The Media coverage of Nato’s war on Yugoslavia — and the response of the ‘Left’

by David Ayrton

The aim of this article is to show the reader the reactionary nature of the reporting on the war, and the way in which the ‘Left’ has proved to be incapable of charting a truly independent course from what is, essentially, the propaganda machine of the British capitalist class. With very few honourable exceptions, the ‘Left’ repeated chunks of the propaganda that the CIA and MI6 had fed through the various press agencies and briefings, on behalf of the imperialist bourgeoisie.

Among the few taking a thoroughly principled stand was Arthur Scargill, General Secretary of the SLP, who was fast off the mark on Wednesday 24


March in declaring that the SLP

“condemned the unlawful and immoral bombing of Yugoslavia”


“Neither NATO, Britain or the United States has any right to interfere in the internal affairs of Yugoslavia.”

Many of those who call themselves socialists were not so principled. Typical of such bourgeois left was the position adopted by the Trotskyist ‘Workers’ Power’ group: their monthly paper declared that

“Peace talks give Serbs green light for offensive against KLA”

and called upon the NATO powers to arm the misnamed Kosova Liberation Army (KLA)


. They were not, of course, to be disappointed! While

The Guardian

editorial of April 1


called upon NATO to:

“Bomb, negotiate – and plan for war on the ground”

in order to ‘Rescue the Kosovars’


, the former Trotskyist, and now ‘respectable’ bourgeois journalist, Tariq Ali opposed the bombing. Ali, however, was not antagonistic to a solution to appeasing the interests of the imperialist bourgeoisie.

“The long term future of the region should be decided by a new Congress of Berlin, under the auspices of the UN Security Council and chaired by the secretary-general”

, he argued.

“This could, if the EU and the US are willing, establish a stable basis for the region by setting up a new programme for reconstruction for all those who sign a comprehensive peace treaty, including the Kosovars, who must, within the new framework, be permitted their independence.”


While self-styled leftists like the Workers’ Power group and Redgrave’s Marxist Party continued to wax lyrical in support of the KLA, the KLA leadership remained ‘supportive of the Nato bombing campaign’. In fact it should be noted that the so-called Marxist Party did take their position to its logical conclusion with Redgrave giving explicit support to the NATO bombing. The KLA, so beloved of the British ‘left’, went so far as to boast

“We are practically part of Nato now”,

a fact recognised by the bourgeois


which observed that

“the KLA now seems the West’s best alternative to putting in ground troops…”



The SWP in Coventry distributed a leaflet which argued that

the “While we condemn President Milosevic’s dirty war in Kosovo, the bombing of Serbia will not stop the suffering of Albanians in Kosovo”

. But surely anyone with any sense would realise that to blame the conflict in Yugoslavia on the criminality and deviousness of Slobodan Milosevic falls into a propaganda trap laid by the capitalist media; it is to forget that the main enemy of working people internationally is imperialism.

Gary Wilson pointed out in the

Morning Star

of Tuesday 13 April 1999:


imperialism’s tactic in Yugoslavia

“is the old tactic of divide and rule – break Yugoslavia up into ever smaller pieces, keeping them weak and fighting each other, so no state is strong enough to resist the empire.”

The KLA was created, nurtured, trained and provisioned by imperialism to be its ideal tool for promoting this policy. As Wilson pointed out

“The KLA has made it clear that its goal is an ethnically pure, Albanian only Kosovo”


. Such words now appear prophetic as the French troops watch while Serbian homes are looted and

The Observer

recognises that the top levels of the KLA have been involved in a

“continuing campaign of beatings, murders and abductions”


. This should, however, have come as no surprise. Indeed,

The Observer

’s sister paper,

The Guardian

, had reported as early as May 14


that the KLA had just appointed Agim Ceku as its new Chief of Staff. Ceku was decorated nine times for his services to the Croatian army. These included Operation Storm in which the Croat nationalist forces (who draw inspiration from the fascist Ustashe government, which operated as an ally of the Nazis against the Yugoslav partisans in W.W.II.) drove the Serbs — all 200,000 them — out of the Krajina region of eastern Croatia in 1995


. Ceku, along with his KLA cohorts, is now up to his old fascistic tricks in Kosovo.

