The Sun has got its tin hat on


David Yelland, the editor of the Sun, is turning inconsistency into an art form. His paper backs Tony Blair (the true successor to Margaret Thatcher, an editorial said this week), but calls him the most dangerous man in Britain for his views on Europe. He hired Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, Peter Mandelson's displaced sidekick, to advise him on politics, without apparently realising that Wegg-Prosser and his former boss are among new Labour's most ardent backers of British membership of the European single currency. Wegg-Prosser was sacked before he reached Wapping.

Yelland's campaign on behalf of White Van Man and his mate, the lorry driver blockading Britain's motorways, is presumably designed to appeal to the Sun's core readership, yet the paper has also just launched Britain's first tabloid Internet access service: Likewise, the Sun may hate everything Continental, especially German politicians, but Yelland has been giving his readers a series of prints by the impressionist painter Claude Monet, even though "he may be French, he may be dead" - at least on this occasion the paper has got its facts right. Under Yelland, the Sun, having informed us that we are governed by a gay mafia, declared an end to gay-bashing and even to refugee-bashing, so long as the refugees are from the war in the Balkans, which the Sun supports.

It is as if half of Yelland's brain recognises that the world of his readers is changing, but the other half is in denial. Perhaps like many modernisers, he simply prefers an each-way bet. Perhaps he is just bonkers.

But on one subject in the past fortnight, Yelland's confusion has given birth to a monstrosity, namely the paper's coverage of Nato's bombing of the refugees in Kosovo.

On the morning after the incident, every newspaper in Britain except the Sun led with a question, or a variant of it. The Mirror's front page asked bluntly: "Was it us or was it them?" All the newspapers reported the suggestions from the Pentagon that the Serbs may have been implicated either in drawing Nato fire towards the convoy or even attacking the refugees themselves with shells and machine-guns after the bombers had left. But since neither the Pentagon nor Nato had any evidence for this, and since television pictures proved beyond doubt that the casualties could not have been caused by a lone Nato bombing run, journalistic scepticism was the order of the day.

Except at the Sun, which posted a dramatic photograph of a wounded old Kosovar woman across its front page, with the headline: "Alive . . . on day Slobba tricked Nato into bombing refugees." Inside, Trevor Kavanagh, the paper's veteran political editor, and Barry Wigmore signed a news piece that supplied confident and dramatic narrative to support the page one treatment.

"Serb troops," they wrote, "slaughtered hostage refugees yesterday - then blamed Nato planes for the massacre. The killers lured the jets to their convoy in Kosovo by opening up with a barrage of anti-aircraft fire. The planes responded . . . " And so on, across two pages.

The Sun's reasoning is clear. Because Belgrade can be blamed for causing this war, the Serbs can be properly blamed for causing every incident and every death, even if that means inventing facts. Should Kavanagh and Wigmore ever need alternative employment, I'm sure the Serb Information Centre could use their skills.

In the subsequent days, it became clear that whatever the Serbs had or had not done - we still have no worthwhile evidence - Nato had done a great deal more damage than initially claimed. It was also caught trying to pass off a fraudulent recording of a pilot's voice as evidence about its operations. Downing Street joined in by muttering about the allegedly pro-Serb bias of John Simpson's BBC reports from Belgrade.

Almost a week later, Nato offered a more detailed explanation of events, acknowledging that its aircraft had mistakenly attacked the same convoy more than once. What did the Sun do? It took the view that the only thing better than a phoney story is a phoney story repeated.

"Serb monsters shot refugees then blamed us: Nato blasts back at 'lies'," said its headline. And what was the justification for this?

It was buried deep in the story and it came from a Brigadier General Dan Leaf, who said that "some reporters have indicated that the victims appear to have been machine-gunned, not bombed". In other words, the Sun was relying on an American soldier's account of what other news organisations were saying. How very impressive.

Perhaps Yelland is simply trying to recapture Kelvin MacKenzie's glory days in the Falklands war, complete with "Gotcha" and fake interviews with grieving widows. He has even parachuted a page three girl into the "phwoar zone", presumably the same "phwoar zone" where rape is used as a systematic weapon.

Yelland has clearly not got the point that this is a war prosecuted by an international alliance whose only justification for action is that it continues to hold the moral high ground. Nato learnt a lesson this week, but has the Currant Bun?

Ian Hargreaves is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 26 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The great Balkan lie