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Five years ago, ITN's images of emaciated men behind barbed wire convinced the world that the Serbs were running Nazi-style concentration camps in Bosnia. As ITN pleads innocent to the charge of inciting the media riot that followed, Thomas Deichmann reviews the evidence in those August 1992 bulletins

ITN on trial

On 7 August 1992 ITN lunchtime news (bottom left) reproduced Dutch (top left), Turkish (top right) and American broadcasts (bottom right) - all likening ITN's pictures to Hitler's concentration camps ITN has made two official responses to my article 'The Picture that Fooled the World' (LM, February 1997), which posed some embarrassing questions about their award-winning reports from Bosnian camps. One was a libel writ against the magazine. The other was a statement that ITN 'stands by its reporting of the finding of the detention camps, which were not referred to as "Nazi-style concentration camps"' (23 January 1997). This raises an interesting question. If ITN did not call the Serb-run camps at Trnopolje and Omarska in northern Bosnia concentration camps, where did the whole world get the idea that they were? Why was everybody convinced that the ITN team led by Penny Marshall and Ian Williams had found the 'proof' of a new Holocaust in August 1992? Did high-ranking politicians, newspaper editors and millions of television viewers suffer a collective hallucination while watching the ITN reports?

To answer the question I went back and reviewed ITN's news bulletins from the key days of 6 and 7 August 1992. In one sense, ITN is right: they did not call the camps Nazi-style concentration camps. But I have made that clear all along. My accusation against ITN is, first, that the way the pictures were produced and presented gave the misleading impression that Trnopolje was a concentration camp. And second, that when the world media broadcast that bogus interpretation, ITN not only failed to correct it, but celebrated it. Five years on, a close look at the evidence suggests ITN is guilty on both counts.

The two key bulletins which broke the world-exclusive story of the camps were the Channel 4 News at 7pm on 6 August (the day after the pictures were taken), and the News at Ten on ITV that same evening. The keynote image with which both programmes began, and which was repeated throughout, was the picture of the emaciated Fikret Alic apparently caged behind barbed wire at Trnopolje camp. This image had the most tremendous impact on world opinion, immediately inviting comparisons to the pictures of Nazi concentration camps like Dachau, Bergen Belsen or Auschwitz where starving Jewish prisoners behind huge barbed wire fences waited to be sent to the gas chambers. 'They are the sort of scenes that flicker in black and white images from 50-year-old films of Nazi concentration camps', said the Daily Mail the morning after the image was first broadcast (7 August 1992).

Yet, as I explained in detail in my February LM article, this picture fooled the world. The hidden truth behind it was that there was no barbed wire fence surrounding the refugee and transit camp at Trnopolje, and no barbed wire encircling Fikret Alic and the other Bosnian Muslims. (After five years of silence, ITN finally had to admit that this was true in the High Court in April.) It is also a matter of fact that the British news team themselves were the ones surrounded by barbed wire. They were filming from inside a small agricultural compound next to the camp, which had been fenced in with barbed wire long before the war. By taking the pictures of Alic through this compound fence, they left the world with the clear impression that Alic and the camp were ringed by a barbed wire fence, stoking up new fears of starving prisoners in Nazi-style camps.

This is not a debate about trick photography. There is a huge difference between seeing the places filmed by ITN as camps, and seeing them as concentration camps. The refugee and transit camp at Trnopolje was certainly grim, and the detention and interrogation centre at Omarska was considerably grimmer. But neither bore any comparison to the concentration camps in which the Nazis slaughtered millions of Jews and others. Anything which suggested a comparison between Trnopolje and, say, Auschwitz would not only have dangerously distorted the truth about the Bosnian conflict - a civil war, not a war of genocidal conquest. It would also do a grave injustice to the victims of the Nazi Holcaust, by belittling the scale of the century's great atrocity.

ITN, however, seems to have done nothing to discourage such comparisons. Watching the news bulletins from 6 August, it is clear that ITN editors deployed their powerful barbed wire image again and again in order to make the maximum impact. My research has also shown how ITN broadcast only the most sensational moments from its interviews with the Bosnian Muslims through the barbed wire. For example, the sequence where a man standing next to Fikret Alic said that he felt safer in Trnopolje, and believed it was not a prison but a refugee camp, was cut out, while the image of Alic behind the barbed wire appeared as a backdrop to almost every item in the bulletins (see '"Exactly as it happened"?', LM, May 1997)

Each of the news bulletins had at its heart an exclusive eye-witness report from the camps: Penny Marshall reported for News at Ten, Ian Williams for Channel Four News. Both journalists were rather careful in most of their descriptions. Each explained that there were refugees in Trnopolje, who, according to Williams 'were here simply because they have nowhere else to go, their homes having been destroyed', and both said that they had no first-hand proof of atrocities.

Yet Marshall and Williams left hanging the question of what kind of camps these really were. Marshall for example introduced her report for News at Ten by saying that 'The Bosnian Serbs don't call Omarska a concentration camp...'. The obvious implication was that others did call it a concentration camp, and Marshall left it open as to who was right. On Channel Four News, Ian Williams explained that they had seen 'seven alleged camps which were on the original Bosnian list of alleged concentration camps'. As regards five of them, he said, 'we are satisfied that these are not concentration camps, at most they are refugee collection centres'. But the other two camps in northern Bosnia did give 'grave concern' about 'severe mistreatment'. Williams did not call Omarska and Trnopolje concentration camps. But what conclusion was likely to be drawn from his distinction between five non-concentrations camps and these two others?

If Marshall and Williams left the issue of whether or not these were concentration camps open to interpretation, the way in which ITN framed their reports ensured that only one interpretation was likely. The whole tone and structure of ITN's bulletins was as suggestive as the misleading barbed wire image itself.