Many liberals, including those of a left-wing persuasion, continued to prefer to believe NATO’s version of events, rather than those put out by the ‘Milosevic dictatorship’, as the bombing campaign intensified. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the slaughter of 69 members of an ethnic-Albanian refugee column on April 15


the shameless lies of the NATO spokesman, Jamie Shea, became more and more patent. First it was claimed the Yugoslavian accusation that NATO planes had committed this callous act were untrue and that the Serbs had carried out the atrocity. Then the story was changed and it was claimed the deaths were inflicted after all by NATO bombers but this was ‘justified’ by the fact that one of the columns upon which a missile had been fired was thought by the pilot responsible to include military vehicles. Shea even went so far as to say that “

When the pilot attacked they were military vehicles. If they turned out to be tractors, that is a different issue.”


. Then NATO produced a tape of a pilot explaining his actions in a debriefing session, but it was later admitted that the pilot that the world had heard had not even taken part in the mission in question. This and other callous acts committed against Yugoslavian civilians were not accidents at all. They were part of a conscious policy on the part of NATO to make the Yugoslavian population bend the knee. They hoped that they would seek to appoint a government that would comply with the aims of the major imperialist powers, in both economic and political matters. The only mistake on this occasion, as in the later atrocity on May 15


at Korisa, was that the civilians killed were Albanians, rather than Serbs – the intended victims.

Faced with such embarrassing evidence of NATO lies,

The Observer

was forced to admit that

“The best evidence that has been made available has been presented by the Serbs in TV footage, reports by the state-run news agency and via escorted visits of journalists to a total of six cites allegedly attacked.”


But NATO had already taken measures to seek to ensure that the Yugoslav media could not give information to the world. On April 24


they bombed the Belgrade headquarters of Yugoslav television, killing 15 workers, including a 17 year-old make-up artist. This was a


attack upon civilians, justified by NATO on the basis that they were weakening the propaganda machine that enabled so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’ to be perpetrated. In reality is was part of a shift in the war strategy towards the targeting of civilians, in the face of the inability to inflict significant damage to the Yugoslavian military forces in Kosovo. This anti-civilian war would take its most brutal form in the bombing of power stations. First, graphite was dropped on them, causing power line circuits to short. This halted electricity supplies to all, including hospitals and water utilities, which need electricity to pump the water. The campaign was intensified then by bombing the power stations, which destroyed power generation capacity on a more permanent basis. Anyone who knows what the imperialist powers are doing in Iraq knows that, just like in Renaissance siege warfare, the main weapon of modern warfare is


. Sanctions against Iraq have been directly responsible for the death of well over one million civilians. Between 5 and 7 thousand children are dying each month from diarrhoea and the effects of depleted uranium (which was also used to harden NATO shells fired on the Yugoslavians). The Iraqis don’t have the electricity to pump water as a result of war damage inflicted by the imperialists and sanctions prevent reconstruction of the power stations. David Sharrock, writing in “

The Guardian

,” to his credit, recognised that what

“may happen tomorrow in the Balkans was tested first in Iraq



As the public inside the imperialist countries became more desensitised to the results of NATO atrocities, cluster and unguided bombs were employed. As the British Government and the Pentagon put pressure on the Clinton administration for agreement to commit ground forces, the pressure on the Yugoslavian government intensified. Much ado was made in Western propaganda about the desertion of some Yugoslavian army reservists. This was meant to send the signal that the Yugoslavian troops were demoralised and that victory for NATO in a ground war would be relatively easy. The reality was very different. Following the Security Council resolution, which allowed NATO imperialist forces into Kosovo, the Yugoslav troops withdrew with their tails up, flags flying — and their armour unscathed. The young men who constituted the army in Kosovo were ready and willing to defend their country against the predatory imperialists. In these circumstances it is a disgrace that

Socialist Worker

, the paper of the SWP, saw fit to celebrate the reservist desertions in its editorial.

“Those demonstrating in Serbia are showing opposition to the war in the most terrible of conditions,”

Socialist Worker

admiringly observed.

“Many reports indicate the protestors are against the NATO bombing and against President Slobodan Milosevic”



Presumably it did not occur to the editors that the bombing was designed by the imperialists to create exactly the response that they were celebrating!

