- Exposing the truth THEY don't want you to know

The Scoop that Folded a Magazine
by John McVicar - 29th May 2000
from Punch Magazine May 2000.
When an ITN libel action sent a small publication to the wall, it wasn't a
triumph of free speech, but a case of brutal laws being used in a complex,
difficult situation.

LM is one of those magazines, which, if you write for it, you don't expect to
be paid. In fact, if you want a copy of the edition that carries your
article, they bill you for it. And, at 3.50, it ain't cheap. It is not that
the people running it are mean although they are all ex-lefties and have you
ever known a generous lefty? - but the magazine is published on a string and
a prayer. The people producing it are unsalaried and the shortfall in the
running costs was made up by modest donations from a number of sympathetic
backers. I say, "was" because ITN, as part of the spoils of winning a libel
action against LM in March, is closing it down. The last issue-a bumper one
that takes the magazine down with headlines blazing-comes out in July,
marking the end of another chapter in the history of our glorious libel laws.

LM used to be called Living Marxism, which the people currently running it
play down. In fact, if you refer to it as Living Marxism rather than LM, they
correct you. The real hanging offence, though, is to mention that it used to
be the in-house journal of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which is one of
those Trot parties that are working for communism without the nasty bits.
Like they don't believe in a heaven after death, only utopia after the
revolution. Doubtless the party still soldiers on, with its six remaining
members meeting once a week above a baker's shop in Clapham, plotting the
overthrow of capitalism.

But, just over three years ago, when Living Marxism was more or less defunct,
two of its contributors and ex-camp followers of the party revived and
revamped the magazine. Helene Guldberg and Claire Fox are attractive,
unmarried thirtysomethings who, by the script, should be lesbians but
seemingly aren't. Officially, they are LMs publishers but are really its
schmoozers-in-chief specialising in getting hacks like myself to break their
iron rule and work for nothing. It is quite disgusting what some women
publishers will intimate to get a man between their pages, but I was one who
succumbed to their fax/phone charm offensive.

Of course, after they got their article, I was left with just unconsummated
intimations, although I did get to hear Claire on Any Questions and, for this
article, Helene let me photograph her under a Kalashnikov in Waterloo's buzzy
Cubana bar. But I have forgiven them and, in fact, however disgruntled I was
at the time about being schmoozed into working for free, I am now rather
proud that I appeared in LM's pages, and out of the goodness of my
uncharitable heart I have even written something for its last issue.

Once it dumped its ideological baggage, LM turned into a heady forum of ideas
and intellectual debate with an imposing roll call of academic contributors.
You might have needed a PhD to read it, and its circulation was only 9,000 or
so, but within its highbrow niche it punched true and straight from the
shoulder, attacking such PC-isms as environmentalism, animal rights,
counselling and the social worker agenda. Its editor, Mick Hume, was picked
up by the Times and has been moonlighting in its pages as a columnist for
over a year.

LM is certainly no student rag or a muckraking publication jostling for
punters by scurrilously defaming the great and untouchable good nor, despite
its name, is it a platform for left-wing fantasies. And it must be getting
something right, because a number of Guardian columnists detest it.

But the libel verdict that is closing LM down and will bankrupt Mick Hume and
one of its publishers, Helene Guldberg, was really over something that in a
healthy democracy should have been a matter for a body like the Press
Complaints Commission, not the libel courts. And the awards of personal
damages against the defendants of 150,000 to two corporate reporters who
work for ITN, with a top-up bonus of 75,000 for ITN plus over 300,000
costs, is as mad as the ravings of the Revolutionary Socialist Party

Most libel trials in this country are either about things that any sensible
person made their mind up about a long time ago or are about the bogus
feelings of the claimants. In the action brought by ITN against LM, there was
an issue at stake that cried out to be resolved, although the idea that a
libel court was the appropriate forum in which to do it is patently absurd.
What ITN and LM came head to head over was a TV report in 1992 that, more
than any other event, galvanised the West to intervene informer Yugoslavia to
protect the Muslims. Incidentally, it was John Major's then Foreign
Secretary, Douglas Hurd, who was the leading politician in the West to ensure
that the UN arms embargo on Bosnia was honoured, which effectively meant the
Serbs could obtain arms but the Bosnian Muslims could not.

Some ITN reporters, plus a Guardian journalist named Ed Vulliamy took
advantage of an invitation by the then leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan
Karadzic, to visit Serb-run detention centres where there had been reports of
murder, torture and the rape of the inmates. Escorted by Serb militia, they
went to one centre in Trnopolje where they chanced upon a group of Muslim
prisoners behind barbed wire, one of whom was the bare-chested and emaciated
Fikret Alic.

