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WAR IN THE BALKANS: BBC war coverage attacked by Blair

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TONY BLAIR attacked the BBC and CNN yesterday, accusing them of "refugee fatigue" and of focusing on Nato's mistakes while ignoring the plight of ethnic Albanians left in Kosovo.

In his annual speech to the Newspaper Society, he said broadcasters had allowed themselves to be manipulated by Serbia's control of where they could take pictures. "Refugee fatigue may have set in with some TV stations, but it will not set in with me until the refugees are home."

The Prime Minister quoted an unnamed television reporter in Macedonia who had acknowledged that "refugee fatigue" was setting in among his news editors.

"In other words, once you've reported one mass rape, the next one's not so newsworthy. Seen one mass grave, you've seen the lot. This is a dangerous path, and it is one that benefits the Serbs," Mr Blair said.

He said the media had to resist the idea that unless something was captured on film, it was not news. "If reporters are only allowed to see what the Serbs want and if their reports are censored, it is very hard ... to be genuinely authoritative. If a bomb goes astray and hits a residential area, or the Chinese embassy is mistakenly attacked, then I'm not going to pretend that is not news. It is.

"But are these tens of thousands of lives inside Kosovo worth less because there happens to be no film of them? Are they non-people not worth a studio discussion simply because CNN and the BBC and the rest cannot get in on the ground?"

He said accidents such as the bombing of the Chinese embassy ought not to be allowed to obscure what was happening in Kosovo, where Serb forces were engaged in a "deliberate, systematic and evil" campaign of "ethnic cleansing".

The Prime Minister was accused of "shooting the messenger" by George Galloway, one of a group of left-wing Labour MPs who led a delegation to the Chinese embassy in London in protest at the bombing. "It is absurd to focus on the messenger when the message is so profound," he said.

The BBC said no news organisation had any reporters in Kosovo: "Every night we have people coming across the border and telling their stories," said a BBC News spokesman. "They speak of `ethnic cleansing' and genocide ... and we have been telling their stories for the duration of the bombing." A CNN spokesman said: "Not a single day has gone by without hours of reporting, discussion and analysis of the plight of the refugees."

This is the second government attack on BBC coverage of the war. Its world affairs editor, John Simpson, was accused of being pro-Serbian in broadcasts from Belgrade. He reacted angrily to suggestions that his reports did not carry a "health warning" that they were monitored by Serbian information ministry.

Mr Blair's broadside is a mark of government frustration at Nato's failure to win the propaganda war. Despite spin-doctors being seconded to Nato headquarters from the British government, Serbia's willingness to provide pictures of every off-target bomb site has proved difficult to counter.