The lack of a consistent anti-imperialist approach on the ‘left’ even amongst many of those who claimed to oppose the war, is a reflection of the interests of the bourgeoisie, as manifested in the bourgeois press. This press is owned by big business, and is almost exclusively staffed by those of a privileged background who have been inculcated in the values of political pluralism and a market economy. It is the privileged youth, indoctrinated in the universities, who form the core of those who staff the media. The working class must strip the mask off bourgeois liberalism exposing the ugly truth below. Sections of the petty bourgeois intelligentsia can contribute to this task to the extent that they are able to see through the bourgeois indoctrination to which they have been subjected, have the stomach to fight the system and the desire to support the working class struggle for power. The working class must never, however, allow its class understanding to be dragged off course by such intellectuals if and when they succumb to their bourgeois instincts, but must maintin a resolute and unwavering proletarian class stand.

An example of an intellectual who has taken a progressive stand on the issue of the war in Yugoslavia, at least, is provided by John Pilger who, like Noam Chomsky, bravely stuck his head above the parapet and opposed the NATO aggression against Yugoslavia. In doing so he aided all those who have sought to cut through the tissue of lies and misinformation that has marked the coverage in the capitalist press. He wrote:

The justification for Nato’s attack on Serbia, now the outright terror bombing of civilians, was the Serbs’ rejection of the “peace accords”

drafted at Rambouillet … in February … with the British media generally accepting the word of the Foreign Office that the west’s aim was to bring peace and autonomy to Kosovo.

“This is the big lie of Tony Blair’s “crusade for civilisation”. Anyone scrutinising the Rambouillet document is left in little doubt that the excuses given for the subsequent bombing were fabricated. The peace negotiations were staged managed, and the Serbs were told: surrender and be occupied, or don’t surrender and be destroyed. The impossible terms published in full in ‘Le Monde Diplomatique

’, but not in Britain, show that Nato’s aim was the occupation not only of Kosovo, but effectively all of Yugoslavia.

“Nothing like this ultimatum has been put to a modern, sovereign European state. Of all the Hitler and Nazi analogies that that have peppered the west’s propaganda, one is never mentioned – Hitler’s proposal in 1938 to the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, that Germany occupy Czechoslovakia because the ethnic Germans there had been ‘tortured’, ‘forced to flee the country’ and ‘prevented from realising the right of nations to self determination’. As a cover for German expansionism Hitler was laying the basis for a “humanitarian intervention”, whose fraudulence was no greater than Nato’s cover for its own worldwide expansion.”

Pilger then went on to point out how, in chapter seven of the Rambouillet accords, it says that a NATO force occupying Kosovo must be completely unaccountable to Yugoslavia;

must have free and unimpeded access throughout the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

and that the province’s

“economy shall function in accordance with free market principles.”

As Pilger pointed out

: “No government anywhere could accept this. It was a deliberate provocation”.


. Repetition of these points in

The Guardian

really put the cat amongst the pigeons. They showed that Nato’s aim was

“to occupy not just Kosovo but the whole of Yugoslavia”

, said Pilger.



The imperialist bourgeoisie’s response to such refreshing and exceptional honesty was the same as its response to similar attempts by John Simpson of the BBC and Robert Fisk to present the facts unrolling before their eyes in their pure form, unsullied by NATO propaganda lies – i.e., hysterical denunciation of their ‘professionalism’ as journalists, lies, threats and intimidation. Thus

The Guardian

’s diplomatic editor, Ian Black, responded to Pilger by asserting that NATO had never envisaged the occupation of the whole of Yugoslavia and that Pilger had simply made up the clause in the Rambouillet accord which stipulated that Kosovo should have a ‘market economy’. He then went on to threaten that if Jamie Shea had

“started peddling whoppers like the ones that Pilger set out yesterday, we would all be demanding, quite rightly, that he be sacked.”


’ Initially Pilger fought back, correctly labelling Black as

“an apologist for the Foreign Office”

, raising the question of why as diplomatic editor of

The Guardian,

Black, had never reported on the crucial detail of the clauses of Rambouillet and was so ignorant of its provisions that he was capable of asserting – without checking – that Chapter 4a, article 1 of the accord (which DOES stipulate that Kosovo must

“function in accordance with market principles”


.) did not actually exist. Could this be an example of censorship by omission – i.e., being economical with the facts?

