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Tuesday, 15 June, 1999, 16:39 GMT
'Darth Vader' put on the spot

"Did you hear that?"

If and when Steven Spielberg turns his attention to the strange story of Kosovo, there'll be a job for Sir Ian McKellen.

If the actor tried hard to look as gaunt and severe as possible - somewhere beyond his Richard III - he would just about capture the chilling spectre that is the latest character to emerge from the Kosovo crisis, Nato commander General Sir Mike Jackson.

Sir Ian McKellen, gaunt enough in Gods and Monsters?
Armed with two of the best nicknames in the business (Darth Vader and the Prince of Darkness - inconveniently a soubriquet he shares with Peter Mandelson), he is currently deploying the K-For troops in Kosovo.

Addressing a news conference in Pristina on Monday, it seemed the nicknames were well appointed. Peering inches over his glasses, he showed some of the fury in dealing with reporters for which Mr Mandelson is famed but which has not been shown so openly on camera.

Kosovo: Special Report
(And if you imagine how Darth Vader himself would have dealt with a Cosmopolitan journalist asking if he was quite sure that the Death Star's pulse cannon would really be able to fend off an X-wing attack, you will be some of the way there.)

To the assembled reporters, the most interesting issue was how K-For was to deal with the Russian forces which had rushed in to occupy the Pristina airport. The general did not see it the same way.

He started off in relatively good humour, telling the BBC's Mark Laity with a slight touch of sarcasm that he did not know how many Russians were at the airport.

Gen Sir Mike out on the streets
"I have not invited the Russian contingent commander to hold a muster parade to allow me to count them. . .I don't frankly understand why these numbers appear to be so important," he said.

Laity pressed on, but was rebuffed again. "I'm not going to get into that sort of conversation because I don't regard it as being helpful or important. . ." General Sir Mike responded in something of a put-down.

After moving away to talk about other issues, the brave reporters tried again. One asked why the airport had been such an important issue.

The general wasn't amused. "This is one of these myths that's arisen, no doubt to accentuate the spice of the story. I might have put my tactical headquarters there for a short while, but frankly now I've seen the ground, I've seen it's too far out of town, I'm a little concerned about unexploded ordinances there. . .I'm much happier where I am, and if you think that's a feeble excuse you're absolutely wrong."

Another long pause while journalists realised they had been put in their place again.

Then, under his voice, with an expression of complete bewilderment, almost as if asking why he has to deal with such dolts: "What's the obsession with it? You're obsessed!"

Then The Independent's Kim Sengupta tried again. Would he dare utter the "a" word?

Gen Sir Charles Guthrie: measured
"On the question of the airfield," he said, uttering the "a" word, "who is controlling what comes in?"

Gen Sir Mike, really getting tetchy this time: "It's a pretty academic question because nothing's coming in. I think I've said enough about the airfield," he said with a sweeping hand gesture. "You're beginning to bore me with it."

Sengupta: "All right, can I ask you . . ."

Jackson: "It is NOT my priority, my priority is to deliver this agreement."

Sengupta: "Can I ask a supplementary. . .?"

Jackson: "Well not about the airport, please!"

The general had clearly had enough, and answered one final question which the reporter said was not about the airport, but about the Russians. Soon enough, he was told, for all the world like a deeply irritated geography teacher asked to explain artesian wells AGAIN: "You didn't pose your question very accurately. . .I assume you heard what I said when I said it's a political matter at this stage. Did you hear that? Well, that's the answer!"

Jamie Shea: ever-reasonable
The other military face UK viewers have got used to seeing is that of General Sir Charles Guthrie, the chief of defence staff. Like General Sir Mike, he peers over his half-moon glassses. But any similarity in news conference style ends there. His measured tones, civility, and taste for weak lapsang souchong give an impression of the complete gent. If one were to imagine the sort of chap who would be in charge of the country's defence, Sir Charles would be the person you would cast.

And of course there is the man against whom anyone giving military briefings in future will be judged: Jamie Shea. He has managed to remain unflappable and unrattled throughout the conflict, even when having to justify horrendous cock-ups.

Shea has said he is mystified by the fascination with his Londoner's accent. But the voice is so much a part of his "Trust me, I'm just a normal bloke" approach that it is hard to ignore. He was unflapped even when taking the unprecedented step of taking part in BBC News Online's Talking Point On Air, broadcast on BBC World Service, when in direct conversation with Serbs ringing from Belgrade.

If Gen Sir Mike is a character from the big screen, Shea is the consummate small screen performer.

And if the film of Kosovo is ever made, there would be nobody better to play Shea than Shea himself.
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