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WSWS : News & Analysis : Europe : The Balkan Crisis

Behind the attacks on veteran journalist John Simpson
British government criticises BBC for its war coverage
By Stuart Nolan and Barbara Slaughter
20 April 1999

Senior British government officials have denounced John Simpson, the BBC
World Affairs Editor, for his supposedly "biased reports" about the impact
NATO's bombing is having on Belgrade.

He has been accused of being "pro-Serb" and part of the "Milosevic
propaganda offensive" for citing Serbian sources regarding the numbers of
civilian casualties and damage caused by the NATO bombardment. Simpson is
also charged with having been "grossly simplistic" by suggesting that
ordinary Serbs were putting aside their differences with Milosevic to oppose
the bombing.

The Times newspaper on Saturday April 17 describes private discussions in
which officials used "strong language" against the veteran BBC reporter. The
unnamed government sources describe Simpson's work as falling short of the
"expected standards" of a leading journalist.

Labour Party ministers are said to be preparing to make a formal complaint
to the BBC over reports by Simpson and other BBC journalists. In an earlier
criticism about BBC coverage of the war, a Foreign Office official said,
"The newspapers have been very supportive, but we are getting massacred by
the broadcasters."( Observer, March 28).

Simpson is one of the few British journalists remaining in Belgrade. He has
relayed reports about what he has seen and heard.

What is it that Downing Street objects to? On March 28, in a report entitled
"Life under fire in Belgrade", Simpson stated, "But Serbs do not have to be
ordered out of their schools or hospitals or factories to go and demonstrate
against the West, as happens in Iraq. Here the feeling is genuine and it can
break out at any moment." (BBC News Online)

Simpson's report contradicts NATO's predictions that the bombing campaign
would strengthen opposition to Milosevic. Simpson has warned of the dangers
of demonising the Serbs and the consequences of ignoring the history of the
region.

In a broadcast from Pristina on April 8, he reported that an attack on a
local oil depot had destroyed the city's heating system. He added, "The
worst damage is in the city centre. A telecommunications centre has taken a
direct hit, and round about it other large modern buildings have been badly
damaged--a bank, a social security office and a public library."

A question-and-answer programme with Simpson, hosted by BBC News Online,
attracted 2 million visitors on April 14. The journalist explained, "I've
spoken to a wide range of people here, many of whom took part in the 88 days
of demonstrations against Milosevic two years ago, and they have all said
that the bombing has put them behind him."

The campaign against Simpson began on the same evening that NATO spokesmen
were denying responsibility for the bombing of Albanian refugee convoys.
When introducing the news footage of the attack, Simpson pointed out that
the Serbian authorities would not have allowed him onto the scene if they
were not confident of the facts.

A previous report from Simpson that NATO jets had destroyed a passenger
train on a bridge near Leskovac was later confirmed. Forced to finally admit
NATO's responsibility for this attack on civilians, Cabinet officials aimed
their fury at the veteran BBC journalist.

He came under similar attacks by the former Tory government for his
broadcasts from Iraq in the 1990 Gulf War. Earlier this year, during the
renewed bombing of Iraq, Alistair Campbell (Tony Blair's Chief Press
Secretary), Defence Secretary George Robertson, and Foreign Secretary Robin
Cook all lodged formal complaints about the BBC's coverage.

In the first week of NATO bombing of Serbia, BBC Newsnight presenter Jeremy
Paxman and John Humphrys of BBC Radio Four's Today Programme were also
criticised. Downing Street officials advised Prime Minister Blair to pull
out of a planned interview with Paxman, in what amounted to a formal
protest, because they objected to his "sceptical tone". Humphrys was
attacked for his regular use of the word "mess" when discussing NATO
strategy during an interview with George Robertson.

In another interview, Robertson objected when Paxman said that "bombing
Milosevic to the negotiating table" had failed. Robertson cut short the
interview.


