The Origins of the Guardian’s Attack on Chomsky


Last Halloween, The Guardian ran an attack on Noam Chomsky that amazed many readers who had considered The Guardian to be one of Britain’s more serious newspapers. The attack took the form of what Alexander Cockburn described in his article on this CounterPunch website as a “showcase interview“–“a showcase for the interviewer’s inquisitorial chutzpa”. In this art form, the interviewee is simply the prey for the interviewer who plies him with trap questions and then rewrites the whole thing to make him look like an idiot compared to her clever self.

The interviewer was a young Oxford graduate named Emma Brockes who is making a name for herself in the genre. Ms Brockes obviously had scant familiarity with Chomsky’s work. For all one can tell, her sole background preparation for this assignment was an article written by her colleague Ed Vulliamy and published by the Balkan Crisis Report of International War and Peace Reporting (IWPR, an outfit heavily subsidized by NATO governments) on August 27, 2004. Vulliamy’s article, “We Must Fight for Memory of Bosnia’s Camps”, calling for monuments to perpetuate the memory of the 1992 Bosnian Serb detention camps which he visited as a reporter (but not, of course, the Muslim and Croat camps which he did not visit), includes an attack on me which is echoed very precisely by Ms Brockes, even to misspelling my name in the same way.

The entire background for her attack on Chomsky seems to be drawn from two paragraphs of Vulliamy’s article:

Revisionism over the carnage in Bosnia is rampant and persistent. It has been ever since Thomas Deichmann and his group in London, under the auspices of a circle called “Living Marxism”, claimed the camps found by ITN and myself were fabrications. They adopted the Serbian term “collection centres”, claiming their inmates were there of their own volition. Deichmann’s charges were ruled by a jury as being in breach of civil law in the London High Court when they were legally challenged by ITN. Successive verdicts in The Hague have rendered them ridiculous as well as poisonous. One could be forgiven for thinking that once the Bosnian Serb co-president Biljana Plavsic had pleaded guilty to the entire hurricane of violence unleashed on her authority, the revisionists would go to ground.

After all, who would know best: they or the woman (and her peers and subordinates) on whose orders the pogrom was carried out? But no. In Sweden, here they come again, through the pages of a magazine called Ordfront, or Word Front. Last year, it carried an interview with the author Diane Johnstone, about her book Fool’s Crusade, which expresses doubts over the number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre; the authencity of the Racak massacre in Kosovo; the use of systematic rape in the war in Bosnia; and the true figure of Bosnian war dead (the official estimate is more than 200,000 – Johnstone claims 50,000). And just as before, members of the chattering classes, unbelievably, have hailed this poison as “outstanding work”, in a letter signed by, among others, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Tariq Ali, John Pilger, <et.al>.

In her write-up of the interview, Ms Brockes interprets Chomsky’s defense of publication of my book as a “defense of those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated” and drags in the ITN-Living Marxism (LM) controversy, confusing the facts just as in Vulliamy’s article. She lauds “my colleague, Ed Vulliamy”, as one of the “serious, trustworthy people” who disagree with Chomsky. So it is not far-fetched to see Vulliamy’s influence in the Brockes hatchet job.

The above citation from the Vulliamy article misrepresents the ITN-LM case, as does Ms Brockes. The issue raised by LM had to do with the way photographs taken at Trnopolje camp, by focusing on a thin man on the other side of a wire fence which in reality did not surround the Muslim inmates, but rather the ITN crew itself, was used to create the impression that what was happening in Bosnia was a repetition of a Nazi-style Holocaust. I corrected that misrepresentation in my reponse to The Guardian, which was published by CounterPunch, but not by the Guardian. I pointed out then that the judgment of the court was based solely on the subjective issue as to whether or not the ITN journalists “deliberately” set out to deceive the public.

Moreover, in reality, nobody denied the “existence” of the camps, which Vulliamy claims to have “discovered”, although he was led there by Bosnian Serb guides. There are other misrepresentations in his article. For example, I have never made any claim as to the number of victims in Bosnia, but simply pointed to the fact that among various estimates, the media has preferred to accept and repeat the highest, which was offered without any evidence by the information ministry in Sarajevo. Since my book was published, a serious study by Norwegian experts for the Hague Tribunal has estimates the overall number of casualties of the Bosnian war at 102,622 persons, of which 55,261 were civilians and 47,360 militaries at the time of death (no ethnic breakdown). That is a lot, but it is not “over 200,000”, as Vulliamy and others go right on repeating, usually with the implication that all were Muslims

From this citation, it emerges that the Brockes interview was a continuation of the vicious attack on me and the managing editor of the Swedish magazine Ordfront, Björn Ecklund, following his long article in the July/August 2003 issue on “lies about Yugoslavia” which featured an interview with me and excerpts from my book, “Fools’ Crusade”.

