The infantile nonsense of the Downing Street `lie machine'

He sneers at journalists for not being courageous enough, ignoring that three were killed by Nato
Click to follow
ALASTAIR CAMPBELL, the prime minister's official spokesman, has delivered a talk to the Royal United Services Institute in London which proves that Joseph Heller was a factual reporter, Catch-22 a work of history, and Doctor Strangelove a documentary. It came complete with historical inaccuracy, Big Brother language - he introduced us to the "Serb Lie Machine" - and a few little lies of his own.

"A stray [Nato] bomb that created a hole in a road was news around the world, because the Serbs took the cameras there," he complained. No mention, of course, of all the civilian bodies splattered around the hole. The press had paid more attention to the "relatively small" (sic) number of Nato errors than to the savagery visited upon the Albanians, and had exercised "moral equivalence" between "ethnic cleansing and a stray bomb that accidentally killed civilians". And there were smears about journalists in Belgrade.

I'm not sure, having read Campbell's text whether there's any point in highlighting the sloppy errors. If Kosovo was "the worst barbarism since the Second World War", for example, what on earth does Campbell think the genocide of Cambodians (more than a million dead) was? Or the genocide in Rwanda (at least a million and a half dead)?

But let's kick off with his suggestion that Western reporters taught Milosevic how to run the "Lie Machine." Now I'm in a position to clarify this for Mr Campbell. I watched the Serbian authorities work on their "machine". And this is how it happened. From the very first Nato press conferences run by James Shea, Yugoslav army officers in contact with journalists watched every performance on satellite television. And a few days' later - by which time they'd been able to see Campbell's own improvements to the Nato briefings - the Yugoslav army called a press conference in the Belgrade officers club that was a picture image of Shea's briefings.

There was a big screen full of pictures of Nato air strikes, a clutch of military flags to mirror the 19 Nato flags on display in Brussels, a dutiful dipping of lights at the start, and even a nerd general to pontificate about Yugoslavia's military "successes", an exact replica of the pompous generals and air commodores in Brussels who managed to conceal the fact that they had destroyed a grand total of 13 tanks in more than seven weeks of bombing. The Serbs achieved the unachievable: their press briefings were even more awful than Nato's. But they got their inspiration from two men: James Shea and Alastair Campbell.

But back to that speech. There's an odd reference in it to a "US journalist" (unnamed of course) telling Campbell that "there did develop an unhealthy relationship between some Western journalists and Serb spokesmen." Now I wonder what that word "unhealthy" means? Did Campbell pick this up at school, when the word usually referred to homosexuals? Or did he mean that reporters were sleeping with female Serb officials? To my own knowledge they weren't. But correspondents have dated Western government officials, and married them - so obviously that's not what Campbell means by unhealthy.

Then we have Campbell's sneering remarks about how few journalists bothered to try to get into Kosovo, to tell the story of ethnic cleansing; how many journalists were led by the nose by the Serbs. Really? When I read this absurdity, I went to the front page of The Independent of 17 April where I reported - on a trip organised by the Serbs - on one of those little Nato accidents, the massacre of 74 Kosovo refugees outside Prizren.

And I find this: "The Serbs are ethnically cleansing Kosovo. It is a war crime. If Nato massacred the 74 Albanians, the Serbs have killed many more. On Thursday, I saw four buses in Kosovo packed with terrified Albanian women and children and old men, black curtains at the windows of the buses in an attempt to hide their presence. And at a square in the otherwise deserted town of Pozeranje, near Orosevac, I passed at least 200 pathetic Kosovo Albanians, exhausted, frightened, carrying plastic bags of clothes and battered holdalls... all were standing tightly together for protection, like animals... I thought of other scenes, in Eastern Europe just over half a century ago... it was a wickedness I saw, the very moment of evil..."

And yet Campbell has the temerity to claim that the media created a "moral equivalence between ethnic cleansing and a stray bomb that accidentally killed civilians". He sneers at journalists for not being courageous enough in Yugoslavia, ignoring the fact that three of them - Chinese journalists, so perhaps they don't count - were killed by Nato missiles in Belgrade, that a German reporter was murdered by Serb paramilitaries near Mitrovica, and that a Times correspondent, and at least one other reporter, were wounded in Kosovo by - again - Nato bombs, and that an Israeli journalist was wounded by KLA gunmen (Nato's allies).

Instead, he blathers on about the accuracy of Nato bombing (which killed around 1,500 civilians, but only half as many Serb soldiers and policemen) and praises General Sir Charles Guthrie who says: "History will judge (the air bombardment) for its precision." This statement would be laughable were it not for Campbell's remarks about "moral equivalence". His argument, of course, is that you cannot compare Nato's errors with Serb wickedness. Too true. But the moral flaw in this argument is that it sees death only through the eyes of the perpetrator, rather than the victim.

Death does not come less painfully, less savagely, more palatably from an American cluster bomb than a Serb rocket-propelled grenade. The innocent dead of Nato's air raids are important because it is we - the civilised West - who killed them. We should be better than the Serbs. But we were killing far too many civilians because our pilots - whose lives must be inviolate - were ordered to fly so high that they couldn't tell the difference between a tractor and a tank, a hospital or a barracks.

But is there, I ask myself, any point in reminding Mr Campbell of all this? His remarks were not intended to elicit the truth. They were clearly intended to inhibit the reporting of the truth. The speech should have a health warning attached to it. But this is not the real problem for me. The real problem is that this infantile nonsense - with its smutty schoolboy innuendoes and distortions - came from the official spokesman of the British prime minister.