Campbell attacks media over Kosovo

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THE PRIME Minister's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, launched a fierce attack on the media yesterday over coverage of the Kosovo war, saying it gave too much credence to the "Milosevic lie machine".

In a thinly veiled personal attack on journalists reporting from Belgrade, he said he had been told they "had an unhealthy relationship" with the Serbian regime.

Mr Campbell's comments were rejected by journalists and opposition politicians. They said he was attempting to impose the same kind of spin, control and stifling of debate on the conduct of the war that Labour's own backbenchers accuse him of practising on domestic politics.

In a rare public speech, Mr Campbell was especially critical of the media reporting of Nato bombing blunders that killed civilians and downgraded the success of the air strikes. He said this often put the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and the Secretary of State for Defence, George Robertson, on a par with Serbs guilty of "ethnic cleansing" and other atrocities.

He also attacked criticism of Nato spokesman Jamie Shea. "Jamie, a genuinely nice man, was shocked to be on the receiving end of so much snidery and criticism, much of it I believe born out of snobbery, the view that men who talk about war should have accents more at home in Sandhurst than Shoreditch."

Mr Campbell said it was "striking" how few journalists managed to reach Kosovo to find out about atrocities, and how few tried. "The day of the daredevil reporter who refuses to see obstacles to getting the truth, and seeing it with his or her own eyes, seems to have died. Surely the starvation of pictures and the denial of access by the Serbs increased rather than lessened the responsibility of the media to try to find out what was happening there."

BBC journalist John Simpson, singled out in the past for criticism in off the record briefings, hit back last night. He said: "It looks to me as if Alastair Campbell is trying to put up a smokescreen for the failures of spin doctoring."

He said this was partly to hide the fact that Nato's bombing campaign had not been as successful as the Alliance had been claiming, adding: "The suggestion that this should have been swept aside is not a very impressive one."

The head of Sky News, Nick Pollard, said: "It is unrealistic to ask that journalists who have to find their way through a daily smokescreen of spin and obfuscation should suddenly say we accept what they say at face value and report it as fact. That is the product of 25 years of high-quality spin-doctoring on both sides of the Atlantic."