Simpson defends himself

Simpson has received many international awards for his war journalism. His
colleagues at the BBC have defended him. Richard Ayre, deputy chief
executive of BBC News, said, "It is important that audiences are given a
true account of the public mood in Belgrade, not simply an account of what
NATO governments might prefer to hear." (The Times, April 16)

In the Guardian of April 17 Simpson defended himself, saying, "Impartiality
of telling what's happening in front of you is bred into me. I've been in
the BBC for 34 years now. I know how to have control over what I say or
write." Simpson added that he knew far too much about the crimes of the
Milosevic government to be taken in by their propaganda, "But I absolutely
refuse point blank to put on all that easy chauvinistic stuff, talking about
Nazis, fascists and evil empires. Facts speak for themselves."

In his regular weekly column in the Sunday Telegraph April 18, Simpson
expressed contempt for his faceless critics in Downing Street. He said that
the press in Yugoslavia had seized on the whispering campaign against him,
believed to originate from Alistair Campbell. "They take it as a sign that
for all its vaunted adherence to liberty, the British government is just as
keen to control the media as Slobodan Milosevic is."

He continued, "This is my thirtieth war. I know very well how governments
try to manipulate the media... There's a depressing pattern: when things go
wrong British governments tend to lose their nerve. They get frightened at
the thought of people getting independent, objective information so they
start whispering about the personal abilities of the broadcasters.
Anonymously, of course."

The attack on Simpson is a significant political development. Most British
radio and television stations make no secret of their support for NATO's
actions. Now there is an attempt to silence one of the few remaining
critical sources of information. The pressure being brought against the BBC
comes precisely at the point when the true social and human implications of
the war--in the form of NATO attacks on civilians, both Serb and ethnic
Albanian--are being revealed. This makes the preservation and strengthening
of the media's overwhelmingly pro-NATO role, and their promotion of lies and
distortions to conceal the war's real aims, all the more necessary.

The attempt to suppress the few reports that provide a picture of the tragic
consequences of the bombing can only mean that NATO is planning to intensify
its attacks on civilians. Another article in the Times, "Clear targets: Why
there can be no let-up in the bombing", makes apparent that the aim of the
air attacks is the destruction of Yugoslavia. A further, less direct
indication of this, is the appointment of Alistair Campbell to overhaul
NATO's media strategy, in order that the Western governments can present a
common front.

Campbell believes that some of the public relations fall-out resulting from
the NATO bombing of the Albanian civilian convoy could have been lessened if
London, the Pentagon and Brussels had adopted a common line. He has advised
NATO spokesmen to say nothing further on the subject.

The fact that the Labour government is seeking to prevent the public from
having access to any critical reporting provides a clear warning of the
danger to democratic rights presented by this war for working people all
over the world. What kind of "free press" can there be, if the only
information and views allowed to be disseminated are those of the
government?

The neo-colonialist and militarist policies being carried out by the US,
Britain and NATO against weaker nations such as Serbia are, in the end,
incompatible with the exercise of basic democratic rights at home.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------
----

