Threats, writs and videotape
ITN's desperate attempt to use the libel laws to
gag LM magazine is setting new standards of censorship and scaremongering.
It is now clear that the issue at stake is not
just the future of LM magazine. It is about the freedom of anybody to publish
the truth as they understand it, instead of saying only that which will
not offend the executives and lawyers of a mega-corporation.
ITN and its allies have gone further and further
in their bid to suppress Thomas Deichmann's investigation into their award-winning
pictures of a Bosnian camp, which was published in the February issue of
LM. (For a summary of the story see over.)
- First ITN came for LM magazine. On 24 January
ITN's high-powered lawyers, Biddle & Co, wrote to LM editor Mick Hume
demanding that all copies of February's LM be 'pulped'. When Hume refused
to comply, they issued writs for libel.
- Then ITN went for the rest of the media. They
have threatened legal action against anybody who touches the story. On
20 February they issued a writ against the PR firm Two-Ten Communications
(a wholly-owned subsidiary of Press Association) demanding damages and
an apology in court, simply because the company had dared to distribute
an LM press release announcing the publication of the February issue and
the 'offending' article.
- Then ITN went for the print industry. On 24 February
Biddle & Co wrote to the printers of LM magazine, Russell Press of
Nottingham. It threatened them with possible legal action, not simply if
they reprinted the alleged libel, but if they printed 'future issues of
The upshot of this campaign is that, even before
the libel case ever gets to court, LM magazine cannot safely be printed
anywhere in this country and faces the bank-breaking costs of a major legal
Meanwhile the story of 'the pictures that fooled
the world' has effectively been kept out of the rest of the British media
by ITN's blockade--sometimes with the willing connivance of the publication
or programme concerned, other times at the point of a loaded libel writ.
Thomas Deichmann's story has been widely reported
and debated in respected papers across Europe, including: in Germany, Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Tagesspiegel, Freitag, Die
Welt, Berliner Morgenpost, Die Tageszeitung, Liepzieger Volkszeitung
and Konkret; in Italy, Il Corriere della Sera, L'Unita and Il Sole; Weltwoche
in Switzerland; Wiener Standard in Austria; Sweden's Helsingborgs Dagblad;
and De Groene Amsterdammer in the Netherlands.
Yet within Britain, the one country where the allegations
made against ITN and its journalists ought to cause a national scandal,
there has effectively been a conspiracy of silence. One exception to this
is the 'liberal' Guardian group, which has put aside its own criticisms
of the libel laws to launch a hysterical smear campaign against Deichmann
and LM, with a nasty but nervous feature by Ed Vulliamy (Observer, 2 February)
and a risible 'exposé' by a Vulliamy wannabe (Guardian, 12 March).
It is a sure sign of how far things have gone when even a supposedly libelous
scandal sheet like Private Eye appears to come out in support of a libel
action against LM.
There can be no doubt now that what ITN want is
a crude gagging order, dressed up in the legal finery of a libel writ.
Defamation is not the issue; if anybody has been defamed in this affair,
it is Thomas Deichmann, who has been the subject of all kinds of lowlife
Britain's libel laws are a system of censorship-for-hire,
available to anybody so long as they have enough noughts at the end of
their bank balance. ITN's pursuit of LM magazine is the latest example
of how these laws can be used by a multi-million pound corporation in a
bid to buy immunity from criticism through the courts.
What makes this case extraordinary, however, is
that this time the powerful body waving the gagging order is not McDonalds
or John Major, but a major news organisation which prides itself on its
global reputation for fearlessly reporting the truth.
ITN has already gone further than many media people
could ever have imagined in its bid to gag LM and stop anybody else publishing
embarrassing revelations about its award-winning pictures. Who knows how
much further they will go? There is a powerful air of paranoia around the
ITN bunker on the Gray's Inn Road, with staff being cross-examined and
all enquiries about 'that' picture now being politically vetted by the
Anybody who did not know better might think that
they had something to hide.
This is not just LM magazine's battle. ITN's actions
should alarm all who are concerned about the existence of a free press
and of open discussion of controversial issues.
LM intends to fight every gagging order, libel
writ and scare tactic that they might throw at us. We intend to stand by
our story, and to stand by our principles. But we are going to need all
the help that we can get.
