The BBC’s Political Editor Responds

Our media alert, “New Chairman Confirms the BBC as a Mouthpiece for Establishment Views” (October 3, 2001), provoked a response from the BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr. This is Mr Marr’s response (October 7, 2001) followed by the reply from Media Lens:

Dear David Cromwell

thank you. It is very easy, an old game, to caricature someone’s views with brutally selective quotation. I was concerned enough about what you said I had said to go back and look up the article in which you allege I said the Serbs were beasts, etc.

Well, surprise, surprise, I didn’t say that – as you must know perfectly well. And the ‘like an alien race’ comment was in the context of describing the division that has occured between the post- war consciousness of nuclear-protected Western society and others, for whom the old raw excitements and sacrifices of war remain – like the Serbs in Kosovo AND, I said, the KLA. I was attacking a policy of bombing civilians and poisoning water supplies from ‘15,000 feet’, rather than threatening to push out Milosevic with the more dangerous option of ground troops. (As, you fail to note, then happened, leading to the Serb withdrawal and Milosevic’s fall, neither of them, I assume events that you welcome.)

But I don’t really know why I am bothering to say all this. You must have read the original. You must therefore know what a deliberate and cynical distortion of the original article you have published. I’m afraid I think it is just pernicious and anti-journalistic. I note that you advertise an organisation called Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting so I guess at least you have a sense of humour. But I don’t think I will bother with ‘Media Lens’ next time, if you don’t mind.

Andrew Marr

Reply to Andrew Marr from Media Lens:

October 13, 2001

Dear Andrew Marr,

Thank you for your prompt response to our media alert of October 3. We appreciate you responding to our serious concerns. Our intention is to promote honest and rational debate; not to make personal attacks on you or anyone else.

You say that you did not use the word “beasts” in describing the Serbian people. Here is the paragraph in full from which we quoted you, as it appears on the Guardian Unlimited website at:,4273,3857957,00.html

“The Cold War, in short, could also have been called the Cold Peace. It was a time of stability – terrifying stability. When it ended we found ourselves in a new world, a place of reassuring instability, where the prospect of a final, crashing Armageddon seemed much less, but where, nevertheless, local conflicts could ignite more easily. After the permafrost, the beasts. We are not well-prepared for this. The idea that our people should go and die in large numbers appals us. Killing our enemies appals us too. The war-hardened people of Serbia, far more callous, seemingly readier to die, are like an alien race. So, for that matter, are the KLA.”

You wrote “after the permafrost, the beasts”, and then immediately introduced the Serbs whom you described as: “war-hardened… far more callous, seemingly readier to die … like an alien race.” If you were not describing the Serbs as “beasts”, to whom were you referring? Including the KLA as callous beasts only added to your harsh judgement of the Serbs as a people. Such demonisation of groups targeted as “the enemy” by our government has, sadly, been standard practice in establishment-friendly reporting since WWI and earlier. As an admirer of Orwell’s writing, you are doubtless aware of this.,4273,4266289,00.html.)

There was no mention in your article of the many victims of “nuclear- protected western society”: the millions killed in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos or in Central and Latin America, Iraq, Indonesia, East Timor and elsewhere. These victims make a nonsense of any notion of a “feminised” west and the “far more callous” beasts.

You say that you were “attacking a policy of bombing civilians and poisoning water supplies from ‘15,000 feet’, rather than threatening to push out Milosevic with the more dangerous option of ground troops.” Nowhere in your article did you accuse Nato of “poisoning water supplies from ‘15,000 feet'” – a truly shocking claim. Instead you lamented “attacking TV stations and civilian water supplies” and warned of what might happen were the Danube to be poisoned by the effects of war – not the same thing.

You did describe the attacking of civilian targets as “decadent” – a curious word to describe what were, in fact, war crimes. Presumably you would not describe Milosevic’s crimes in Kosovo as “decadent”. Your article addressed your concerns that NATO victory might not be achieved by air power alone. But what about the welfare of civilians, who would have suffered far more had your advice on launching a ground war been taken?

Your claim that you were primarily concerned with the welfare of civilians is further undermined by your point that, “Nato could yet win the war and yet fail in its most important, undeclared war aim, which is to stay together and alive as the world’s most potent military alliance.” You added: “whether this happens or not – and on balance I’m more optimistic…”, suggesting that you shared Nato’s view that the war’s most important – and undeclared – aim was to preserve NATO as “the world’s most potent military alliance”. Any “humanitarian” intent, then was presumably secondary. In fact, we would argue that it was non-existent, or almost so. [See, for example, Noam Chomsky’s “The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo” (Pluto Press, London, 1999).]

Finally, we reject your presumption that we did not “welcome” the withdrawal of Serbs from Kosovo or the fall of Milosevic. However, to present these events as retrospective justification for NATO’s war crimes is crass. As Robert Fisk of The Independent concluded in the wake of the bombing:

“Nato’s bombing brought a kind of peace to Kosovo – but only after it had given the Serbs the opportunity to massacre or dispossess half the Albanian population of the province, caused billions of dollars in damage to Yugoslavia’s infrastructure, killed hundreds of Yugoslav civilians, destabilised Macedonia and gravely damaged relations with China. And the media called this a successful war.”  [The Independent, 29 June, 1999].

There are other aspects of your article, and mainstream reporting of the Balkans war, that we do not have space to address fully here: such as the nature of NATO’s accept-or-be-bombed proposal, i.e. an ultimatum, to the Serbs in March 1999. Or the relative timing of NATO bombing and refugee flows: the west’s leaders told us that the bombing was taken in “response” to expulsions of Kosovar Albanians and to “reverse” the flow. But there was scant mention anywhere in the mainstream media that the NATO bombing actually +precipitated+ a huge flood of refugees, creating conditions that allowed Serbian atrocities actually to escalate.

The aim of our media alert of October 3 was to show how the media – in particular, the BBC – act as an establishment mouthpiece. Accusing those who opposed NATO bombing of not welcoming the removal of Milosevic is an irrational and lamentable response.

David Edwards and David Cromwell, Media Lens