Copyright 1998-99
World Socialist Web Site
All rights reserved

~~~~~~~~~~~~

>From The Guardian (UK)

BBC veteran denies bias

Media: John Simpson counters Downing Street with charge of interfering,
writes Janine Gibson

Saturday April 17, 1999


John Simpson, the veteran BBC foreign correspondent, yesterday angrily
denied accusations of Serb bias in his reporting from Belgrade, following
reports that government officials have threatened to complain.
Speaking to the Guardian from Belgrade, the BBC's world affairs editor said:
"I object very strongly to this accusation of being pro-Serb." He also spoke
of his disappointment and anger at the unnamed government official who was
quoted in yesterday's Times briefing against him.

Lance Price, deputy to the Prime Minister's press spokesman Alastair
Campbell, yesterday attempted to distance Downing Street from the reported
comments, saying that no one in Downing Street was giving credence to the
quotes. However, BBC insiders believe the briefing came from Mr Campbell,
who is close to the Times journalist who wrote the story.

Mr Simpson believes that the briefing, in which a "senior official" accused
Mr Simpson of presenting Serb propaganda at face value, was the result of
several recent incidents.

"In the first instance I wrote something for the Sunday Telegraph which said
that if the purpose of the war was to alienate people here [in Belgrade]
from Milosevic then it wasn't working. That provoked a reaction from Downing
Street."

One incident cited by the unnamed official took place on Wednesday when the
Nine O'Clock News anchorman Michael Buerk asked Mr Simpson during the
bulletin about Serb claims that the bombing of the passenger train near
Leskovac was down to Nato.

Mr Simpson said he felt certain that the truth would become clear and added
that if the Serbs, as they were promising, took journalists to the site then
"I think the Serbs will be confident about their side of the story".

Yesterday, Mr Simpson responded to the official's reported accusation of
naivety: "I've covered over 30 wars and revolutions. I know how governments
coerce journalists, I know the tricks they use. I was in Baghdad and I spent
a couple of years in the lobby in Britain. It needs some one with
experience. I'm not doing frontline reporting, I'm doing stuff about how the
Serb goverment has approached the war. That takes knowledge and
understanding."

He added: "I'm amused by the idea that I'm too simple-minded to understand
these things and I'm bamboozled by the Serb government and its tricks.
Impartiality of telling what's happening in front of you is bred into me.
I've been in the BBC for 34 years now, I know how to have control over what
I say or write."

Last week, the Serbian government ejected a member of the crew travelling
with Mr Simpson, a fact which the reporter believes vindicates the BBC's
stance. Most seriously, he said, the government briefing runs contrary to
the tradition of impartial balanced journalism. "It annoys me that a British
government is so willing and enthusiastic about losing the principles of
calm and objectivity."

Mr Simpson rejected the suggestion that he has been partisan or simplistic.
"I've seen far too many of the crimes that this government has committed in
Yugoslavia I was in Sarajevo. I know what these things are, but I absolutely
refuse point blank to put on all that easy chauvinist stuff talking about
Nazis, fascists and evil empires. Facts speak for themselves."

On-the-record comments from Downing Street yesterday proffered sympathy with
the difficulties that journalists were experiencing reporting from Belgrade
and emphasised the importance of a "health warning" on reports explaining
that their content was being monitored by Serbs.

Mr Simpson said, however, that he had experienced little interference other
than interruption to his telephone calls "just to remind me that there's
somebody there listening".

His job would be easier, he said, if the British government stopped
interfering.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 1999


 Stop this wretched spin machine

Government criticism of John Simpson came as no surprise to his colleague,
John Humphrys. He makes a plea for ministers and their advisers to do
something rather alien - keep their mouths shut and let the facts speak for
themselves

Monday April 19, 1999


Something very curious happens to politicians when they finally get their
backsides onto the smooth leather seats of a ministerial Rover. They
discover that the BBC - which had been doing such a splendid job of holding
the Government's feet to the fire while they were in opposition - is
suddenly a threat to the democratic process. In my own case it took this lot
all of four months, after 18 years in opposition, to realise that something
had to be done about the "John Humphrys problem". Ho hum.
That was in peacetime. When we are at war it is trickier. Routine, though
robust, questions are dealt with by various ministers in a way that suggests
the interviewer is some sort of Quisling, parachuted behind the microphones
while the nation slept to sow doubt and discord among the loyal people.

"By gad, Sir! Doncha know there's a bloody war on? We'd have never won the
show in '45 if you treacherous lot had been whinging and wimping away at old
Winnie. For two shakes I'd have the bloody lot of you horse-whipped!"

But so what? I neither seek nor deserve any sympathy. We are, most of us,
old hands and if we can't cope we should pack it in and find something else
to do. It is another matter for correspondents in the field, especially
those who really are reporting from behind enemy lines. When unnamed senior
officials drip poison into the ears of other hacks about a man like John
Simpson you begin to wonder if they have learned nothing from history.

Can they really have forgotten how the nation reacted to Norman Tebbitt
taking his horse whip to Kate Adie when she reported dispassionately from
Libya after the Americans sent the bombers in from friendly British air
bases? Adie became a national hero, Tebbitt retired hurt. I am prepared to
bet the price of a stealth bomber to a cruise missile that the same will
happen with Simpson.

There is one simple reason for that: people want to know what is going on
and they trust a man like Simpson to tell them honestly and to the best of
his ability. Every pupil at every would-be candidates' training school
should be forced to take extra lessons and stay in after classes until they
have learned a very simple rule of politics. Voters do not like to be taken
for mugs. They understand perfectly well that if a politician or a
politician's hit man seeks to discredit a journalist it is because he wants
the public to be fed only his version of events. Those who live by the spin
shall die by the spin.

War correspondents have been upsetting military commanders and their
political masters for a long time. As Phillip Knightly recounts in The First
Casualty, Lord Raglan blamed The Times and their correspondent, William
Howard Russell, for setbacks in the Crimea in 1854 and for costing him his
command. It did not deter Russell's successors from trying to find out as
much as they could and telling their stories. Simpson is a noble heir to
that tradition.

What we should all be worried about is not how to stop people such as him
doing their jobs; it is how to make sure that they keep doing it. American
politicians learned a nasty lesson from Vietnam. If you allow the cameras
and the correspondents to roam free they will send back reports that you may
not like. Television pictures of GI's setting fire to villages to save them,
or little girls running naked with their skin on fire from American napalm
may not have ended the war - the body bags did that - but they sure helped.

British politicians learned from that, too. That is why, when we go to war,
the military does its damndest to make sure that the pictures beamed home
are the pictures they want beamed. It is becoming increasingly difficult in
these days of hi-tec warfare for reporters to go where they want and report
what they want, but the generals make sure they don't go without pictures.
They just make sure it's their pictures.

The politicians approve. If a nation can be moved to compassion by endless
images of refugees, it can be moved to anger or despair by images of a
different sort. If the first casualty of war is the truth the second is a
political career when the war goes wrong.

Knightley reports a meeting in Washington soon after Pearl Harbour at which
American leaders were discussing what to tell the American people about the
progress of the war. "Tell them nothing till the war's over," growled one
general. "Then tell them who won."

It might - just might - be possible to justify that approach if the nation's
survival is at stake and you can get away with it. But in this case we have
still not even declared war on Yugoslavia, much less them on us, so the
first condition hardly applies. Nor - so long as there are brave reporters
like John Simpson prepared to risk their necks reporting from the enemy
camp - does the second.

 Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 1999

