BBC veteran denies bias

Media: John Simpson counters Downing Street with charge of interfering, writes Janine Gibson

Saturday April 17, 1999
The Guardian

John Simpson, the veteran BBC foreign correspondent, yesterday angrily denied accusations of Serb bias in his reporting from Belgrade, following reports that government officials have threatened to complain.

Speaking to the Guardian from Belgrade, the BBC's world affairs editor said: "I object very strongly to this accusation of being pro-Serb." He also spoke of his disappointment and anger at the unnamed government official who was quoted in yesterday's Times briefing against him.

Lance Price, deputy to the Prime Minister's press spokesman Alastair Campbell, yesterday attempted to distance Downing Street from the reported comments, saying that no one in Downing Street was giving credence to the quotes. However, BBC insiders believe the briefing came from Mr Campbell, who is close to the Times journalist who wrote the story.

Mr Simpson believes that the briefing, in which a "senior official" accused Mr Simpson of presenting Serb propaganda at face value, was the result of several recent incidents.

"In the first instance I wrote something for the Sunday Telegraph which said that if the purpose of the war was to alienate people here [in Belgrade] from Milosevic then it wasn't working. That provoked a reaction from Downing Street."

One incident cited by the unnamed official took place on Wednesday when the Nine O'Clock News anchorman Michael Buerk asked Mr Simpson during the bulletin about Serb claims that the bombing of the passenger train near Leskovac was down to Nato.

Mr Simpson said he felt certain that the truth would become clear and added that if the Serbs, as they were promising, took journalists to the site then "I think the Serbs will be confident about their side of the story".

Yesterday, Mr Simpson responded to the official's reported accusation of naivety: "I've covered over 30 wars and revolutions. I know how governments coerce journalists, I know the tricks they use. I was in Baghdad and I spent a couple of years in the lobby in Britain. It needs some one with experience. I'm not doing frontline reporting, I'm doing stuff about how the Serb goverment has approached the war. That takes knowledge and understanding."

He added: "I'm amused by the idea that I'm too simple-minded to understand these things and I'm bamboozled by the Serb government and its tricks. Impartiality of telling what's happening in front of you is bred into me. I've been in the BBC for 34 years now, I know how to have control over what I say or write."

Last week, the Serbian government ejected a member of the crew travelling with Mr Simpson, a fact which the reporter believes vindicates the BBC's stance. Most seriously, he said, the government briefing runs contrary to the tradition of impartial balanced journalism. "It annoys me that a British government is so willing and enthusiastic about losing the principles of calm and objectivity."

Mr Simpson rejected the suggestion that he has been partisan or simplistic. "I've seen far too many of the crimes that this government has committed in Yugoslavia I was in Sarajevo. I know what these things are, but I absolutely refuse point blank to put on all that easy chauvinist stuff talking about Nazis, fascists and evil empires. Facts speak for themselves."

On-the-record comments from Downing Street yesterday proffered sympathy with the difficulties that journalists were experiencing reporting from Belgrade and emphasised the importance of a "health warning" on reports explaining that their content was being monitored by Serbs.

Mr Simpson said, however, that he had experienced little interference other than interruption to his telephone calls "just to remind me that there's somebody there listening".

His job would be easier, he said, if the British government stopped interfering.

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