1990-1999 | Serbia

BLAIR SENDS CAMPBELL TO BRUSSELS TO HELP SPIN THE BOMBING OF SERBIA

The ruins of Radio Television of Serbia (Pino via Wikimedia) and Alastair Campbell (University of Salford CC BY 2.0)

16 April 1999

As of 16 April 1999, it was three weeks into the bombing campaign against Serbia and the RAF was still regularly missing its targets.  The assault was not only flattening extensive areas of Belgrade, killing many civilians and creating a huge flood of refugees but it was also provoking Serb forces in Kosovo into intensifying their sectarian assault on Kosovar Albanians.  Some British newspaper reports were becoming increasingly critical of the bombing and prime minister Tony Blair was overheard sighing ‘This could be the end of me.’1

Blair did not concern himself with how to reduce civilian casualties, but rather he saw the mounting deaths and public outcry as a media management problem. Alastair Campbell,  his trusted press secretary, was dispatched to Brussels to help rectify  it. ‘I was up at 5.30,’ Campbell noted in his diary, ‘and got the 6.53 train to Brussels. [Nato communications director Jamie] Shea said he had been fascinated how we had changed our approach to the media as New Labour and he was sure there were lessons they could learn.’2 Campbell happily advised Shea how he could better manipulate the press. ‘Your job,’ he explained, ‘is not to help the reporters. We decide what the news is. If you don’t like the news, put something else in the news. If there’s a hole, fill it. It’s an open goal to fill, otherwise you’re at the media’s mercy. It’s your fault if the media reports are bad.’3

FOOTNOTES

  1. Tom Bower, Broken Vows. Tony Blair: The Tragedy of Power, Faber and Faber, London, 2016, p. 131.
  2. Alastair Campbell, ‘Alastair Campbell Diaries: The Shaping of a War Leader,’ The Guardian, 14 January 2011 online at https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2011/jan/14/alastair-campbell-diaries-iraq-serbia
  3. Tom Bower, op. cit., p. 131.

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