After Ian Williams' report, for example, Channel Four News presented a background item, introduced with the image of Alic's torso behind the barbed wire, entitled 'Crimes of war?'. Accompanied by black and white archive footage of prisoners of war, it outlined how war crimes had been defined and outlawed after the horrors of the Nazi experience, drawing a clear connection between those events and the claims of 'possible war crimes' in the Bosnian camps.

Channel Four News then went on to report the reactions of US politicians to the ITN film from Omarska and Trnopolje. Bill Clinton, then the Democratic Party candidate in the approaching US presidential election, was reported as saying that, 'you can't allow the mass extermination of people and just sit by and watch it happen'. There followed a lengthy interview with Tom Lantos, a Democrat Congressman on the House Foreign Relations Committee, who declared that 'those horrendous pictures' were 'reminiscent of the concentration camps that the Nazis had during World War Two, minus the gas chambers....The civilised world stood by during the early 1940s because it claimed not quite honestly that it didn't know what was going on. Well we now know what is going on. It is on our television screens every night'.

In fact, of course, 'it' (film from the camps) had only been on the world's TV screens for one night, nobody had been sitting and watching 'the mass extermination of people', and the idea of Nazi-style concentration camps > 'minus the gas chambers' is surely a contradiction in terms. Yet Channel Four News presented all of this uncritically as good coin, allowing the tone of a vital international issue to be set by emotional statements from US politicians caught up in the heat of an election campaign.

The structure and the message of ITN's News at Ten was strikingly similar. After Penny Marshall's report from the camps, senior US politicians were wheeled on, shown the ITN bulletin, and given a free hand to draw loose parallels with the Nazi past. Senator Alfonso d'Amato explained that '50, 60 years ago, the leaders of the world say we didn't know what was happening and it was misinterpreted. We know what is happening now'. Tom Lantos was also brought in again, to say that the world now had to sort the Churchills from the Chamberlains of 1992.

The News at Ten then reported that Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, while denying that Trnopolje and Omarska were concentration camps, had promised to allow greater access and improve conditions there. 'It should perhaps be pointed out', the ITN commentary added, 'that Mr Karadzic has a track record of promising ceasefires which never seem to happen. And the views of the Bosnian vice-president today were, not surprisingly, rather different'. The Bosnian Muslim vice-president Ejup Ganic then assured ITN viewers that, 'Ethnic cleansing and concentration camps are reality in Bosnia'. Nobody at ITN seemed to think it necessary to 'perhaps point out' that the Bosnian Muslim government had as bad a record as anybody when it came passing off war propaganda as indisputable fact.

So no, ITN's famous bulletins of 6 August 1992 did not actually call the camps at Omarska and Trnopolje in northern Bosnia 'Nazi-style concentration camps'. But having studied them all in some detail, it would come as a surprise to me if anybody had interpreted the news in any other way.

The world certainly saw the ITN reports as proof of concentration camps and a new Holocaust in Bosnia. In response to my allegations in LM about their pictures from Trnopolje, ITN now says that this misinterpretation was not its fault. How did it respond to the global hysteria that greeted its pictures?

The ITN lunchtime news on the following day, 7 August 1992, provides an answer. Far from correcting the international interpretation of their pictures as evidence of Nazi-style atrocities, ITN advertised it and even revelled in it, at the same time acting as if this overnight international consensus on the existence of concentration camps had nothing to do with the way they presented their reports the night before.

The backdrop to ITN's 7 August lunchtime report was again provided by the emblematic image of Fikret Alic supposedly ringed by a barbed wire fence at Trnopolje camp. The bulletin reported on how the world media had responded to ITN's film:

'ITN's pictures of the detention camps have been seen all over the world. The images provided the first real evidence of brutality towards prisoners in the former Yugoslav republics. And they provoked international outrage from overseas television commentators.'

There then followed some examples of this 'international outrage', starting with excerpts from how the US network ABC News had introduced the ITN footage the night before: 'Faces and bodies that hint at atrocities of the past. But this is not history, this is Bosnia. Pictures from the camps: A glimpse into genocide.'

The ITN voiceover explained that 'It was the evidence the world had been waiting for', and detailed exactly what it was that the world had interpreted the ITN footage as evidence of:

'The pictures flashed around the world. The Dutch talked of concentration camps. In Muslim Turkey they said ITN's pictures resembled Hitler's camps and brought the greatest disgrace to mankind. And the Germans said the pictures were reminiscent of World War Two.'

Next, against a backdrop of newspapers with banner headlines like 'BELSEN '92' alongside reproductions of the famous barbed wire picture, ITN reported that 'today's British press was unequivocal in its interpretation of the pictures, adding more pressure on the government to take action to intervene in the Yugoslav crisis'.

For me, the whole tone of ITN's post-event reporting demonstrated that in fact it did not have any problem with the way the world understood its news bulletins from the night before. As the reactions to the reports snowballed towards further Western intervention in Bosnia, ITN seemed entirely unembarrassed, indeed keen to boast, about its new role as foreign-policy maker. 'For now', the ITN lunchtime news report of 7 August 1992 ended, 'horror stories from Bosnia dominate the headlines. They clearly have generated a response in the United States. Their long-term effect may depend on the media's ability to come up with more'.

Such was ITN's self-congratulatory response to the way in which their reports convinced the world there were concentration camps and genocide in Bosnia in August 1992. Yet since the publication of my article 'The Picture that Fooled the World', ITN has insisted that what matters is that their journalists did not refer to these places as 'Nazi-style concentration camps'. What point are they trying to make?

Ian Williams and Penny Marshall at Omarska and Trnopolje

Channel 4 News turned up the contrast to make this graphic (6 August 1992)

Reproduced from LM issue 102, July/August 1997

 


 

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