This extraordinarily powerful image conjured up echoes of Nazi-style
concentration camps where the Serbs carried out their genocidal agenda.
Although the shots of Alic constituted only a few seconds of the report
eventually broadcast by ITN in August 1992, the image swept around the world,
shifting public opinion and proving the last straw for politicians like John
Major and Bill Clinton. The journalists who covered this event were showered
with awards for their work.

Five years later, however, a German journalist named Thomas Deichmann was
giving evidence to the War Crimes Tribunal and, during his preparation,
reviewed TV footage of various detention centres run by the Serbs. The image
of Alic figured in many reports. Deichmann's wife pointed out that the barbed
wire fence behind which Alic was held did not look right. Invariably such
enclosures have the barbed wire fixed to the outside of the poles that pen in
the prisoners. In the case of the enclosure in which Alic and his
fellow-Muslims were held, the wire was attached to the inside.

Eventually Deichmann went out to Bosnia to investigate and discovered that
there had never been any barbed wire around Trnopolje detention centre. The
barbed wire in the ITN footage had in fact been around a compound adjoining
the centre, from which the pictures had been shot.

Like ITN in 1992, Deichmann clearly thought he had a scoop and published his
findings in a German magazine called Novo. The allegations it made about the
ITN report were repeated in various European publications. He implied that
ITN must have known that there was no barbed wired around the centre and if
they did not know then, in the subsequent five years, they should have
corrected the misleading impression they had unwittingly given. ITN never
took legal action against any of these publications.

Meanwhile, LM was gearing up for the relaunch of the re-vamped Living Marxism
and they bought in Deichmann's article and printed the famous image of Alic
on the cover under the caption: "The picture that fooled the world". LM
thought it had a scoop, but they also received a libel claim, because ITN

Of course, ITN was on much surer ground in suing in this country as our libel
laws allow only a very limited public-interest defence and there is no
public-figure defence. Thus, unlike in many other democracies, L M could not
justify printing the article by saying first that, whether or not they had
impugned the reputation of the ITN reporters, it was secondary to the higher
public interest of thrashing out the matter in open debate; and second that
the ITN reporters were public figures who, unless the article was maliciously
untrue, should not be allowed to sue about allegations concerning their work.
Deichmann caught the flavour of the latter defence when, after the trial, he
commented: "The job of journalists is to investigate and criticise. If they
cannot stand the heat without running to the court, they should get out of
the kitchen."

The trouble with scoops is they tend to produce tunnel vision in the people
who discover them. When the ITN crew chanced upon Trnopolje and filmed Alic,
they should have seen that the prisoners were not penned in by a barbed wire
fence. And the jury decided they did not egg their report by deliberately
broadcasting the misleading image of Alic. We have no reason to dispute this
finding. Nevertheless, while Trnopolje was another gruesome camp run by the
Serbs, where murder, torture and rape was commonplace, it was not a death or
concentration camp.

Deichmann then discovered that a crucial part of the most powerful image
broadcast by ITN was misleading, which in turn led him to downplay the
gruesome reality of Trnopolje. Finally, along comes LM, sniffing around for
something sensational to relaunch their magazine, and they also lost sight of
the wood as they could see only Deichmann's trees.

If you examine the accounts of all the parties to this whole imbroglio, you
cannot really find any evidence that anyone was running a conspiratorial
agenda, as each of them have accused the other. It really is tunnel vision
induced by finding a scoop, which was in turn reinforced by the siege
mentality that libel actions foster.

The key to this sorry case comes in Mr Justice Morland's summing up: "Clearly
Ian Williams and Penny Marshall and their TV team were mistaken in thinking
they [the TV crew] were not enclosed by the old barbed wire fence. But does
it matter?"

What his Lordship meant was it didn't matter in terms of the law because
there was no evidence that ITV had knowingly misled us. But in journalism,
mistakes always matter. Bankrupting the magazine is disproportionate, to say
the least.

Unfortunately, libel trials by their very nature result in black-and-white
verdicts and history is written by the victors. Some of the triumphant
comments made by ITN after the trial are a disgrace for anyone whose job it
is to search for the truth. Stewart Purvis, ITN's chief executive, said that
the jury's verdict was a "victory for frontline journalism over pundit
journalism". Yet one of his frontline journalists, Ian Williams, said lamely
after the case that: "I was not knowingly not telling the truth." And ITN
editor-in-chief Richard Tait's comment that the verdict was "a blow for
freedom of speech" really does take the biscuit.

The appropriate forum for tackling this sorry mess was exactly what ITN had
within its remit - a TV special in which the blacks and the whites and also
the greys were examined. To go to the courts in a country where LM must lose
and the magazine would then fold was a shabby course to take and one that was
a denial of freedom of speech. But I suppose 'tis an ill wind that blows no
one no good and I am certainly never again going to be suckered into writing
articles for LM for no pay.

PUNCH, #106, May 2000