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The Critics: Radio: The World Service did itself proud

There is a pleasant little sentence, most often heard at various points during PM, the early evening news magazine on Radio 4: "... and if you've just joined us, here are the main points of the news again." The sentiment - to bring people up to date, to keep them as fully informed as possible - is something that should have a wider remit when it comes to news programmes - in all media, never mind the radio. It is one that would have been particularly useful during the recent war over Kosovo.

We are not really up to speed with the events in that neck of the woods; we allow them to wash over us like a kind of foul-smelling shower, trusting largely (but only largely, and contingently) to the wisdom of our leaders in the course of action they have taken. We mutter about "ancient ethnic hatreds", repeating platitudes first spoken by John Major, and hope we can leave it at that, relying on only our sense of decency and outrage at the fate of the Kosovo Albanians to propel us along the road Clinton and Blair wish to follow. It is dismaying to hear even nice and intelligent Serbs claim that all we hear about the Serb/Albanian conflict is "propaganda" - but you can see how they might think it is. (One reason being that they have heard nothing but propaganda about Kosovo for about 100 years solid, and even for 500 years before that, too.) But they confuse the BBC's polite and tacit understanding of our own lack of patience and intelligence with a malign intention to mislead.

Which is why the World Service's series Kosovo: the Seeds of Conflict is so important. It is important in what it says, how it says it, and (although I recognise that this might represent a tragicomically skewed sense of priorities) it is important that it is the World Service that is saying it, and not, say, Radio 4.

This programme, which tomorrow will deal with the rise of Milosevic, the breakdown of communism and the mess we are now in, is essential listening. It has been a particularly good grounding in the history of the region - especially considering each programme has only half an hour in which to tell us.

Now the World Service has a duty above all other departments of the BBC to impartiality and clarity; but even with impartiality the case does not look good for the Serbs. Here was a report given to the Carnegie Endowment in 1912 after the first Balkan War, which finally ended 500-odd years of Ottoman rule in Europe:

"Houses and whole villages were reduced to ashes; unarmed and innocent populations massacred en masse; incredible acts of violence, pillage and brutality of every kind; such were the means which were employed by the Serbo-Montenegrin soldiery with a view to the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions inhabited exclusively by Albanians. Since the population of the countries about to be occupied knew by tradition, instinct and experience what they had to expect from the armies of the enemy and the neighbouring countries to which these countries belonged, they did not await their arrival, but fled." Which didn't do them much good when the Serb soldiery met the columns of refugees.

The reason for this was that the Albanian population of Kosovo had, from 1389 on, realised which side their bread was buttered on, and conformed to the relatively benign regime of the Ottomans in return for peace and preferment. By the end of the 19th century a few crackpot nationalists, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, began to whip up a fervour of nationalistic sentiment among Serbs, a sense of lonely destiny, betrayal, and persecution that in its infantilism (Serbian mothers would sing songs about Kosovo to their children; imagine your mother singing songs about Agincourt to you now, but endowing the name with the potency of Waterloo multiplied by about 1,000, to get an idea of how crazy and yet powerful this would be) leads us more into the realms of psychoanalysis than political history.

Twice this century the Kosovans had the jackboot lifted from their necks: once, unfortunately, when the Germans and Italians partitioned the area in 1941 it was seen as a liberation. In 1974 Tito amended the Yugoslav constitution to make life easier for the Kosovans. (It helps to think of them as like the Scots or Welsh: a clan-based people in a mountainous district, suspicious of their neighbours' and rulers' claims to a larger, nation-state loyalty. As one commentator on the programme said, calling yourself British when you are Scottish is not the same as doing so when you are English.) But each time the Serbs - or the paranoid-schizophrenic nationalist tendency - thought this was part of the ratchet effect of history; further evidence that everyone hated the Serbs and wanted to wipe them off the map. (The phrase "self-fulfilling prophecy" springs awfully to mind.)

You see? That wasn't so difficult. All this you can learn from the wretchedly underfunded World Service. It is superb: an example of a radio programme doing its job properly, and not giving a damn about flashy effects. It has the ring of truth, not the stink of propaganda. And, if you pay attention, it makes the prospects for a lasting peace in the region look horribly unlikely, if not utterly impossible.