Take a stand with LM in defence of the
freedom of the press and the right to tell it like it is. Support the LM
libel appeal, The Off
the Fence Fund, in whatever way you can.
LM97 February and LM98 March
hundred packed Westminster's Church House in march for the launch of the
Off The Fence fund to defend LM against ITN's gagging order. Journalist
Thomas Deichmann (below, top) showed the ITN footage that ITN doesn't want
seen, while George Kenney, ex-US State Department (below, middle) explained
how the pictures spurred American intervention.
Volunteers queued up to answer LM editor
Mick Hume's call to defend the right to tell it like it is
The picture that fooled
This is a brief summary of Thomas Deichmann's revelations
about the award-winning ITN pictures from Trnopolje camp. For the full
story, see 'The
Picture that Fooled the World' in the best-selling February issue of
On 5 August 1992, a British news team led by Penny
Marshall (ITN for News at Ten), with her cameraman Jeremy Irvin,
and fellow reporters Ian Williams (ITN for Channel 4 News), and
Ed Vulliamy (the Guardian newspaper) visited Trnopolje camp in the
Bosnian Serb territory of northern Bosnia. They left with striking pictures
of the emaciated Fikret Alic and other Bosnian Muslims apparently caged
behind a barbed wire fence.
These pictures were broadcast around the world,
and immediately became the defining image of the horrors of the war in
Bosnia. In particular, the world media held up the picture of Fikret Alic
behind the barbed wire as proof that the Bosnian Serbs were running a Nazi-style
'concentration camp', or even 'death camp', at Trnopolje. The impact of
these images was to colour all subsequent coverage of the war, and to prove
instrumental in persuading the American and British governments to adopt
a more interventionist policy towards Bosnia.
But the image of Trnopolje as what British newspapers
called 'Belsen '92' was misleading. Fikret Alic and the other Bosnian Muslims
in the picture were not encircled by a barbed wire fence. There was no
barbed wire fence surrounding Trnopolje camp. The barbed wire was only
around a small compound next to the camp, and had been erected before the
war to protect agricultural produce and machinery from thieves. Penny Marshall
and her team got their famous pictures by filming the camp and the Bosnian
Muslims from inside this compound, taking pictures through the compound
fence of people who were actually standing outside the area fenced-in
with barbed wire.
Whatever the British news team's intentions may
have been, their pictures were falsely interpreted around the world as
the first hard evidence of concentration camps and a 'Holocaust' in Bosnia.
They became the pictures that fooled the world, the most potent symbol
used to support a misleading interpretation not only of Trnopolje camp,
but of the entire Yugoslav civil war.
Penny Marshall and Ian Williams have not called
Trnopolje a concentration camp; nor did Ed Vulliamy at first, although
he later seemed to remember that it was one after all. All three British
journalists have expressed concern at the way in which others used their
reports and pictures as 'proof' of a Nazi-style Holocaust.
Yet none of them has ever corrected the false interpretation
placed upon those pictures, by telling the world the full story of that
barbed wire fence and explaining how the famous Trnopolje pictures were
actually taken. Why? Thomas Deichmann's question has been met by with libel
writs, gagging orders, threats and slanderous insults, but no answers.
It is not the first time that
ITN's coverage of a foreign war has been called into question, recalls
SANDY OF AFGHANISTAN
'The reports shown on ITN's bulletins on 6 August
1992 of the discovery of the Serb-run camps in northern Bosnia by ITN journalists
were prepared and presented with the utmost professionalism and integrity,
as would be expected of ITN.' (ITN Statement
on allegations in LM magazine, 23 January 1997)
Those seeking another example of 'the utmost professionalism
and integrity...expected of ITN' might like to look back to one of ITN
man Sandy Gall's famous reports from the frontline of the war in Afghanistan.
In February 1989, the Soviet armed forces were
pulling out of Afghanistan after a 10-year occupation. The Western media
confidently declared that the Soviet-backed Afghan government and its capital,
Kabul, would now quickly fall to the Mujaheddin rebels. Several hundred
international journalists descended on Peshawar, just across the Afghan
border in Pakistan, to report what they expected to be the successful end
of the Mujaheddin's war. Among them was the veteran ITN reporter Sandy
Gall was well-known for his crusading reports on
the Mujaheddin's guerrilla war against the Soviet-backed government. Margaret
Thatcher who, along with Ronald Reagan, was the most fervent supporter
of the Afghan rebels, wrote the foreword to Gall's book Afghanistan: Travels
with the Mujaheddin. In February 1989 Gall told the Daily Mail: 'I want
to be there for the taking of Kabul. I want to go in with them for that.
