in my view

Spinning war lies


TURN ON the TV or pick up a newspaper and you're hit by a barrage of propaganda about how each bomb in Yugoslavia is absolutely justified. Of course we are told that this is not NATO propaganda. But every day in the Cabinet Office's secret Cobra Room, officials from government departments meet to decide what message New Labour wants to put out about the war. Defence secretary George Robertson says, "The Serbs tell lies about us. We will go on telling the truth about them"—except some of those truths just don't stand up to investigation.

Take the five prominent Kosovan Albanian leaders who NATO said had been executed. David Wilby, Britain's air commodore, solemnly told a news conference on 29 March that reliable sources confirmed they had been put to death the previous day after attending a funeral. Pretty specific, you might think. But just two days later US diplomatic sources admitted, "We believe they are still alive."

Then there was NATO's claim last week that Serbs had blown some houses and a cemetery in Pristina to pieces. But NATO was forced to admit it had dropped the bombs and the damage was entirely its fault. Again, Robin Cook reported on the radio that Serbs had executed 20 teachers and the headmaster of a school in front of their pupils in the village of Goden. But the village of Goden only has a population of 200. It doesn't have a school large enough to have 20 teachers.

No one knows what is going on inside Yugoslavia at the moment. Yet Cook, Robertson and the generals are eager to seize on any story of killings with no attempt to check the sources. They are desperate to find any justification for the bombing. Our old friend David Wilby was hauled out on Saturday to explain why one of three bombs hit a residential area in Pristina instead of the "military target" of a telephone exchange. Wilby said, "One bomb appeared to be seduced off the target at the final stages." Wilby said he regretted any "collateral damage" caused by the wayward lustful bomb. That is military propaganda-speak for ordinary people who are now lying dead or wounded.

Alex Thompson, who is the chief correspondent and presenter of Channel 4 News, is author of a book about propaganda and war called Smokescreen: the Media, the Censors, the Gulf. He notes that it is rare to hear a report from NATO or the Ministry of Defence being prefaced with, "None of the claims from the briefers can be independently verified." We are meant to accept what they say as undisputed fact. Yet time and again journalists in Serbia emphasise that they are reporting under government restrictions and refer to "alleged deaths" of civilians as if no one is being hurt by NATO's bombs.

Thompson warns that "all the signs are this war will intensify. If it comes to NATO soldiers in bodybags, the gloves used to try and punch the media into shape will really come off." Just two years into New Labour's first term of open government and ethical foreign policy, they are spinning the media to excuse away the mounting numbers of refugees and the dying.