement. And whatever the limitations of media coverage in the other cases listed above, it is certain that the virtual non-coverage of many wars has had a negative effect on international political attention.

The Kosova war of 1999 was closer than any other conflict to the conditions of the Iraqi wars of 1991. It appeared, in its early stages at least, like a speeded-up, more concentrated version of the Gulf/Kurdistan crises. Here the interstate conflict, of NATO and Serbia, was inextricably linked from the start with the genocide of the Kosova Albanians (whereas in Iraq, the genocidal campaign against the Kurds had followed the interstate war which began over Kuwait). Here the nexus of responsibility implicating the West in the fate of Albanian civilians was present in the causes of intervention (rather than having to be established by media against the Western state as in Iraq). This connection of responsibility was deepened when Serbia responded to Western military action by intensifying its war against Kosovan civilians (similarly to how ferocious repression of Shi’ites and Kurds followed Western action against Iraq).

Journalists were quick to point out how NATO action had stimulated the new wave of genocidal attacks by Serbia and the Kurdish-style exodus which followed. They also suggested, repeatedly, that air power would not suffice: only ground troops would be able to protect the Kosovans. This media criticism did not develop into a campaign, in the manner of Kurdistan, only because NATO quickly acknowledged its responsibilities towards the refugees by rushing in supplies and organization for camps, and because it appeareds to be preparing for introducing ground forces. Nevertheless, media coverage repeatedly highlighted the contradiction between NATO’s professed aim of protecting civilians and the consequences of bombing - so-called ‘collateral damage’ which involving killing both Serbian civilians and Kosovan refugees. At the time of writing, before the conclusion of the war, it looked increasingly likely that the media had helped NATO leaders to lock themselves into a path towards ground intervention to liberate all or part of Kosova, just as the major Western powers were forced into intervening in Kurdistan in April 1991.

The 1990s have therefore ended as they began, with highly mediated wars of the Western state against genocidal nation-states. If anything, the intensity of mediation increased, with the West in Kosova committed from the start to ‘humanitarianism’, and Serbia more astute than Iraq in utilising world and Western media to influence the struggle. These experiences underline the need, argued for in the first part of this chapter, for an account of media in conflicts which is located in a larger understanding of the role of media more generally in global politics. This requires these issues to be taken out of the context of media studies and developed within international relations - but in an international theory which has been reconstructed so as to be able to encompass them.


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