I see it as a mirror image of what happened in Saigon. I would like to
On 6 February 1989, ITN broadcast Sandy Gall's
'Afghan journal' on News at Ten. The item included what appeared to be
hot news footage, shot by Gall's team, of Mujaheddin guerrillas successfully
attacking a government post. Sandy Gall gave a running, present-tense commentary
on the film: 'A British-made missile scores a direct hit on a post guarding
the road...The heavy machine gun opens up...Then a tank fires back, just
as it is hit. The Mujaheddin celebrate by expending a little surplus ammunition,
proud of such dramatic proof of their success...Mujaheddin morale is correspondingly
high. Here too, success breeds success.'
But Sandy Gall's 'dramatic proof' was not all that
it seemed. A few months later, on 13 November 1989, Channel Four's Bandung
File broadcast an investigation into Western media coverage of Afghanistan,
and Gall's 'Afghan journal' in particular. The Bandung File revealed that
at least a third of the footage used in Gall's 6 February report had not
come from ITN cameras at all, but had been supplied on tape by a Peshawar-based
news agency, the Afghan Media Resource Centre. Far from being Gall's eye-witness
account of a Mujaheddin attack during the Soviet withdrawal of February
1989, this footage of guerillas in action had actually been shot at least
three months earlier.
The Afghan Media Resource Centre, which supplied
the footage, was no ordinary news agency. It had been set up with American
government money to spread propaganda for the Mujaheddin. This was the
public face of US support for the Afghan rebels, to go alongside covert
military aid. The US Information Agency used money voted by Congress to
pay for Mujaheddin supporters to be trained at the Boston University School
of Journalism. Some of these trainees went back to run the Afghan Media
The director of the Afghan Media Resource Centre,
Haji Syed Daud, told the Bandung File that the 'young Mujaheddin' trained
in Boston were supplying material for ITN, BBC and CNN among other news
organisations. He confirmed that the centre had been helpful to Sandy Gall.
'When Mr Sandy Gall came to Peshawar, February, our video department help
him, shooting footage for him, and also they gave him video footage from
our archive, and also they [did some] editing, maybe rough editing, for
Mr Sandy Gall.'
So Sandy Gall's 'Afghan journal', broadcast by
ITN, had used old footage of unproven origin, supplied by an uncredited
Mujaheddin propaganda source which was financed by US government agencies.
And this was what Gall presented as first-hand 'proof' of what was happening
on the ground in Afghanistan. All done with 'the utmost professionalism
and integrity', no doubt.
ITN's statement, issued in response to the Bandung
File's revelations, insisted that it was 'extremely proud' of its coverage
of the Afghan war, and that it was 'against that background of journalistic
excellence that the Bandung File has sought to highlight criticism of one
small section of ITN's coverage. Nonetheless', ITN conceded, 'the criticism
'A small amount of footage included in Sandy Gall's
report on February 6 was shot by the Afghan Media Resource Centre. That
the Afghan Media Resource Centre make material available to television
broadcasters is not in itself a matter which we regard as controversial.
It should, however, as the Bandung File has suggested, have been clearly
labelled as to its source. To have done so would have assisted the viewer
in his or her understanding of the report as a whole.'
So it all was just a small technical oversight.
That is one way of interpreting the Sandy Gall affair. Another way is to
place this shameful episode in the context of media coverage of the Afghan
war, and see it as symptomatic of a wider problem.
As the Soviet army withdrew, the massed ranks of
the Western media arrived expecting to report one story and one story only:
the historic victory of the Mujaheddin rebels and the fall of the Kabul
government. As Sandy Gall had told the Mail, the press were looking for
a re-run of the scenes which accompanied the final American withdrawal
from Saigon, South Vietnam, in 1975--only this time with the Soviets being
the ones humiliated.
