Storm Over Brockes’ Fakery


After Foreign Policy and Prospect magazines issued their poll last month of the top intellectuals in the world I broached to Noam Chomsky the notion that CounterPunch might compile an alternative list. The plan was to dismiss FP/Prospect readers’ pick of mostly lumpen non-thinkers in favor of real intellectuals like Levi-Strauss, or Baudrillard, or Laura Nader or Barbara Fields, or the Anderson Bros or Boris Kagarlitsky.

Chomsky who featured in the poll as top intellectual, (with twice as many votes as the runner-up, Umberto Eco, to the evident consternation of much of the north-eastern US press which has mostly kept silent on the matter) wrote back in good humor, ridiculing the idea of such lists and putting forward as candidates his granddaughter in Nicaragua, or his granddaughter’s cat. The subject soon grew wearisome and I went back to important matters such as how to keep the temperature in my pit under 80 degrees F, vital in the correct preparation of cold-smoked Coho salmon caught in Gray’s Harbor, WA.

But the pre-eminence of a genuinely radical thinker like Chomsky plainly irked New Labour types at the British daily, The Guardian. So they sent off an interviewer to do a razor job on the professor of linguistics at MIT.

In recent years, the “interview” as a showcase for the interviewer’s inquisitorial chutzpa has been more a feature of English than of American daily journalism. The Guardian’s current showcase performer in what is essentially a game of self promotion, (displaying the interviewer as more than a match for the interviewee) is a woman named Emma Brockes, fairly new to the game but already feted as a high-flier.

Last year Brockes interviewed the black British poet, Benjamin Zephaniah after he refused an OBE. Towards the end of the piece, Brockes asked Zephaniah about what he was reading:

“I ask him what he is reading at the moment. ‘Chomsky’, he says. ‘I am always reading Chomsky.’

“I tell him I find Chomsky hard work. ‘Really?’ he says. ‘Really? That’s cos you ain’t got a Birmingham accent.’ And he throws back his head and brays like a donkey.’

This is a good illustration of a characteristic of many of these showcase interviews, where the interviewer sneaks in a kidney punch after the interview is over, when she’s safely back in the office. So the readers are left to warm their hands over the rancid and somehow racist snap of “brays like a donkey”.

Of course Brockes knows when to mind her manners. She did an interview with Ariel Sharon in 2001, replete with such challenging interrogatories as:

“I wonder how Sharon would go about capturing Bin Laden if he was commanding Britain’s special forces? (As a 25 year old he commanded Special Unit 101, which undertook just this sort of operation).”

Brockes avoided mention at this point of what precisely Special Unit 101 ­ one of the most notorious death squads of the twentieth century ­ actually got up to. She opted instead for tremulous insights such as:

“It is tempting to speculate that the personal risk that Sharon has lived under for practically all of his life has influenced his political decision-making.”

Her ignorance is pervasive. Barak, she dutifully writes, “offered Arafat withdrawal from Gaza, most of the West Bank and a share of Jerusalem, greater concessions than had ever been offered”.

Finally in the twentieth paragraph, she addresses, or claims she addressed, the darker wide of General Sharon. She mentions, or says she mentioned, the massacre at Qibya in 1953, the invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the massacres at the refugee camps. The moment of confrontation has arrived. As rapidly, it departs.

“Sharon tutts dismissively. ‘They can accuse us as much as they want to.” The car stops. “You want to see some sheep?'”

And off they go, very cozily, to count sheep. (Or maybe they weren’t very cozy, just cozy, or maybe the relationship was only superficially cozy, but fundamentally brittle. I insert the “very” and “cozy” just to show how easy it is to load the dice in this sort of game.

The contrast between this decorous treatment of a genuine, full-bore war criminal and Brockes’ tetchy malevolence and dishonesties in her piece about Chomsky is very marked.

You can get the drift from the deck of headlines and sub-heads with which the Guardian editors introduced Brockes’ piece.

