Assault on the Serbs: Official media machine hits no resistance

The Propaganda War
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The Independent Online
IF MANY doubt the long-term wisdom and effect of the Nato bombing campaign in Yugoslavia, few would question the skill with which the British Government is handling the propaganda war.

Confirmation of that came in several newspaper opinion polls yesterday which show that the majority - around two-thirds - of the British public support the campaign of air-strikes despite equal numbers of them not believing that it will achieve the stated intention of ending Serb repression of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. But insofar as persuading the population to endorse a difficult course of action in a complex crisis, the Government's message - first delivered by Tony Blair in a televised address to the nation last Friday - seems to be getting through.

Simply stated, it is that we can either act or do nothing, but that doing nothing leads to acts of "genocide", "murder" and "barbarity" (to use the words favoured most by Defence Secretary George Robertson in his daily MoD briefings) against an innocent, helpless people.

"Do nothing," said Mr Blair in his address, "and Milosevic will feel free to do as he likes with the civilian population.These poor defenceless people are begging us to show strength and determination."

Instead of taxing British minds with the complexities of the crisis, the Government is instead pushing the moral aspect. In briefing after briefing, it is stressed that allied planes are acting to avert potentially the biggest humanitarian catastrophe on European soil since the Second World War.

Six months ago the Foreign Office was unsure whether to call the Kosovo Liberation Army "terrorists" or "freedom fighters"; Tony Blair is in no doubt. "We are doing what is right," he said, "for Britain, for Europe, for a world that must know that barbarity cannot be allowed to defeat justice." Jamie Shea, Nato's spokesman, picked up the baton at a press conference yesterday saying: "Our cause is just." But Nato is not acting against malevolence in a generalised sense, but evil in a highly personalised form."

The Sun has already gladly pilloried Milosevic as the "Butcher of Serbia" and as "Drunk Slobba", a paranoid, manic depressive "who gets through two bottles of spirits a day while sitting alone in the dark".

In the same way that the Gulf War and its aftermath was about Saddam Hussein, so Mr Blair, Mr Robertson and Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, have used sorting out Milosevic as a shorthand for solving the Balkans conflict. Hints that the SAS may be on stand-by in the region to snatch war criminals were also subtly dropped over the weekend. On Saturday, the MoD told the media that it was closely monitoring atrocities in Kosovo and compiling dossiers that would be handed to the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.

It also stressed British forces' role in capturing war criminals in Bosnia. Tucked at the back of a briefing pack was a page of newspaper headlines on the subject, the most prominent of which was: "SAS grab war crimes suspect".

Then at yesterday's briefing, General Sir Charles Guthrie, Chief of the Defence Staff, said unprompted: "As well you know, it is UK policy never to confirm or deny SAS and Special Force operations." The media can make what we will of that.