Elaine Parnell, a respected producer with Worldwide
Television News, gave the Bandung File an insight into the mindset of Western
journalists at the time:
'Malnutrition [in Kabul] was completely hyped out
of all proportion. There was in fact one child in the hospital suffering
from malnutrition and this has become one of the most photographed children
during the war. They started to imagine a Saigon situation, and they wanted
to see a Saigon situation. They wanted to see Soviets climbing on the bottom
'The British public has been fed a diet of Mujaheddin
heroism. The story was simply painted in black and white terms. The Soviets
invaded the country, they were the bad guys, the Mujaheddin were the good
guys. The Soviets did invade, they were bad, the Mujaheddin were certainly
brave. But the story was also a little more complicated than that. There
was another side to the Mujaheddin that perhaps the Western public wouldn't
find so palatable....But a lot of the time this was ignored because it
didn't fit the image that the media was trying to portray.'
Western news teams always seemed to shoot their
pictures from behind Mujaheddin lines, and often seemed--as in Sandy Gall's
Afghan journal--to be reporting spectacular Mujaheddin successes, when
in fact, as with any guerrilla war, most of their operations failed. One
result of this attitude was to create a climate in which the experts confidently
assured the world that the Kabul government would quickly crumble once
the Soviets withdrew--a prediction which proved wildly inaccurate.
Some might have claimed that media misreporting
from Afghanistan was simply a technical problem. Others saw more political
factors at work. 'There was a rather obvious veil drawn over the question
of who was supporting the Mujaheddin', Professor Fred Halliday of the London
School of Economics told the Bandung File: 'I think Sandy Gall referred
to "the backers of the Mujaheddin". That these backers of the
Mujaheddin included the United Kingdom and the United States was not spelt
out, indeed it was very rarely spelt out by any of those who supported
the guerrillas or reported from the guerrilla side. And in that sense the
political input into the Afghan war was bleached out.'
ITN's Sandy Gall
The Bandung File reveals the origins of ITN's
live action scenes--film shot by a US-backed Mujaheddin propaganda group
George Kenney resigned from
the US State Department in August 1992, in protest at the Bush administration's
policy towards the former Yugoslavia. This is his personal account of how
the bogus interpretation which the world placed upon ITN's pictures of
Trnopolje camp helped to put Washington on a war footing
How media misinformation led to bosnian intervention
it inevitable that the West intervened militarily in Bosnia's civil war,
taking sides against the Serbs, and then occupying the country? I doubt
it. Was it right? No, not insofar as careful, objective, after-the-fact
investigation of key media events was lacking.
The first turning point, that led straightaway
to the introduction of Western troops, coincided with ITN's broadcast of
images of what was widely assumed to be a concentration camp, at the Bosnian
Serb-run Trnopolje refugee collection centre in August 1992. Now, in a
stunning development, Thomas Deichmann has discovered that those ITN images
'fooled the world'.
To understand the impact that those misleading
ITN pictures had, one must look at the atmosphere of July/August in Washington.
Beginning with his 19 July articles on the Serb-run detention centres at
Manjaca and Omarska, Roy Gutman of Newsday began filing a series of stories--based,
he minimally acknowledged at that time, only on second and third-hand accounts--that
culminated in his charge in several stories filed from 2-5 August that
the Bosnian Serbs were operating 'Nazi-style' (his words) death camps for
non-Serb prisoners of war.
As the Yugoslav desk officer at the State Department,
I knew about these stories before they were printed, because Gutman had
contacted the then US Consulate General in Zagreb to tell officials of
his suspicions and ask for help in corroborating his findings. Specifically,
he wanted US spy satellites to determine whether a 'death camp' was in
operation. Nobody took this request seriously, but I knew such reports
could create a public relations firestorm, so I made a special effort to
keep the highest levels of the State Department's management, including
Deputy Secretary Lawrence Eagleburger's office, informed of his work. I
did not, however, think management paid much--or enough--attention before
Gutman's story broke.
Among other tasks, I was responsible for drafting
press materials, which mainly involved preparing State Department Spokeswoman
Margaret Tutwiler for her daily noon press briefing. Tutwiler, who was
Secretary James Baker's closest confidant and unofficially the second most
influential person at State, felt that the USA should have been doing considerably
more to stop, or at least suppress, the civil war in Bosnia. Alone among
senior officials in her surreptitious dissent, she drew constant attention
to the war's worst aspects, hoping to spur the administration to greater
action if for no other reason than Baker's fear of bad press. At my initiative,
she had already used the term 'ethnic cleansing' in mid-May to describe
Bosnian Serb actions, introducing this previously unknown revilement into
the vernacular. Frequent use of this sort of lurid language conditioned
the press into a Pavlovian yearning for ever more shocking news of atrocities.
