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Friday, April 16, 1999 Published at 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK


BBC defends Simpson's Belgrade reports

John Simpson: Criticism "just goes with the turf"

The BBC has strongly defended its World Affairs Editor, John Simpson - one of the last journalists from a Nato country still reporting from Belgrade - against reported suggestions of pro-Serb bias.

The Times newspaper in London carried reports on Friday that the UK Government is concerned Mr Simpson's reports are biased towards the Serbs, and "fail to show scepticism".

Quoting unnamed senior officials, The Times says the UK Government is accusing Mr Simpson of "swallowing Serb propaganda" in suggesting Nato's assaults were uniting the Serbs behind President Milosevic's forces.

There was government "anger", said The Times, that Mr Simpson also reported that the Serbs must have been sure of their ground over responsibility for a Kosovo bombing accident, because they showed journalists the site.

But in a statement issued on Friday, the BBC said "the facts don't bear out these allegations".

[ image: Nato bombing hit key Serb sites on Thursday night]
Nato bombing hit key Serb sites on Thursday night
With regard to the bombing incident, the corporation said Mr Simpson's comments were borne out by news that "today Nato confirmed their warplanes did indeed attack the convoy".

It is reported there were bombings of three separate convoys in southern Kosovo on Wednesday, and Serbian officials say it cost 60 civilian lives.

The newspaper reported government "fury" over Mr Simpson's interviews with Serb civilians in which they said Nato bombing had strengthened their support for the president.

Mr Simpson's critics said he should have pointed out that with the Serbs monitoring the media, they could "hardly have said anything different".

But the BBC said that during filming there were no security police with him on the streets, and that "any such assertion is wholly false".

The next day the Serbian authorities expelled Mr Simpson's cameraman, which was "hardly an action that supports the allegations being made about his reports".

'Pride in free press'

Mr Simpson's facts were "confirmed by independent, Belgrade-based journalists writing in the national and international press", said the BBC.

While agreeing that the film packages are monitored, the BBC said Mr Simpson's "straight voice reports on radio and TV are not, and that is made clear".

Foreign Office Minister Tony Lloyd said he had no complaints about BBC coverage of the Kosovo crisis.

"In a society like ours, one of the things that we take great pride in is that we have a free press," he said.

Previous coverage criticised

Deputy Chief Executive of BBC News, Richard Ayre, paid tribute to Mr Simpson, and said: "It is important that audiences in Britain are given a true account of the public mood in Belgrade, not simply an account of what the Nato governments might prefer to hear. "

The BBC's coverage of last year's Iraq bombing was criticised by Defence Secretary George Robertson and Foreign Secretary Robin Cook.

When asked by BBC Radio 5 Live about the reported criticisms, Mr Simpson said: "It just goes with the turf."

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