The greatest intellectual?

Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated?

A: My only regret is that I didn’t do it strongly enough

As we’ll see, this is a carefully considered overture to the set-up.

After some very childish bric-a-brac about the open packet of fig-rolls on Chomsky’s desk (“is it wrong to mention the fig rolls when there is undocumented suffering going on in El Salvador?”) it isn’t long before Brockes swerves into her predetermined trajectory, to the effect that

his [Chomsky’s] conclusions remain controversial: that practically every US president since the second world war has been guilty of war crimes; that in the overall context of Cambodian history, the Khmer Rouge weren’t as bad as everyone makes out; that during the Bosnian war the “massacre” at Srebrenica was probably overstated. (Chomsky uses quotations marks to undermine things he disagrees with and, in print at least, it can come across less as academic than as witheringly teenage; like, Srebrenica was so not a massacre.)

Read those sentences in bold type carefully. Brockes is claiming that Chomsky had, in reference to Srebrenica, put the word massacre in quotation marks, thus deprecating the idea that it was in fact a massacre. There’s no other way to construe the sentences. Here’s “massacre” in its quote marks and then in the next sentence “Chomsky uses quotation marks to undermine things he disagrees with” Next comes Brockes’ summary of Chomsky’s position, identified by use of the “witheringly teenage” quote marks: “Srebrenica was so not a massacre.”

Now this is no little parlor game Brockes is engaged in here. For Guardian readers, a man who denies that a massacre took place at Srebrenica is not one who deserves to be voted the top intellectual on the planet. The opening headlines set Chomsky up, and the quote marks round the word massacre knock him down.

But there’s no sentence in which Chomsky has ever suggested with the use of those quotation marks that a massacre in Srebrenica did not take place. There are passages, easy to find , in which Chomsky most definitely says it was a massacre. Brockes is faking it.

Brockes backs away from the set-up for a few paragraphs and retails the standard Chomsky bio. Then she swerves back, on the theme of Chomsky being asked to “to lend his name to all sorts of crackpot causes”:

As some see it, one ill-judged choice of cause was the accusation made by Living Marxism magazine that during the Bosnian war, shots used by ITN of a Serb-run detention camp were faked. The magazine folded after ITN sued, but the controversy flared up again in 2003 when a journalist called Diane Johnstone made similar allegations in a Swedish magazine, Ordfront, taking issue with the official number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre. (She said they were exaggerated.) In the ensuing outcry, Chomsky lent his name to a letter praising Johnstone’s “outstanding work”. Does he regret signing it?

“No,” he says indignantly. “It is outstanding. My only regret is that I didn’t do it strongly enough. It may be wrong; but it is very careful and outstanding work.”

Now we can see where those opening headlines were drawn from, and the context comes into focus. Chomsky’s point concerns his expressed support for Diana (not, as Brockes has it, Diane) Johnstone’s work. And as readers of our CounterPunch site will know from Johnstone’s two excellent recent pieces on Srebrenica, Johnstone never for one moment says there wasn’t a massacre there. She simply provides a factual historical sequence and context that many find disturbing, and politically inconvenient).

From what Brockes presents as her ensuing argument with Chomsky, it’s clear that she doesn’t know much about the Living Marxism/ITN affair, which in fact was an entirely separate case, which occurred well before Srebrenica. For the interest of CounterPunchers I append here Phil Knightley’s extremely detailed discussion of the circumstances of those historically momentous news photos of the detention camp.)

Throughout the interview, incidentally, Brockes spectacularly fails to mention Iraq –perhaps because it would reveal a poor showing for Chomsky’s detractors. She spends much of the final portion displaying herself as the advocate of journalistic truth against Chomsky, whom she takes care to depict as peevish and irritable. Her pay-off is of a cheapness and insolent vulgarity that brings to mind her line about Zephaniah braying like a donkey.