~~~~~~~~~~~~

>From wsws.org

WSWS : News & Analysis : Europe : The Balkan Crisis

US-NATO bombing of Yugoslavia: critical reports circulate on the Internet
By Chris Marsden
20 April 1999
A number of reports have appeared on the Internet critical of the campaign
by NATO and the media to demonise the Serbs. Below we summarise three of
these for the information of our readers. The WSWS is not able to confirm
the veracity of all the statements made by their authors, nor do we
necessarily endorse their political positions.


US media monitoring group expose Serbian rape-camp allegations from 1992

Stories of "rape camps", holding thousands of Muslim women, have played a
particularly emotive role in NATO's attempts to justify their bombardment of
Serbia. Such biased and selective allegations are not new. A report by the
North American News Analysis Group (NANAG) from 1992 chronicles how the mass
rape stories first emerged.

Their report, "Rapes in Yugoslavia: Separating facts from fiction", points
out that allegations of mass rape, "along with the stories of the same
calibre about 'death camps' have resulted in the emotional outcry driving
political demands for military action just to 'do something'...
Sensationalism, not fact, has driven political action on this issue."

NANAG begin their report with the outbreak of war in Bosnia Hercegovina in
April 1992, saying that for the first six months of the war there were no
allegations of the mass rape of Muslim women. Then, in November, reports
suddenly emerged "provided by such partial sources as government sources of
Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina". Figures "bounce all over the board,
60,000 to 10,000, casting full doubt on the validity of numbers or
reliability of sources".

Based on these reports, "and not a single substantiated report", European
Union (EU) leaders attending the December 1992 summit in Edinburgh passed a
declaration "condemning the allegations and authorising a delegation to
investigate, requiring that 'this delegation must be allowed free and secure
access to the places of detention in question' and calling upon the UN to
adopt measures to support this mission."

