Labeling the Serbs as Nazis – The Role of Ruder Finn, a US-Public Relation Firm
The following is an extract of an interview conducted by Mr. Jacques Merlino (Deputy Director of the network TV2, Paris, France) with James Harff (Director of Ruder Finns’s Global Public affairs section), which took place in October 1993.
Harrf: For 18 months, we have been working for the Republics of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as for the opposition in Kosovo. Throughout this period, we had many successes, giving us a formidable international image. We intend to make advantage of this and develop commercial agreements with these countries. Speed is vital, because items favourable to us must be settled in public opinion. The first statement counts. The retractions have no effect.
Marlino: How often do you intervene?
Harff: Quantity is not important. You have to intervene at the right time with the right person. From June to September, we organized 30 meetings with the main press agencies, as well as meetings between Bosnian officials and Al Gore, Lawrence Eagleburger and 10 influential senators, among them George Mitchell and Robert Dole. We also sent out 13 exclusive news items, 37 last-minute faxes, 17 official letters and eight official reports. We placed 20 telephone calls to White House staff, 20 senators, and close to 100 to journalists, editors, newscaters and other influenctial people in the media.
Question: What achievement were you most proud of?
Harff: To have managed to put Jewish opinion on our side. This was a sensitive matter, as the dossier was dangerous looked from this angle. President Tudjman [of Croatia] was very careless in his book “Wastelands of Historical Reality”. Reading this writtings, one could accuse him of of antisemitism. In Bosnia, the situation was no better: President Izetbegovic strongly supported the creation of a fundamentalist Islamic state [there] in his book “The Islamic Declaration”. Besides, the Croatian and Bosnian past was marked by a real and cruel anti-semitism.
Tens of thousands of Jews perished in Croatian camps. So there was every reason for intellectuals and Jewish organizations to be hostile towards the Croats and Bosnians. Our challenge was to reverse this attitude. And we succeded masterfully.
At the beginning of August 1992, New York Newsday came out with the affair of [Serb] concentration camps. We jumped at the opportunity immediately. We outwitted three big Jewish organizations – B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, and the American Jewish Congress. We suggested to them to publish an advertisement in the “New York Times” and to organize demonstrations outside the United Nations.
That was a tremendous coup. When the Jewish organizations entered the game on the side of the [Muslim] Bosnians, we could promptly equate the Serbs with the Nazis in the public mind. Nobody understood what was happening in Yugoslavia. The great majority of Americans were probably asking themselves in which African country Bosnia was situated. But by a single move we were able to present a simple story of good guys and bad guys, which would hereafter play itself. We won by targeting Jewish audience.
Almost immediately there was a clear change of language in the press, with the use of words with high emotional content, such as “ethnic cleansing”, “concentration camps”, etc., which evoked images of Nazi Germany and the gas chambers of Auschwitz. The emotional charge was so powerful that nobody could go against it.
Marlino: But when you did all of this, you had no proof that what you said was true. You only had the article in “Newsday”!
Harff: Our work is not to verify information. We are not equipped for that. Our work is to accelerate the circulation of information favorable to us, to aim at judiciously chosen targets. We did not confirm the existence of death camps in Bosnia, we just made it known that “Newsday” affirmed it.
Marlino: Are you aware that you took on a grave responsibility?
Harff: We are professionals. We had a job to do and we did it. We are not paid to be moral.
— James Harff, Director of Ruder Finn, Global Public affairs section, in the Jacques Merlino interview, April 1993. (reprinted in a book in Oct. 1993)
The picture that fooled the world
The picture that appeared in several tabloids reproduced on the facing page is of Fikret Alic, a Bosnian Muslim. Emaciated and stripped to the waist, he is apparently imprisoned behind a barbed-wire fence in a Bosnian Serb camp at Trnopolje. The picture was taken from a videotape shot on August 5, 1992, by an award-winning British television team led by Penny Marshall of ITN. Marshall was accompanied by her cameraman Jeremy Irvin, Ian Williams of Channel 4, and reporter Ed Vulliamy from The Guardian newspaper.
For many, this picture has become a symbol of the horrors of the Bosnian war—”Belsen ’92,” as one British newspaper headline captioned the photograph (1). But that image is misleading. The fact is that Fikret Alic and his fellow Bosnian Muslims were not imprisoned behind a barbed-wire fence. There was no barbed-wire fence surrounding Trnopolje camp. It was not a prison, and certainly not a “concentration camp,” but a collection center for refugees, many of whom went there seeking safety and could leave again if they wished.
The barbed wire in the picture is not around the Bosnian Muslims; it is around the cameraman and the journalists. It formed part of a broken-down barbed-wire fence encircling a small compound that was next to Trnopolje camp. The British news team filmed from inside this compound, shooting pictures of the refugees and the camp through the compound fence. In the eyes of many who saw them, the resulting pictures left the false impression that the Bosnian Muslims were caged behind barbed wire.
Whatever the British news team’s intentions may have been, their pictures were seen around the world as the first hard evidence of concentration camps in Bosnia. “The proof: behind the barbed wire, the brutal truth about the suffering in Bosnia,” announced the Daily Mail alongside a front-page reproduction of the picture from Trnopolje: “They are the sort of scenes that flicker in black and white images from fifty-year-old films of Nazi concentration camps.(2)” On the first anniversary of the pictures being taken, an article in the Independent could still use the barbed wire to make the Nazi link: “The camera slowly pans up the bony torso of the prisoner. It is the picture of famine, but then we see the barbed wire against his chest and it is the picture of the Holocaust and concentration camps.(3)”
Penny Marshall, Ian Williams, and Ed Vulliamy have never called Trnopolje a concentration camp.
notes to this excerpt
Daily Mirror, 7 August 1992.
Daily Mail, 7 August 1992.
Independent, 5 August 1993.
This chapter is an edited translation of an article that appeared in the German magazine Novo, January/February 1997 issue. It was then published in English in the British magazine Living Marxism, Issue 97, February 1997. The British television station ITN sued to prevent LM from publishing the story, demanding that its editor withdraw the issue and pulp every copy. LM now faces a costly legal battle for insisting on its right to publish the truth.