Does he [Chomsky] have a share portfolio? He looks cross. “You’d have to ask my wife about that. I’m sure she does. I don’t see any reason why she shouldn’t. Would it help people if I went to Montana and lived on a mountain? It’s only rich, privileged westerners – who are well educated and therefore deeply irrational – in whose minds this idea could ever arise. When I visit peasants in southern Colombia, they don’t ask me these questions.”

I suggest that people don’t like being told off about their lives by someone they consider a hypocrite.

That’s what a simple-living and ­ by common agreement, selfless — 76-year professor get for letting an ambitious “interviewer” into his office for an hour.

The Brockes interview ran on October 31. The next day The Guardian ran a couple of letters of complaint, about Brockes’ manifest bias and spite. Chomsky wrote immediately, outlining in detail Brockes’ “fabrications”, a word the Guardian editors adamantly refused to allow into print, under the obviously preposterous argument that this would invite litigation. From whom? Brockes would sue her own paper?

Finally, in what Chomsky himself regards as a piece of journalistic chicanery even more outrageous than Brockes’ smear, the Guardian printed his edited letter of complaint “paired,” as Chomsky put it later, ” with a letter from a survivor from Bosnia, which, as the editors certainly know, is based entirely on lies in the faked ‘interview’ they published. The title: “Falling out over Srebrenica.” As Chomsky says, “There was no Srebrenica debate, and they know it perfectly well. I never mentioned it, except to repeatedly try to explain to Brockes that I opposed the withdrawal of Johnstone’s book under dishonest press attacks that were all lies, as I showed in the open letter I mentioned. And it had nothing to do with the scale of the Srebrenica massacre, as again they all know.”

The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rushbridger, is now trying to brush aside complaints about his newspaper’s scandalous misrepresentations as left-wing cavils of no consequence. As I write this, the newspaper has not published Diana Johnstone’s eloquent letter of complaint which I quote here in its entirety.

Paris, November 5, 2005

To the editors of The Guardian

I have belatedly learned of the October 31 interview with Noam Chomsky by Emma Brockes, in which my name appeared (misspelled) three times. I would like to correct that minor mistake as well as a few more significant ones.

The most basic underlying distortion is to present Professor Chomsky’s defense of free expression as a defense of particular statements or ideas. A related distortion is to misrepresent such statements and ideas.

As a young star reporter, on the heady assignment of ridiculing a man with the stature of Chomsky, Ms Brockes was obviously not required to check facts or to know much of anything about the subjects she raised in her interview.

One of these was the famous “thin man behind barbed wire” photo taken by ITN in August 1992, which became the emblem of the war in Bosnia. In February 1997, a small magazine called “LM”, or “Living Marxism,” published an article by German journalist Thomas Deichmann pointing out that the wire fence did not enclose the men in the photos. Rather, it was part of an agricultural enclosure on the edge of the camp. The ITN crew itself went inside the enclosure to take photos of the “thin man” through the wire fence. Deichmann called this “the photo that fooled the world”.

Ms Brockes writes that the LM report was “proven” to be false in a court of law. In fact, ITN put LM out of business by winning a libel suit against the magazine. But due to the quaint nature of British libel law, the decisive issue in court was NOT the truth about the wire fence. Rather, it was whether or not the ITN reporters had “deliberately” sought to deceive the public. The issue become one of intentions and emotions. The judge, in his summing up, acknowledged that the ITN team reporters were mistaken as to who was enclosed by the old barbed-wire fence, adding, “but does it matter?” The jury decided it did not.

I never said anything about the intentions of the ITN journalists. In my book, “Fools’ Crusade” (Pluto Press, 2002), I refer to the famous “thin man behind barbed wire” photo, to point out the way the photo was interpreted by world media to create the impression that what was happening in Bosnia was a repetition of the Nazi Holocaust. According to what I have read, Ms Brockes’ colleague Ed Vulliamy himself, who accompanied the ITN team, also objected to the way the media used the Trnopolje photo to liken Bosnian camps to Nazi death camps.