The first shots in that assault were fired by Maciej Zaremba, an ex-Maoist of Polish origin turned ideological watchdog, in a flailing article published by Sweden’s leading mainstream daily, Dagens Nyeter. Zaremba’s sloppy attack (he admittedly never read my book, and seems not even to have read the Ordfront piece carefully) was thereupon echoed by mainstream Swedish media, in a campaign absurdly called a “debate”, although replies from those being attacked (myself and others) were excluded. Among the uncorrected lies was the statement that I was a “pillar of LM”, a magazine with which I have never had the slightest contact.

This shameful campaign was used to bring to heel Ordfront, which until then had been the most important left-oriented alternative to Sweden’s mainstream press. It is an amazing story, excellently recounted by Al Burke, a (formerly U.S.) Swedish citizen who is well-acquainted with the Ordfront scandal and its broader political context. His document, “All Quieted on the Word Front”, deserves to be read carefully by all who are concerned by the growing threats to freedom of political expression in the “democratic West”. See www.nnn.se/n-model/foreign/ordfront.pdf. For starters, there is an introduction on Al Burke’s web www.nnn.se/n-model/foreign/ordfront.htm

Ms Brockes colleague Ed Vulliamy is a proud practitioner of what is called “advocacy journalism”, a reporter who openly and passionately takes sides in conflicts he covers. I would prefer to describe it as sort of literary journalism, where phrase-making and emotional arousal take precedence over reason, or even, on occasion, facts. The striking feature is the unrestrained use of a florid style, reflected in his choice of adjectives. In the article cited above, for instance, he speaks of the “putrid afternoon” when he had “the accursed honor” of seeing “heinouswalls”, etc. As to content, in the case of the Yugoslav disintegration wars, the emotional approach works best by reducing events to a certain number of notorious atrocities, proper to chill the blood and close the mind to contemplation of political complications.

Beyond advocacy, he writes as a sort of professional mourner and literary avenger. Now, that is his right and suits his talent. I make no attempt to interfere with his mourning and his advocacy. But I do object when his style of journalism is used to condemn a quite different type of journalistic writing: one that attempts to be analytical and fair to all sides. I readily acknowledge that emotional commitment is probably the most powerful motor for even the most analytical writing. But the difference is the attempt to be dispassionate, to exercise a certain self-control over the emotional flow of words. The watchdogs condemn efforts to be fair to all sides in the Yugoslav conflicts as “inflicting new pain on the victims”; Vulliamy wrote that “Johnstone’s book has inflicted new pain on those who matter the most: those who underwent endless days of mindless torture and survived; on the brave and almost forgotten women of Srebrenica who are still desperately searching for their loved ones; and dishonours the memory of the victims.”

In short, I am accused of being a sort of torturer, and Vulliamy is no doubt able to round up some poor Bosnian Muslim victims of his acquaintance, wave my book at them, and tell them that they have been dishonored and that he is busily defending them from the pain I am <nflicting.This> does not really do much for the victims, but it does serve to preserve the Bosnian conflict as a purely emotional issue, a issue of good versus evil, which keeps it firmly on the terrain commandeered by Vulliamy himself, and the likes of Zaremba. It enforces the notion of a cartoonbook world, in which all is either black or white, good or evil, and anyone who tries to understand all sides of an issue is condemned as an appeaser, a coward, and perhaps even a handmaiden of the Devil.

In reality, trying to be fair and analytical does not at all preclude feeling sympathy for victims, and other human emotions. But for some writers, their emotional commitment seems to exclude all fairness and reasonable analysis. Whatever the political aims of such writers, a matter I cannot judge, their militant rejection of dispassionate analysis can only play into the hands of political powers who cloak their military interventions in the rhetoric of humanitarian imperatives.

DIANA JOHNSTONE is the author of Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, Nato, and Western Delusions published by Monthly Review Press. She can be reached at: dianajohnstone@compuserve.com


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