Media: Inside the Serb machine

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The Independent Culture
Eleven years ago I got the call to work for Milosevic's propaganda machine. TV Serbia, the slate grey "bastille" as the Belgraders call the Soviet-style edifice in the middle of the capital.

Why me? There weren't many other candidates. In the still united Yugoslavia of those days resident Western reporters were few and far between. Most of my colleagues in the International Press Centre were portly middle- aged men in raincoats from the Communist bloc.

Slobodan Milosevic's new regime in Serbia, now a year in the saddle, decided it wanted a more "Western image". The Serbian Communists felt they were losing the propaganda war with their comrades in Croatia and Slovenia, who were always comparing their Western and "international" aspirations with what they called "Byzantine" Serbia.

There was another factor: Kosovo. Milosevic was planning big changes in Serbia's southern province, starting with the removal of the Albanian leaders and ending with the scrapping of Kosovo's autonomy. Why not show that Serbia was cosmopolitan and international, too, by starting a news programme in English?

And so Vesti na Engleskom (The News in English) was born, and with my public-school vowels I was the perfect man to read the script. I had some qualms about the idea but not many. As a new freelance in Belgrade no one in London was very interested in my stories in the autumn of 1988. My efforts to explain the logistics of the threat to Kosovo's autonomy down a crackling line to The Independent's newsroom failed to excite the editor at the other end of the line. Meanwhile TV Serbia, in the days before Milosevic bankrupted the place, was offering me hard cash. I did feel uncomfortable with the note of blatant chauvinism creeping into the Serbian news programmes about Albanians. But Milosevic's officials were loudly insisting all they wanted was "justice" for Kosovar Serbs and equality between Serbs and Albanians in the province.

We tried filming the first programme live, BBC-style, with me standing in front of the Skupstina, the Belgrade parliament, shouting into the wind. But the camera was so wobbly and I was so nervous that the result was awful, so we decided to do it TV Serbia style, pre-recording the news in the studio and using dull pictures of official buildings on the screen. That was how they did it on the main news programme at 7.30pm; stories from Croatia showed a grainy shot of a park in Zagreb, stories from Macedonia showed a red-brown building that may have been a parliament and stories from Kosovo showed a fuzzy block of flats.

In spite of that, Vesti na Engleskom turned into a real hit, and when I travelled round Serbia people were always delighted to find out I was the presenter. The big joke was whether they preferred my English English or the American twang of my colleague, Michael.

The problems soon began. It was no dilemma reading out a script written by "Booky", as we nicknamed Mr Bukvic, the producer, and of course I took it as read that he was a member of Milosevic's League of Communists of Serbia. Management of the news had always been one of Milosevic's top priorities.

Back in 1987, when he staged his internal coup in the party, brutally overthrowing his mentor Ivan Stambolic, it was Milosevic's crucial understanding of the importance of the media that had ensured his triumph. He owed his rise from bureaucratic non-entity to popular hero to a single well chosen remark in front of the TV camera in April of that year. Striding through a crowd of Serbian demonstrators in Kosovo he turned to the camera and shouted "no one has the right to beat you", so breaking the old Communist taboo against making unscheduled populist statements.

So I knew the score. I even took it in good part when Booky's official translator, an old lady with enormous spectacles, translated the script into terrible English and made me read out twisted, ungrammatical phrases. Playing around with the party line was unthinkable, and even my protestations that they ought to trust my understanding of English fell on deaf ears. But by the end of 1988 the atmosphere frayed. More and more often we were arguing about the wording just before we trooped off to the studio. I felt like Lord Haw Haw, droning on in a public school voice about "Albanian nationalists and separatists" (they weren't yet called terrorists) - the stock party line for any politician in Kosovo opposing the changes Milosevic was steamrollering through.

But at least Booky was an old commy of the Tito vintage. True, he was sympathetic to the Milosevic line. But he believed that the new Serbian nationalism did not pose a fundamental threat to old Titoist Yugoslavia, or to the old Titoist slogan of "bratstvo i jedinstvo" - "brotherhood and unity" between Yugoslavia's many nations. He liked the new slogan, that a strong Serbia would create a strong Yugoslavia.

But when Booky faded out of the picture he was replaced by one of the new nationalist fanatics who seemed to be taking over everywhere, superficially groovy, jean-clad youths who loved to gass on about rock bands, football and "chicks", but whose faces became distorted with rage if the conversation strayed off those tried and trusted topics to the rights of Albanians in Kosovo or Croatian secessionism. After a brief discussion about our Kosovo coverage ended with my new producer screaming at me in the TV Serbia bar I knew it was time to leave.

And my departure was timely. Soon the police were shooting over the heads of, and then at, Albanian demonstrators. It was no time to be sitting in a studio in Belgrade talking in wooden phrases about "Albanian nationalists and separatists". I hurried down to Pristina. There were gun battles going on in the streets of the Kosovo capital and Yugoslav tanks churning through the boulevards. This time The Independent did want the news.