Complex horror needs context

I think it was a television event the day Radavan Karadzic was arrested. While the newspapers could give context and history in bullet points (some of them did but not all) the events leading up to it all happened a long time ago. People don’t retain the absolute horror of those years from 1992 to 1995.

But the images of people being prisoners detained in Omaska, the horrible video that became available through the International Court – the tribunal of Yugoslavia – of the massacre in Srebenica: they’re so memorable and evocative of the horror of that period.

Obviously the tabloids were just drawn by the sensational image of this man who now looks like a freak. The Daily Mail’s portrayal of the Butcher of Bosnia is in a similar vein to when Saddam ‘came out of a hole”. That thought of ‘God, look at him now”.

The Daily Mirror’s headline was ‘The Evil Secrets of Dr Davidz’ for example. They had two pages inside, and actually to give them credit, they did have a timeline, but it’s called ‘the life and times of the butcher’. I mean the pictures of him in his disguise are amazing, and it’s of course a great story, but you need the context of that war and the history.

In television news you are obliged to be impartial. I worked all the way through the war in former Yugoslavia and set up interviews with Karadzic and saw those images as they came in, and I wouldn’t want to detract from any of that. But Karadzic is being taken for trial, and there were people protesting on the streets at the weekend who see him as a hero. It was a civil war and there were horrible crimes committed on both sides, so I think that those sensational headlines lack a degree of impartiality.

In terms of pictures, most of the papers focused on this guru-looking man who was actually a million miles away from the Radavan Karadzic we all remember. The Guardian centre pages though did have pictures of him with Ratko Mladic from years ago to put it in context.

One of the most important elements is, why now? And The Guardian went straight to it, with the question of Serbia’s position within the EU on its front page. It had a lot of detail on the complexities of the war, what was going to happen next and a reminder of who all the key people were on the inside. It was also one of the few which bothered to speak to survivors or victims’ families.

Channel 4 News also focused on the impact on Serbia’s position in the EU. The fact that Karadzic could be ‘produced’suggests that certain people knew where he was the whole time, so I think that is very important. There’s always political horse-trading behind any big events like that or delivery of a suspect.

The who, the what, and the why are what’s important. The why was over the EU: that was dealt with by some papers but not many. The who delivered him, and how is still to be unravelled. These details are still not fully known, and that makes it difficult. Channel 4 News immediately went to get an interview with the lawyer to make the public aware of the significance of Karadzic’s arrest and set out clearly what the indictment amounted to – the siege of Sarejevo, for example.

Anybody working in international journalism at that time would immediately realise the implications and intrigue behind that, and there is just so much to say about those three to four years of horror. I’m sure the developments of the trial at The Hague will be fascinating to follow in the months to come.

After more than 10 years at Channel 4, Deborah Rayner will soon be taking up a new position of international director of features at CNN

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