It’s a rare thing for anyone in the public eye to come out and simply admit they were wrong about something important. Oh yes, we’ve all heard the non-apology (“If you stupidly misunderstood me, I’m sorry about that,” as perfected by A. Blair Esq) and the “I was taken out of context”-type wriggling. But for a public figure to come out and plainly admit they were wrong on a major issue is, these days, a rare and wonderful thing.
So all credit to BBC world affairs editor John Simpson who admitted in Sunday’s Observer that he was wrong to have supported the so-called Living Marxism (LM) magazine when ITN sued it for libel in 2000:
“Vulliamy’s account of what happened in the camps is completely unanswerable; and I’m sorry now that I supported the small post-Marxist magazine Living Marxism when it was sued by ITN for questioning its reporting of the camps. It seemed to me at the time that big, well-funded organisations should not put small magazines out of business; but it’s clear that there were much bigger questions involved,” writes Simpson in the course of a review of The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia – The Reckoning by Ed Vullamy.
For those who don’t remember the case, it’s probably worth just running through the basic facts:
Early in the Bosnian war (August 1992) Ed Vulliamy of the Guardian, together with Penny Marshall of ITN and Ian Williams of Channel 4 managed to reach two Serbian prison camps, Omarska and Trnopolje, where emaciated Bosnian Muslim men were being held under conditions that looked very much like those of the Nazi’s concentration camps in WW2.
Ed Vulliamy, Penny Marshall and Ian Williams witnessed the skeletal figures at Trnopolje, but, at Omarska they managed to speak to some of the men: one said, “I do not want to tell any lies, but I cannot tell the truth.” Later it emerged that at Omarska prisoners were forced to bite the testicles off one another and had live pigeons stuffed into their mouths as they died in agony. Prisoners were forced to load the corpses of their friends onto trucks by bulldozer.
Vulliamy later wrote “Trnopolje was a marginally less satanic place, some of whose prisoners were transferred from other hideous camps to to await forced deportation. Others were rounded up and herded there like cattle, or had even fled there to avoid the systematic shelling and burning of their homes.” Less satanic than Omarska perhaps, but that isn’t really saying very much, as Vulliamy would be the first to agree.
Naturally, on their return the journalists reported what they had seen and ITN’s images of the emaciated figures at Tropolje (and especially that of Fikret Alic, above) came to sybolise the barbarity of the Serb genocide of Muslims and Croatians in Bosnia. They also almost certainly played a major part in bringing to an end the British foreign office’s appeasement of the Serbs.
Fast-forward to 1997 and an article in the trendy “post-Marxist” magazine LM (as in Living Marxism, its previous name), by one Thomas Deichman: “The picture that fooled the world.”
Centred upon the Fikret Alic photo, the article claimed that there was no barbed wire around Trnopolje and that “it was not a prison, and certainly not a ‘concentration camp’, but a collection centre for refugees, many of whom went there seeking safety and could leave again if they wished.” Deichman, who turned out to be consistent supporter of Serb war criminals like Dusko Tadic and Radovan Karadzic, claimed that ITN and the other journalists had deliberately misrepresented what was going on at Trnopolje and had failed to correct the allegedly false impression they had created when other media repeated their claims. ITN believed that their journalistic integrity was at stake and sued LM for libel.
LM initially succeeded in obscuring the central issue by presenting the case as a ‘David v Goliath’ free speech issue, and persuaded some leading liberals to rally to their support: Harold Evans, Doris Lessing, Paul Theroux, Fay Weldon and John Simpson all condemned ITN’s “deplorable attack on press freedom.” To this day, the likes of Noam Chomsky, Diana Johnstone and Alexander Cockburn refuse to acknowledge that what ITN and the other journalists said and wrote was true and that Deichmann and LM were simply apologists for Serb genocide.
Professor David Campbell of Durham University studied the case and summarised it thus:
“…as strange as existing British libel law is, it had an important and surprisingly beneficial effect in the case of ITN vs LM. The LM defendants and Thomas Deichmann were properly represented at the trial and were able to lay out all the details of their claim that the ITN reporters had “deliberately misrepresented” the situation at Trnopolje. Having charged ‘deliberate misrepresentation’, they needed to prove ‘deliberate misrepresentation’. To this end, the LM defendants were able to cross-examine Penny Marshall and Ian Williams, as well as every member of the ITN crews who were at the camps, along with other witnesses. (That they didn’t take up the opportunity to cross-examine the Bosnian doctor imprisoned at Trnopolje, who featured in the ITN stories and was called to testify on the conditions and others suffered, was perhaps the moment any remaining shred of credibility for LM’s allegations evaporated). They were able to show the ITN reports to the court, including the rushes from which the final TV stories were edited, and conduct a forensic examination of the visuals they alleged were deceitful. And all of this took place in front of a jury of twelve citizens who they needed to convince about the truthfulness of their allegations. They failed. The jury found unanimously against LM and awarded the maximum possible damages. So it was not ITN that bankrupted LM. It was LM’s lies about the ITN reports that bankrupted themselves, morally and financially. Despite their failure, those who lied about the ITN reports have had no trouble obtaining regular access to the mainstream media in Britain, where they continue to make their case as though the 2000 court verdict simply didn’t exist. Their freedom of speech has thus not been permanently infringed” (quoted on Wikipedia).
Why is this important? Well, as I noted at the outset, it makes a refreshing change to read a clear-cut, unambiguous apology and admission of error from a figure like Simpson (compare and contrast Chomsky’s self-righteous evasions). Secondly, it’s important to set the record straight about the Bosnian war and Serb genocide, as vile revisionism, repeating all Deichman’s lies is still to be found on the web, as though the ITN case had never happened. Thirdly, LM has succeeded in transforming itself into first Spiked Online and then the ‘Institute of Ideas’ and their people, as George Monbiot has pointed out, have succeeded in getting themselves lucrative and high-profile employment as supposedly ‘reputable’ commentators in the mainstream media (eg Mick Hume at The Times and Claire Fox on Radio 4’s ‘ The Moral Maze’).
And one final point: it wasn’t just the degenerates of the so-called Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP)/Living Marxism who were de facto apologists for Serb genocide during the Bosnian war. A lot of the left did much the same, albeit less blatantly, including those who a few years on would pose as great friends of Muslims everywhere…
The Bosnian war still holds important lessons for the left.