A letter from the Permanent Representatives of Belgium, France and the
United Kingdom, including a "Declaration on the treatment of Muslim women in
former Yugoslavia" (UN Document S/24960), was then submitted to the United
Nations, describing rape as "part of a deliberate strategy to terrorise the
Muslim community in Bosnia & Hercegovina..."

That month the UN passed a resolution condemning "the massive, organised and
systematic detention and rape of women, in particular Muslim women, in B&H
[Bosnia Hercegovina]."

NANAG reports that between December 18 and December 24, 1993 an EU
delegation headed by Dame Anne Warburton visited the Croatian capital,
Zagreb, to validate the stories. The delegation "had no direct contact with
the victims" and was "not permitted to visit any centres. Their information
came primarily from the Croatian government and some from international
organisations based in Geneva."

As a consequence, the EU delegation qualified its findings by noting "the
contrast between the extensive media coverage of the alleged rapes and the
lack of supporting documentary evidence in the possession of the
organisations concerned". Without any substantiation, it still maintained,
however, that a possible 20,000 women had been raped.

>From January 19-26, 1994 the delegation again went to Zagreb and to Bosnia
Hercegovina, where they met with leaders of the Catholic and Muslim
communities, field staff of the international agencies and representatives
of both Croatian and Bosnian governmental and non-governmental
organisations. There was no attempt to investigate the rape of Serbian
women.

In January 1994 the UN Commission on Human Rights sent a second commission
of inquiry to Croatia, Bosnia Hercegovina and Serbia under the Special
Rapporteur Tadeusz Mazowiecki. NANAG reports the UN findings that "Attempts
made to locate specific places where women were allegedly detained and raped
have proved unsuccessful to date. Information provided was often too
imprecise. In several cases alleged rape camps were found to be empty when
visited by ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] delegates."

Commenting further on the UN report, NANAG states, "The study based its
findings on actual documented evidence of rapes, assumed conservative
formulas of what percentage the documented cases represented of the actual
cases and concluded that, based on their evidence, approximately 2,400
women, Muslim, Serb and Croat, had been raped. This also is an estimate, but
the only estimate based on any evidence instead of hearsay. Interestingly
enough, it is a far cry from the original claims by the Governments of
Croatia and Bosnia & Hercegovina of 60,000 Muslim women raped."

The NANAG report cites the fact that, on January 29, the UN Secretary
General, Boutros Boutros Ghali, "issued a report on the findings of the
Commission of Experts investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia,
(A/48/858). In this report he cites that in the summer of 1993 the
'Commission of Experts sent a mission to Sarajevo... to conduct several
pilot studies, including one on rape, and to receive the documentation on
rape cases that the War Crimes Commission of Bosnia and Herzegovina had
promised in April'.

"In previous announcements the Bosnian Government had claimed that they had
in their possession files on 15,000 cases of rapes of Muslim women by Serb
men. However, the UN report continues, 'During the mission, the Commission
of Experts obtained from the War Crimes Commission all their information
identified as relating to this issue (listing 126 victims, 113 incidents,
252 alleged perpetrators, 73 witnesses and 100 documents).' Thus all of the
Bosnian Government information included only 126 cases of rape. This is a
far cry from the 15,000 to 60,000 claimed by the same Government."

NANAG concludes that, "To this date there has been no evidence or reliable
information accepted as legitimate by any international body that
substantiates either that rapes of Muslim women by Serb men were the only
cases of rape, that they were systematic, or that they were in the tens of
thousands as the international political and media communities have so
irresponsibly perpetrated."


German party circulates letter charging US and Germany with provoking war
against Serbia

The PDS (Partei des Demokratischen Sozialismus--Party of Democratic
Socialism) have published on their parliamentary website a statement
concerning the Balkan war from April 7, 1999 which is said to originate from
"an insider at the government's offices in Bonn, Germany."

It is claimed the letter was handed over to a Catholic priest by someone
wishing to remain anonymous, but who holds a "confidential and high
position". The author of the letter claims that German and US military units
are active on the ground in Kosovo as part of a continuing plan to
destabilise Yugoslavia.