It is not clear which “controversy” Ms Brockes is referring to when she writes that “the controversy flared up again” when I “made similar allegations in a Swedish magazine, Ordfront”. Which allegations? Ordfront interviewed me as part of a long feature article on media “lies” about Yugoslavia. A series of attacks in Swedish media misrepresented my views, which led Ordfront to abandon plans to publish a Swedish edition of my book.

Ms Brockes neglects to mention my book, or the fact that publication of my book, and not some hypothetical statement about some particular fact, was what Chomsky — among others — defended.

Neither I nor Professor Chomsky have ever denied that Muslims were the main victims of atrocities and massacres committed in Bosnia. But I insist that the tragedy of Yugoslav disintegration cannot be reduced to such massacres, and that there are other aspects of the story, historical and political, that deserve to be considered. However, any challenge to the mainstream media version of events is stigmatized as “causing more suffering to the victims” — an accusation that makes no sense, but which works as a sort of emotional blackmail.

If some of us dare expose ourselves to such distressing accusations, it is simply because we believe that the single-minded focus on particular massacres, and the hasty application of the term “genocide”, is exploited to justify military intervention which occurs only when it suits United States geopolitical purposes and which on balance makes bad situations worse. Prevention of an imaginary “genocide” in Kosovo was the pretext for the United States to establish the precedent of unauthorized military intervention, convert NATO to a new mission of “humanitarian intervention”, and thereby reaffirm U.S. supremacy in Europe after the end of the Cold War. When no “weapons of mass destruction” are found, “humanitarian intervention” to overthrow the “genocidal” Saddam Hussein becomes the retroactive excuse for the invasion of Iraq. And what next…?

Current issues of war and peace are matters of importance which should be the object of serious public debate, instead of being treated as sacred dogma, from which any deviation is condemned as heresy.

— Diana Johnstone

How much does the Guardian’s hit-and-run job on Chomsky matter? Enough, in my view, to warrant, detailed inspection. Chomsky’s enemies have often opted for these artful onslaughts in which he’s set up as somehow an apologist for monstrosity, instead of being properly identified as one of the most methodical and tireless dissectors and denouncers of monstrosity in our era. Their contemptible tactics should be seen for what they are. Rushbridger and his editors are far, far beyond reform in their low practices. Maybe young Brockes will clean up her act, though I doubt it.

Here, by way of conclusion, is Philip Knightley’s discussion of the famous concentration camp photos. He made it to the court, back in 1998.

DECEMBER 28, 1998

My name is Phillip Knightley. I live at 4 Northumberland Place, London W2 5BS. I am aged 70 and I have been a journalist and author for fifty years. My most successful book has been The First Casualty which examined the way wars have been reported, photographed and filmed from the Crimea to the Falklands. This book is used in teaching journalism in many universities and colleges around the world and has been published in nine languages.

In the years following publication of The First Casualty I have often been asked to examine and write about war photographs. I have been able to show that several well-known photographs of the Vietnam war, for instance, were not quite what they were made out to be at the time. I can go into details of these if the court wishes.

In October 1994, an Australian monthly magazine, The Independent, asked me to write an article about the rise of women war correspondents. This interest had been sparked off by Maggie O’Kane’s reporting from the former Yugoslavia and the fact that women comprised one third of the correspondents there. In the course of researching this article I came across the still photograph of the men at Tronopolje camp taken from the ITN TV footage. I was immediately struck by the fact that the image was too good to be true. I got hold of a tape of the ITN report and examined it frame by frame.

Since my assignment was to concentrate on the role of women war correspondents, I commented only briefly on the ITN report itself. Here is what I wrote:

“How accurate and fair were the detention camp reports? First there is the question of nomenclature. They were certainly not death camps in the Nazi sense. Nor, at the other end of the scale were they simply prisoner-of-war camps. If it were not for the Holocaust association then concentration camps would be accurate, in the sense that the Bosnian Serbs “concentrated” in the camp the people they wished to hold. Most correspondents now agree that detention camps would have been a fairer description.

