Media: Keeping bad blood off the airwaves

The World Service keeps its balance in the Balkans by putting Albanian and Serb staff together.
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The Independent Culture
THE BALKANS have a long and distinguished history of many parts. Tolerance of violence and racial wrongs is not, however, one of them. Just consider the form of the blood feud. The Albanian blood feud is a process whose aim is not the punishment of a murderer, but satisfaction of the blood of the person murdered.

Mixed in with this is the relationship between the Albanians and the Serbians. The Serbians annexed the province of Kosovo in 1912. At that time, 90 per cent of the province's population, as now, were Albanian. The following year, the Serbians wrote out three justifications for its conquest of the province. The first of these was the sort of thing only the British Empire at its perfidious height has ever really felt it could get away with. It was, simply, the moral right of a more civilised people. Relations between the two sides have been especially sticky ever since.

And now the Kosovo Liberation Army is conducting a bloody war against the Serbs, who have responded in equally uncompromising fashion - by clearing out thousands of civilians from strategically important villages along the border with Albania. So trust the BBC to find a way around the troubled history, the blood feuds and the Balkan stereotypes.

Every day for the past month, the World Service's Serbian and Albanian staff have been working together. The Kosovo story has dominated both their bulletins for the past couple of weeks and, during that time, both have met on a daily basis to pool information, reports, and even some of the harrowing footage captured by their different correspondents on the ground. And this from two cultures who can't even agree on the spelling of the name of the place.

"It doesn't affect me or the Macedonians who share our office or, let's say, the Serbs working here in London, if you pronounce names a certain way," explains Julia Goga, head of the Albanian service. "But as far as our listeners go, that's another story. If one of my presenters referred to Kosovo, the Serbian name, rather than the Albanian version which is Kosova, that would be an extremely sensitive issue with our audience."

And an impressive audience it is too. Founded in 1993, the Albanian service is listened to, according to the official figures, by 53 per cent of all adults in Albania, making it far and away the largest medium in the country - and anecdotal evidence suggests that these figures go much higher at times of tension, adds Goga. That's a big responsibility - especially in times of real crisis, like now, when any information that is not completely accurate can only serve to inflame the situation.

The service usually broadcasts three times a day; it aims not to repeat material and employs three full-time correspondents in the Albanian capital, Tirana, and two in its Kosovan equivalent, Pristina. Since the crisis in Kosovo worsened, a fourth daily bulletin has been added.

The Serbian service claims a six per cent share of the vastly more competitive Serbian media and keeps just one full time correspondent in Pristina. It too is happy to work together with its rival service.

"Every day I meet up with Julia, or a couple of our senior producers, and we sum up what is going to be done by the correspondents in the field," explains Aleksa Zoric, the head of the BBC's Serbian Service. "But of course, this co-operation can be difficult in certain circumstances.

"The one fortunate thing is that, so far, we haven't ourselves had personal tragedies, and nor did we during the Bosnian war. I think it might have created an unacceptable level of tension if something had happened to someone's parents, say. The other thing is that the atmosphere of London is not the atmosphere of wherever we come from, and that also helps."

There is also, it seems, a legacy of co-operation that has built up among the services after their experiences over the last decade. Although the Serbian and Albanian newsrooms are located at a convenient distance within Bush House, that hasn't always been the case with the Balkan broadcasters.

The BBC split its Serbo-Croatian service, for example, into two parts just before hostilities started there in 1991. Throughout all that bitter fighting, through the early days when the Serbs were mercilessly lambasted as the bad guys, through the subsequent ethnic cleansing of Serbs from Croatia, the Serbian and Croatian services at the BBC were quite happily sharing the same office, imprisoned in the same rooms and yet speaking two languages that are only really as far apart as American and English.

All the same, the content of all the broadcasts is continually monitored for signs that nationalist fervour is taking the journalism into places it shouldn't, or that the agenda is being shaped by nationalistic expediency rather than news values.

"We are one BBC, so there has to be essentially one news core," explains Andrew Taussig who, as the director responsible for regions, oversees all the Balkan coverage.

"Which doesn't mean that the Serbian and Albanian service have to run exactly the same bulletin, but which does mean that they both have the same framework, which takes into account the overall BBC view and yet which is sensitive to local needs. It is one of our biggest challenges."

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