The Guardian’s Peter Wilby has again hit the nail on the head:
Whenever, to coin a phrase, a war breaks out in a faraway country of which we know little, I am reminded of a news editor I once worked for. He would go to a wall map showing the location of the paper’s correspondents, produce a ruler, and measure the distance of each from the area in question. Regardless of travel links or national boundaries, he decreed that the nearest should go.
It was a bit like that, I imagine, in many media offices when the conflict between Georgia and Russia broke out. Not only was it August, when many reporters are on holiday, it was also the Olympics, and the few still on duty were mostly in Beijing. The Financial Times headline, “Georgia says Russia at war“, may have seemed strange, but it summed up the state of Fleet Street’s verifiable knowledge as the armies moved into action. In the age of 24-hour news, however, the press cannot hang about waiting for reporters to arrive. Readers want bombs, tanks and death tolls. They need to be told who are the goodies and baddies. News, remember, is part of the entertainment industry.
Into the vacuum stepped the Georgian government. Its president, Mikheil Saakashvili, speaks English, wants to join Nato, sent troops to Iraq, got himself educated at Harvard, cultivates a media-friendly style, and sends Georgian university exam papers to be marked in Britain, though whether he expects to get them back is another matter. He took power in the Rose revolution of 2003-04 and professes to be a democrat. He’s clearly an all-round good egg. And he has a PR firm, Aspect Consulting, based in Brussels, London and Paris, which also acts for Exxon Mobil, Kellogg’s and Procter and Gamble.
Almost hourly over the five-day war, press releases landed on foreign news desks. “Russia continues to attack civilian population.” The capital Tblisi was “intensively” bombed. A downed Russian plane turned out to be “nuclear”. European “energy supplies” were threatened as Russia dropped bombs near oil pipelines. A “humanitarian wheat shipment” was blocked. Later, “invading Russian forces” began “the occupation of Georgia”. Saakashvili’s government filed allegations of ethnic cleansing to The Hague. Note the use of terms that trigger western media interest: civilian victims, nuclear, humanitarian, occupation, ethnic cleansing.
It would be unfair to accuse the British press of accepting the Georgian PR uncritically. Most papers dutifully reported that a Georgian attack in the breakaway province of South Ossetia, where most people want to join Russia, started the conflict. But casual readers might have struggled to understand that. The Mail’s headline announced: “‘1,500 die’ as the Russian tanks roll in” [August 9]. Only in the last paragraph of the story did it become clear that the Georgians, not the Russians, were alleged to have killed 1,500.
Russia’s behaviour, newspapers implied, was in a quite different category from Georgia’s. In the Sunday Times, Russian tanks went “rampaging” in South Ossetia, while Georgian tanks merely “moved”. If Georgian forces had bombarded civilians, it was “reprehensible”, the Telegraph allowed. Russia, however, was “offending every canon of international behaviour“. An analysis in the same paper avoided any mention of how Georgia provoked the crisis. Saakashvili was “paying the price” for his pro-western foreign policy. A “resurgent Russia” was “itching to flex its muscles and burning with post-imperial hubris”.
Such comments are illuminated by substituting Britain or America for Russia, and Iraq for Georgia. Try “resurgent Britain … itching to flex its muscles”, etc.
As the conflict went on, press coverage became more balanced, with several commentators noting, to quote the Independent’s Mary Dejevsky, that “it is quite hard to argue that there is one law for assisting Albanians in Kosovo and quite another for Russians and Ossetians in Georgia”. Increasingly, the press portrayed Saakashvili as a self-regarding fool who blundered into a war he was bound to lose.
But Georgia’s actions in South Ossetia went largely unexamined, and it was hard to find, from press accounts, what refugees from the province were fleeing from. Again, the Georgians played the PR game more skilfully. Western correspondents were welcomed into Gori and shown areas apparently bombed by the Russians. Saakashvili held international media phone conferences, got himself on TV news channels and even found time, within hours of war breaking out, to write for the Wall Street Journal. Russia, by contrast, allowed little access to South Ossetia. Its government attempted no comparable media offensive. Though it also has a PR agency, GPlus Europe in Brussels (and Ketchum in Washington), it was not asked to issue press releases. As a source wryly put it, “the press release is not a common tool of the Russian government”.
The brief war in the Caucasus was a classic example of the situation outlined in Nick Davies’s book Flat Earth News. Most newspapers hadn’t a clue what was going on and lacked sufficient resources to find out. So skilfully presented PR was at a premium. Most journalists treated it with at least some scepticism, but it inevitably had an effect. If there was a military war, there was also an information one, and Georgia got the better of it.