Next, all the inmates were not starving, and the emaciated man in Marshall’s report may well have been an exception. A frame by frame examination of her film reveals at least one prisoner with a paunch hanging over his belt and most others do not seem dangerously thin. Phil Davison, a highly-respected correspondent from The Independent, who has covered all sides in the conflict, says, “Things had gone slightly quiet. Suddenly there were these death camps/concentration camps stories. They were an exaggeration. I’m not excusing the Serbs, but don’t forget there was a blockade on Serbia at the time and there was not a lot of food around for anyone, Serbs included.”

“The International Committee of the Red Cross says that at that time the Croats and the Muslims were also running detention camps but no stories were written about them because the Croats and Muslims refused to allow journalists access to them. The ICRC conclusion is: “The Serbs, the Croats, and the Muslims all ran detention camps and must share equal blame.”

So I was well aware of the ITN report nearly two years before the LM controversy began. When it did I was appalled by what I saw as a freedom of speech issue and was impelled to write about it. I did, using some of the material I had already gathered for my earlier article. The article follows:

“This ITN picture changed the course of the war in Bosnia. Now a German journalist claims the world was fooled. ITN says that this is an outrageous and untrue accusation. Who’s right? Phillip Knightley, author of “The First Casualty”, the definitive book on the reporting of war, offers a view.

On 29 July 1992, Maggie O’Kane, a foreign correspondent for The Guardian, wrote a story about Serbian detention camps in northern Bosnia where several thousand Muslims were imprisoned. It was a graphic and emotional account and quoted one woman as recalling: “Where’s your Allah now,” they [the Serbs] said. “We’re going to f–k all you Muslim women.”

Although O’Kane said that of all the camps, one called Trnopolje was the best one to be sent to–“they are fed there and the villagers can bring them supplies”–she nevertheless described Trnopolje as “a concentration camp”, a phrase redolent of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, a decision she still defends, albeit with reservations.

Even though O’Kane had not seen Trnopolje herself, her story had great impact, especially on television news organisations. Within 24 hours, 350 journalists were racing to the camps to follow up the story. The first television reporters to arrive at Trnopolje were Penny Marshall of ITN and Ian Williams of Channel 4 News.

In her award-winning report on 6 August, we see Marshall (then 30), blonde hair tied with a blue and white ribbon and dressed in a pink T-shirt and United Nations blue flak jacket (this description is important) walk briskly towards a large group of men, some stripped to the waist, standing near a high barbed wire fence. She stretches out her hand to one emaciated man and says “Dober Dan (“Good Day”). The man (later identified as Fikret Alic, now living in Denmark) smiles, responds, and shakes her hand. The camera pans from his waist up to his chest where his ribs are starkly prominent behind the barbed wire.

Beamed around the world, and used as a grainy, still photograph in newspapers, the image changed the course of the war. In Britain two newspapers labeled it: “Belsen 1992”. Another said, “A grim vision of a new Holocaust came to our TV screens last night.” In Germany, a Berlin newspaper declared, “In Bosnia today a new Auschwitz is beginning.” In the United States, ABC television said, “To see adults starving was like a throwback to the death camps of wartime Germany”.

Less than 20 minutes after Marshall’s report was broadcast on American TV, President Bush had changed his policy towards Serbia. In Britain, Prime Minister John Major recalled his Cabinet from holiday for an emergency meeting at which it was decided to send 1,800 ground troops to Bosnia. Within weeks the Serbs had closed down the camps but the picture of the emaciated Bosnian Muslim behind barbed wire had entered the iconography of war, and any sympathy the public might have had for the Serbs in this bitter civil conflict evaporated overnight.

