It’s a strange feeling to have one’s work excavated and appraised twenty-seven years after the fact. It’s certainly a privilege and I’m grateful to the IWM for preserving the archive and treating it with such seriousness. I’ve also been impressed by Catherine Baker’s exceptional paper.
Many kind words were said about the films. But both kind words and critiques tended to focus on United Nations Television (UNTV) as journalism. It was actually nothing of the sort. Let’s not mince words: UNTV failed. We know that because our own (and the UN’s) attempts to build bridges between ethnic groups came to precisely nothing, and the crisis was solved by NATO bombs and some very hard-nosed diplomacy in Dayton. But what was it, exactly, that failed? If it wasn’t journalism, what was it?
The three people who were responsible for this major TV project were UN Special Representative Yasushi Akashi, Director of Information Michael Williams and myself. We all arrived in early 1994, having recently left similar jobs in Cambodia, where the UN’s first radio station had had a sensational impact. It’s difficult to overstate the feelings generated by seeing long queues of people at polling stations, telling us with voices close to tears that they were there because of Radio UNTAC, because they knew their vote was secret, “because they wanted a government to look after poor people like me”. The election proceeded peacefully, 90% of the electorate voted and more voted against the ruling party (who had been doing most of the pre-election intimidation) than voted for it. Over 100 correspondents had flown to Phnom Penh, expecting a bloodbath, dreaming of Pulitzer Prizes. But a peaceful election was merely a two-day story: I’d never seen so many hacked off hacks. It was at this moment that I realised journalism was not my calling. What we’d been trying to do at Radio UNTAC was to purposefully influence ordinary people’s behaviours. I’d become a propagandist.
So that was our conceit as we entered the fray in Former Yugoslavia. Could we harness the extraordinary power of the media to build bridges between people, to soften their hearts? Could this actually help the UN create peace? This, believe it or not, was the purpose of UNTV: we were an instrument of the UN, charged with changing attitudes, with paving the way for peaceful negotiations. Akashi signed the cheques for us to hire thirty staff and buy all the equipment we needed. Our mandate could not have been clearer.
Our outputs took various forms. Some (like video letters) had very soft, general aims: to persuade people who had been neighbours and friends for thirty years that they were still the same people, that killing each other made little sense. Others were more targeted, focused on particular peace-building interventions by Stoltenberg and Owen, by the UN’s Sergio de Mello or by US Ambassador Galbraith. There was no attempt to report these initiatives; instead, in every case, we were pushing, for all we were worth, a particular line of reconciliation, using every emotional device in the TV producer’s toolkit.
It didn’t work. But what failed wasn’t journalism (that would have been a completely different set-up, with very different staff and outlets). Instead, we thudded up against the ceiling of what purposeful mass media could achieve. We’d been dazzled by its impact in Cambodia, we’d heard what it had incited in Rwanda. But we’d had a sobering collision with its limitations here. Many will argue that this is blindingly obvious: how on earth can you expect to soften people’s hearts in the midst of a full-blown war, competing with the emotions of bereavement, revenge and hatred? And I’d agree with this. But even if the message had been convincing it still wouldn’t have worked. It’s instructive to tease out the reasons for this, for there are wider lessons to learn. Two things stand out:
We were novices in the purposeful communications game. Any advertiser – an industry with 100 years of experience - could tell you that the recipients of messages have to be able to act on them. There’s no point advertising Coca-Cola if you can’t buy it in the shops. And the UN had no product to sell. We were effectively asking the general population in a war zone to take action, to reconcile, when – even if fully persuaded – there was nothing they could do. Only a few politicians and military leaders have the power to stop a war. Ordinary people do not take these decisions. By contrast in Cambodia we did have a product to sell: an election, complete with secret ballot boxes. If people were convinced by our messages, they could vote. Ordinary people are important in some situations, less so in others.
2. Size matters
While this was the largest television operation the UN had ever mounted, 250 films over two years was a drop in the ocean compared to the three TV channels at the disposal of both Milosevic and Tudjman, each broadcasting twenty four hours a day. While we were able to broadcast on eighteen stations in Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia (although, importantly, none in Croatia or Bosnian Serb territory), it was crazy to think we could compete with a modern TV industry. Once again, the advertisers could have told us this. To penetrate an audience, there has to be saturation-level campaigning. The UN wasn’t capable of this. We didn’t have the transmitters or the ability to install them (we did talk to the Pentagon about broadcasting from a plane flying permanently overhead (!), but the technology was poor). By contrast in Cambodia we had the most powerful transmitter in the country, broadcasting fifteen hours a day with very little competition.
In my own career, these have been valuable lessons. I continued with media campaigns, but have focused for the last twenty-four years on public health, where ordinary people can take action (by knowing the signs of malaria and how to get treatment, for example). And I’ve taken care to ensure that they are conducted on a massive scale (broadcasting ten times per day, 365 days per year). Purposeful campaigns can work: we’ve conducted the first scientific trial to prove this.
But in the case of UNTV I can only admit failure and take responsibility for it. It may have been hubris or naivety or simple inexperience. But I do believe that the lessons – when specifically identified - have been instructive.
Was it a waste of time? Maybe not. One idea that was raised during the workshops was the idea of using the archive in classrooms throughout the region for educational and reconciliation purposes. This excited me for three reasons.
Firstly, many speakers pointed to the human empathy that the films represented. That’s a strength I do recognise: ordinary people often say extraordinary things, and we tried to make every film mindful of the emotions it would generate in all ethnic groups. Each film, in a sense, was a mini opportunity for reconciliation. The idea of them having a second life, without the impossible aim of trying to stop a war, is transformative. At this point, it’s not all or nothing (war or no war): every heart that is softened is a win.
Secondly, it’s important to remember that these films were made when travel from the individual territories was impossible: the experience of others as they went through 1994-96 is a major gap in the history available to all nations.
More practically, all the films are three to ten minutes long. This is a perfect length for a classroom discussion. Each film captures a human issue, often not the major political turning points which have been endlessly repeated, but the lived experience of humans (often ‘the other’) in conflict. They could easily serve as a syllabus for a year’s course in understanding the past. The timing may even be ideal: twenty-seven years on is a good time for reconciliation. Children who have never experienced the war can experience it in a very different way from newsreel footage or the stories told by their parents.
Once again, I’m grateful to the IWM for allowing us to reflect on this period and its lessons.