"Their task is to mark targets. Furthermore NATO officers function as
communication commandos for the KLA. The necessary contacts were established
when the US and German officers abused their mission as OSCE observers
before the NATO attacks."

The letter's author says that the German government "knew from the very
beginning that no Yugoslav government could ever sign the occupation-dictate
as written in articles 6, 8 and 10, annex B of the Rambouillet papers. Both
understood clearly that this would mean the end of Yugoslavia as a sovereign
state. Therefore war was the only outcome possible. Experts of the Justice
Department doctored the lines that would give NATO the rights of a medieval
knight in the whole of Yugoslavia."

The CIA is said to have been covertly preparing for such a war in an
operation codenamed "Roots". Its aim was to break up Yugoslavia by
"disengaging Kosovo, Montenegro and the Vojvodina".

"Since the beginning of Clinton's presidency, the USA has worked closely
together with Germany under the codename 'Roots'," the letter states. "This
covert action is planned by the CIA and DIA, a joint office of the Pentagon
and the CIA supported by the German secret service, in order to destabilise
Yugoslavia, which is the last resisting force in the Balkans."

The objective of operation "Roots" is described as "the separation of Kosovo
by means of autonomy, independence or becoming part of Albania, the
separation of Montenegro as the last means of access to the Mediterranean
and the separation of the Vojvodina, which is the area for the majority of
Yugoslavia's food-supplies.

"This will lead to the total collapse of Yugoslavia as a viable independent
state. The trigger for this action is the fear of Germany and the USA that
Yugoslavia will ally itself with Russia and other former Soviet states the
moment that [Russian President] Yeltsin is replaced by Communist and
nationalist forces in the near future."

The CIA funded the KLA, the anonymous author writes, in order to prevent a
peaceful solution in Kosovo. "This organisation is based on the powers of
the Albanian Mafia, that still controls mountain villages in the border area
of Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania. Their source of income is drug
trafficking, smuggling, extortion etc, and the Codex of blood-revenge still
applies.

"Their weaponry was obtained during the civil war in Albania. Peaceful
settlement between Serbs and Albanians became difficult due to ambushes by
the KLA against Yugoslav police units. The civilian population was used as a
human shield.

"These actions were stepped up after a new meeting between [moderate
Albanian Kosovar leader] Rugova and Milosevic in 1998... In the same period
of time Montenegro received immense investments from European and American
companies in the tourist industry. So-called 'pro-western' private radio
stations were established and NATO-friendly politicians supported. This
resulted in the present situation that about half of the population supports
the NATO-friendly government.

"In the Vojvodina, the influence of the new NATO-member Hungary came into
play. Anti-Serb feelings amongst minority groups like Hungarians, Romanians
and Croatians were given voice by small radio stations at the border in an
attempt to raise resistance against Belgrade."


Role of US PR firm highlighted

An article on the Internet by Marie-Pierre Lahaye, entitled "Yugoslavia: How
demonising a whole people serves Western interests", notes the role of a US
public relations firm.

Lehaye writes that, "According to a US Department of Justice official
document, the Washington-based public relations agency Ruder-Finn served as
a media counsel for the Government of Bosnia-Herzegovina in order to
'facilitate a greater US leadership role in the Balkans... and to educate US
government officials, including Clinton Transition Team members and news
media reporters, editors and producers to the continuing tragedy taking
place in Bosnia.'"

Lehaye then explains that the same document acknowledges that Ruder-Finn
from November 1992 to May 1993 rendered the same type of service for the
province of Kosovo for a fee of $230,000, "consisting of a 'compilation of
background materials and dissemination of information regarding the brutal
Serbian repression of minorities in Kosovo.' This provides clear evidence
that a strategy of communications had been carefully planned by the ethnic
Albanians with the support of the US government at least five years before
the violence erupted in the province, specifically targeting opinion leaders
in order to manipulate the mass media against the Serbs."

See Also:

The NATO Attack on Yugoslavia
[WSWS Full Coverage]

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Readers: The WSWS invites your comments. Please send e-mail.

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World Socialist Web Site
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