Now Thomas Deichmann, a German freelance journalist and lecturer, a former war correspondent in Bosnia himself, a professional witness for the defence at the War Crimes Tribunal, has claimed that the picture is not what it seemed at the time and that the world was fooled. He says that the barbed wire, an essential element of ITN’s image, was not intended to confine the Muslims but to protect a pre-war agricultural compound. Penny Marshall and her cameraman, Jeremy Irvin, had inadvertently entered this compound, so that if anyone was behind barbed wire, it was them. Further, the camp was a collection centre for refugees and many Bosnians had come there voluntarily to seek safety and could leave if they wished.

He first published these accusations in the Swiss intellectual weekly Welt Woche on January 9. His story has since been picked up by publications all over Europe. But it was only when Britain’s Living Marxism announced on January 25 that it was publishing Deichmann’s article in its February issue that ITN reacted. It reached for its lawyers, Biddle and Company.

They wrote to Living Marxism saying that Deichmann’s accusations were “wholly false. . bogus. . and defamatory”. They demanded the pulping of all copies of Living Marxism, an apology, damages and an undertaking not to repeat the accusations. Living Marxism’s editor replied that he stood by Deichmann’s story, publication of the magazine would go ahead, and that he found it “grubby” that journalists should attempt to silence other journalists through the courts.

And silence them it has–at least in Britain. Elsewhere the debate has raged over who is right over the ITN image and does it matter, since, it is argued, even if the details of this particular story might be misleading, it still represents “the greater truth” about the Serbs and their camps. But in Britain, pending ITN’s libel action due to start this autumn, none of the mainstream media will touch the story from fear of being dragged into the libel case–and labelled pro-Serb.

WHERE DOES the truth lie? There is no easy answer. You could write a book about the limitations and defects of the way today’s television reports wars, its emphasis on human interest stories that end up distorting the issues; about the mind-set of editors which results in hundreds of journalists descending, pack-like, on what the office back home considers the story of the day; and about the pandering to public demand for easily-identifiable “goodies and baddies” in complex wars in which all the right is never on only one side.

I have examined Deichmann’s accusations and interviewed him. I have viewed not only Penny Marshall’s report but the out-takes, the material shot by the ITN cameraman but not used. I have looked at what Penny Marshall and Ian Williams have said about the story since 1992. I have sought the views of the War Crimes Tribunal and its investigators. And I have tried to establish the atmosphere in Bosnia and London at that time.

More women war correspondents covered the war in the former Yugoslavia than in any other war and I believe that the way they reported it changed the emphasis of the coverage. Women were more interested in the suffering that war causes. Maggie O’Kane says that the suffering was greater on the Muslim side, that since she could not be everywhere, she would concentrate on stories about Muslim victims.

Male correspondents, on the other hand, seemed more interested in writing about the possession of territory–who was winning the war and how? And when male correspondents did write stories about victims, as did seasoned TV reporter Michael Nicholson on children trapped in Sarajevo, they seemed to pass without the attention O’Kane and Marshall attracted.

The fact that Penny Marshall is a woman was also a factor in getting the pictures that made her famous and in the effect they created. It was the sight of clean, neat, civilian woman, who–apart from the flak jacket–could have stepped straight from any European high street–walking up to a barbed wire fence that first caught the attention of Fikret Alic and his fellows. And it is the images of this casually-dressed woman greeting these gaunt, dispirited men that adds such power to the report–the normal meets the pitiful and shakes its hand.

But both reporters–Penny Marshall and Ian Williams–have expressed reservations about the way the images have been interpreted. Penny Marshall has said, “I totally refute the charge that the report was sensationalist. I bent over backwards–Bosnian Serb guards feeding the prisoners. I showed a small Muslim child who had come of his own volition. I didn’t call them death camps. I was incredibly careful. But again and again we see that image [the emaciated man] being used.”

And Ian Williams, in an interview with the British Press Gazette, a magazine for the media industry, the month after the story, told of his concern over the reaction to the pictures: “In a sense it’s almost the power of the images going two steps ahead of the proof that went with them.”

