Nothing in my 30 years of reporting wars compares with the present propaganda dressed as journalism

On 17 June, the Guardian published a letter by Ben Bradshaw MP, a new Labour bomber. "In one radio discussion I did with [Pilger]," he wrote, "he even suggested the refugees were inventing stories of massacres." He demanded my apology. I took the trouble to get a tape of Scott Chisholm's programme on Talk Radio, on which Bradshaw and I appeared. What I actually said was that refugees "often tell the truth, but this is sometimes difficult to verify" - the opposite of what Bradshaw wrote.

Bradshaw's smooth transition from an incomplete career at the BBC to obedient Blairite MP was reflected not only in his distortion of what I said, but in his indignation. "Why," he said to me, "are you criticising America and Britain . . . your own countries [sic] . . . as the baddies?" Not having the nationality of either of the countries he nominated, I am left unsure of my assigned place in the goodies and baddies game; I should be told.

Geoffrey Hoon, the new Foreign Office minister, is another who clearly believes he can make up anything to justify Britain's support for violence and oppression in many parts of the world. In another letter in the Guardian, Hoon wrote that my "claim that Nato slaughtered 10,000 innocent people is make-believe". But I made no such claim; I wrote that Nato had killed or maimed 10,000. That is the sum of the generally accepted, if conservative, figure of 1,200 civilian deaths and more than 8,000 wounded, most of them seriously. Add to this an unknown number of Yugoslav army casualties, mostly young conscripts.

Together with the ethnic Albanian dead, whose numbers are still in question, they are the victims of two distinct campaigns of terror: that of Slobodan Milosevic's murderous special units and that of Nato's cowboy pilots, whose cluster bombs, hi-tech versions of nail bombs, are designed for the destruction of human beings. It requires a certain contortion of intellect and morality to condone one set of atrocities as "blunders" while humanising one group of victims and dehumanising another. This is Sheaism, a new word for the OED. Hoon wrote that it was "just plain sick" to suggest that Nato provoked a pattern of Serb atrocities. From 24 March, the escalation of both atrocities and the flood of refugees is clear in reports to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The bombing, reported investigators of the International Strategic Studies Association, "contributed heavily, perhaps overwhelmingly".

Hoon's letter was in response to a column I wrote about Burma, in which I pointed out that Labour had reneged on its pledge to impose legal sanctions on investment that underwrote the modern-day slavers in power in Rangoon. As a result, the British multinational Premier Oil has continued to do deals worth hundreds of millions in hard currency with the Burmese generals, allowing them to re-equip one of the biggest armies in the world, the tool of their oppression. Aung San Suu Kyi has described Premier Oil as "a disgrace" and called on the Blair government to honour its pledge. In his Guardian letter Hoon made no mention of Premier Oil, ignored Aung San Suu Kyi's plea and misrepresented her position, suggesting that her campaign to curb tourism had been a British government initiative. Even by the standards of what the former desk officer, Mark Higson, called the Foreign Office's "culture of lying", this was a cracker.

It is this dissembling and hypocrisy, wedded to a born-again, deeply reactionary world-view, that inspires the "new moral cause" announced by Blair. The spun truth of its application in the Balkans is now unravelling for all to see, as it usually does when the media pack departs. Few now doubt that the Rambouillet talks were a set-up, used to "deliberately set the bar higher than the Serbs could accept", a US State Department official has now admitted. The terms that the Serbs accepted in June were virtually the same as those they themselves offered before the bombings began.

The whole bloody travesty was almost certainly avoidable. Thousands of men, women and children, including those Kosovars Nato was claiming to "save", would now be alive were it not for the post-cold-war machinations of American power, egged on by Blair, Robertson and Cook with their few ageing Harrier aircraft and squadrons of propagandists. Ian Black, the Guardian's man at the Foreign Office, who reported the Rambouillet talks, admitted that he never read the Rambouillet document in full.

Now that reverse ethnic cleansing is under way in Kosovo, under Nato auspices, the drums are silent. No one is putting out more flags as thousands of Shea's "missing" Albanians have been "found" in their homes. Terrible events occurred, but nothing is what it seemed, as we shall continue to find out. Those who indulged Shea's deceptions, Blair's scripted histrionics and Clare Short's on-cue buffoonery misled the public: the antithesis of their remit. In a memorable piece in the Independent last week, Robert Fisk described vividly the flocks of sheep who reported Shea without a "baa". For Fisk, it was an especially angry piece, and rightly so. Like him, I have reported numerous wars and upheavals for more than 30 years, and I have known nothing to compare with the sheer intensity of this propaganda dressed as journalism.

Fisk has since been subjected to an insidious McCarthyism we have grown used to, that of personalised abuse and smear, with one sheep last Sunday plying schoolboy gossip suggesting that our greatest war correspondent was a Serb apologist. Fisk need not worry. Truth may be the first casualty; it is seldom the last.

By John Pilger

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in Were chimps the first socialists?

1999-07-12