Despite coming off the worse in this particular confrontation, Black, with all the weight of the establishment behind him, renewed his attack on Pilger:

“Perhaps Pilger believes that the stories of rape and murder being told by so many ethnic Albanian refugees are part of the same enormous plot”


he sneered, in mock outrage. At this point Pilger buckled. He effectively retracted the essence of his earlier point that such claims were but a cover for NATO expansion, in the immediate form of greater Albanian nationalism, which had no more legitimacy than the claims made by the Sudeten Germans for ‘self determination’. In the

New Statesman

Pilger, while still voicing opposition to the war, gave Nato’s campaign some air of legitimacy by writing that

“Milosevic and his vicious gang should answer for the crimes against humanity being committed with their cynical approval and patronage, from Bosnia to Kosovo”


. Pilger, who should have known better, had presumably been frightened off questioning whether such crimes against humanity were in fact being committed, for after all, how do we know what is accurate, when the media in the capitalist countries is so biased? There was clearly a civil war in Kosovo, fought by the Yugoslavian State forces on the one side and the KLA on the other, with the population of Kosovo tending to line up in this war on an ethnic basis. And if history has taught us anything then it is that in wars atrocities take place. But NATO, despite all its satellite technology was unable, throughout the war to substantiate claims of mass ‘ethnic cleansing’. Furthermore, even if atrocities did turn out to have taken place, there is no evidence that President Milosevic or the Yugoslavian State forces officially encouraged them. There is hearsay from Albanian refugees – in areas dominated politically by the KLA! And it is the case that thousands upon thousands of Kosovo Albanians who, it was said, had disappeared, have now turned up. They just stayed in their houses and nobody bothered them.

Despite the indictment of President Milosevic before the United Nations war crimes tribunal, under the stewardship of the stooge of US imperialism Louise Arbour, it is the imperialist ruling bourgeois elite and their functionaries who are the real war criminals and


President Milosevic. It should be said that Pilger did make the point that those raining cluster bombs and depleted uranium on Yugoslavia should also be indicted, but he then failed to defend the right of Yugoslavia to deal with its own internal affairs. It is precisely the right to national sovereignty which has been infringed by NATO, and Pilger, along with Alice Mahon, the SWP etc. etc., by conceding legitimacy to interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, have made a significant concession to imperialist war aims – today in Yugoslavia, tomorrow in Iraq, People’s Korea, Cuba or even the People’s Republic of China? The ‘left’ have made these concessions to the imperialist bourgeoisie by failing to chart an independent working class perspective – a perspective that should uphold


the right of oppressed nations to defend themselves against imperialism and should give what solidarity we can to them in their struggles. In doing so we cannot and should not declare a common aim with the capitalist class of our own country for the overthrow of Milosevic, Saddam or whoever. These are matters for the people of these various countries — and for them alone. Those socialist-minded elements that deviate from this position only play into the hands of imperialism. They do so, often with the best of intentions, and while often at the same time taking a brave stance against the war and the bourgeois propaganda machine — as was the case with Pilger. But if the working class internationally is to be effective in thwarting the ruling bourgeoisie’s move towards war, then the socialist movement must develop a clear and consistent anti-imperialist perspective.



Workers Power

, Issue 231, March 1999.

2. Ian Traynor, ‘Weakened KLA battles to turn tide’,

The Guardian


3. Tariq Ali, ‘Why the left says no’,

The Guardian

, 1-4-99.

4. Emma Daly, ‘KLA’s ragged army imposes draft’,

The Independent

, 1-4-99.

5.Despite consistently denouncing NATO’s role in Yugoslavia, the

Morning Star

went on to ask its readers to vote in the 10 June 1999 elections for the European Parliament for: the Labour Party, i.e., for those engaged in bombing Yugoslavia, and indeed leading the field with demands for an ground force invasion!

6. Gary Wilson ‘Dismemberment of the Balkans’,

Morning Star


7. Peter Beaumont, ‘The KLA goes on killing rampage’,

The Observer


8. Jonathan Steele, ‘New commander for KLA’,

The Guardian



The Guardian

, 16-4-99.

10. Stephen Bates et al, Search for the truth on the bloody road to Prizen’,

The Observer

, 18-4-99.

11. David Sharrock, ‘Iraq is falling apart. We are ruined’,

The Guardian

, Saturday 24 -4-99.


Socialist Worker

, 22-5-99.


New Statesman


14. John Pilger, ‘Acts of Murder’,

The Guardian

Tuesday 18-5-99.

15. Ian Black, ‘Bad News’,

The Guardian



The Guardian

, 20-5-99.

17. Ian Black, ‘Bad News’,

The Guardian



New Statesman

, 31-5-99