SO WHAT sort of a camp was Trnopolje? Maggie O’Kane says it was a concentration camp. But this could be true only in the sense that it was where the Serbs “concentrated” Muslims, for whatever reason. It was not a concentration camp in the Second World War sense. In the out-takes from her report, Marshall makes strenuous efforts to find out what Trnopolje is: “What is this place?” but gets no satisfactory answer. The film images certainly imply it was detention camp and this is how the War Crimes Tribunal described it.

Deichmann says that they were wrong. It was a refugee camp and that people were free to come and go as they pleased. In the out-takes of the ITN film, people can be seen leaving the camp and walking up and down the nearby roadway. A regional Red Cross official in the out-takes says it is a refugee camp, but then he is a Serb.

The most likely explanation is that Trnopolje was both a refugee camp and a detention camp–there were at least two different groups of people there–and that this is what has confused the issue. Refugees had come there of their own free will and could leave at any time. But there were also Bosnian Muslims like Fikret Alic who had been transferred there from other camps, who were awaiting identification and processing, and who were not free to leave.

But even this group was not confined by barbed wire. The out-takes show them in the main camp, outside the agricultural compound, and the main camp was not surrounded with barbed wire, as the War Crimes Tribunal agrees, but by a low chain-mail fence to keep schoolchildren off the road. As well, the barbed wire fence was no deterrent to anyone determined to escape because it was poorly constructed with wide gaps. What confined the Bosnians at Trnopolje, the War Crimes Tribunal says, was the presence of armed Serbian guards. So ITN was right in that the men in the film were detained in Trnopolje, but the image used to illustrate that was misleading because it implied that they were detained by the barbed wire. The barbed wire turns out to be only symbolic.

Were all the inmates starving? No. Fikret Alic was an exception. Even in Marshall’s report other men, apparently well-fed, can be seen, and the out-takes reveal at least one man with a paunch hanging over his belt. Phil Davison, a highly-respected correspondent who covered the war from both sides for The Independent says, “Things had gone slightly quiet. Suddenly there were these death camps/concentration camps stories. They were an exaggeration. I’m not excusing the Serbs but don’t forget that there was a blockade on Serbia at the time and there not a lot of food around for anyone, Serbs included.”

So Thomas Deichmann is right in the sense that the ITN image is not quite what we all thought at the time. But aren’t we blaming the wrong people? Television news being what it is, could we really have expected Penny Marshall or ITN’s editors to have hedged such a powerful image with all sorts of verbal qualifications?

Part of the blame must lie with us. Our appetite for such images encourages war correspondents to give us “black and white” stories and reveals our reluctance to make the effort to understand the complexities of war. Misha Glenny, author of “The Fall of Yugoslavia”, regretting a missing element from the coverage of the war–a serious explanation of why the Serbs behaved the way they did–wrote: “The general perception is because they are stark, raving mad, vicious, mean bastards.”

So we believed the ITN picture to be the absolute truth because we wanted to and the most regrettable thing of all is that by reaching for lawyers ITN has stifled what could have been a fascinating and important debate. (The article ends here)

When, like Capa’s moment of death photograph, the ITN report was hailed as a great image, should the team have stood up and publicly said, “Hey, hang on a minute. It wasn’t quite like that.” In an ideal world, yes. We can hear Penny Marshall’s concern in the quotes of hers I have used in the above article. And Ian Williams, to his credit, has said: “In a sense it’s almost the power of the images going two steps ahead of the proof that went with them.” But given the commercial pressures of modern TV and the fact that to have spoken out would hardly endear the ITN crew to their employers and might even have endangered their jobs, it is understandable but not forgivable that no one chose to do so.

In my professional opinion this is a case of immense importance. It calls into question the whole way TV reports wars, the pressure for that one vivid image that “sums it all up”, even though the issues may be so complicated that such an image may not exist and could even be–as in this case–misleading. This is a matter that desperately needs to be publicly debated. And it calls into question our basic right of freedom of expression.


Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined!, A Colossal Wreck and An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents are available from CounterPunch.