On Tuesday, 4 August Assistant Secretary for European
Affairs Tom Niles was scheduled to give routine testimony to the House
International Relations European Subcommittee, and in carrying out this
obligation he badly erred, compounding public outcry about Gutman's 'death
camps' report. Inexplicably, Niles decided to stonewall instead of earnestly
declaring that we knew little, but took the matter seriously and were looking
into it. The subcommittee responded poorly, with Niles particularly enraging
its presiding member, Tom Lantos, a survivor of pro-Nazi Hungarian concentration
Adding to public frustrations, Niles' comments
appeared to differ from what Tutwiler's assistant Richard Boucher told
the press pool at the State Department the day before--that the USA knew
about the Gutman stories. Boucher had meant only that US officials read
newspapers, but the leading papers unanimously (and mistakenly) reported
that he said State had independent confirmation from its intelligence sources.
Reporters, smelling a cover-up, launched into full-throated choruses of
'what did they know, and when did they know it?' More importantly, they
asked, 'what is the USA going to do?'.
The truth was, the State Department knew very little.
The real scandal was that it did not want to know more, because whatever
could have been learned might also have brought new obligations to do something
(anything). But by early 1992 the White House had decided not to incur
the least substantive responsibility for the Yugoslav crisis, in order
to avoid a Vietnam-like slippery slope and messy foreign entanglements
during an election. We did not know whether minor measures might have brought
results, but had no will to experiment. Yugoslavia, in the US government's
view, was Europe's problem; the State Department was determined it should
stay that way.
In any case, by mid-week the State Department's
public affairs officials were in a nuclear panic. The Yugoslav desk was
asked, twice, to review its files about what we knew on 'death camps',
and I gave Boucher a thick folder to photocopy of telegrams from my unofficial,
personal file on Bosnia. There was not much information there--nothing
confirming Gutman's story--and the State Department struggled to find words
to get out of the hole it had dug for itself. We had to explain our limited
knowledge and say something more than 'we do not like concentration camps',
but less than 'we intend to invade Bosnia and shut them down'.
Sensing an opportunity to attack President George
Bush, on 5 August then-candidate Bill Clinton renewed his call for the
USA, through the United Nations, to bomb Bosnian Serb positions. The US
Senate began consideration of a symbolic vote (eventually approved) to
permit the use of force to ensure aid deliveries and access to the camps.
Even high Vatican officials, speaking unofficially for the Pope, noted
parallels between Nazi atrocities and Bosnian camps, and called for military
intervention 'to hold back the hand of the aggressor'.
A kind of hysteria swept through the Washington
press corps. Few outsiders believed State was trying to tell the truth.
After I resigned over policy in late August, for example, senior Clinton
campaign officials speedily approached me regarding the camps issue, seeking
advice on whether they should pursue spy satellite records which the administration
allegedly ignored. I told them not to waste their time. And for years afterwards
journalists continued to ask me about 'the cover-up'.
On Wednesday 5 August, in an effort to quell the
burgeoning Boucher/Niles 'cover-up' story and regain control of the press,
Deputy Secretary Eagleburger's office issued a clarification of the State
Department's position, including an appeal for 'war crimes investigations'
into reports of atrocities in Bosnian detention centres. Immune to his
efforts, extremely harsh press criticism continued to mount from every
quarter. On Thursday, President George Bush issued an ill-prepared statement
urging the United Nations Security Council to authorise the use of 'all
necessary measures' to ensure relief deliveries, but stopped short of calling
for the use of force to release prisoners. British and French officials
responded that his statement was a reaction to political concerns in the
USA. Meanwhile, further inflaming the public outcry, Serb forces stepped
up their attacks on Sarajevo.
At almost exactly the moment of President Bush's
call to arms, ITN's pictures first aired. I do not know whether senior
State Department officials saw or learned of them that day, but I viewed
them, to the best of my recollection, with a handful of colleagues on Friday
morning or possibly early afternoon, in the office of European Bureau's
chief of public affairs. We were unanimous, from our respective mid-to-mid-senior
level vantage points, that the tape was ruinous for the Bush administration's
hands-off policy and could not but result in significant US actions. The
notion that 'we have got to do something' echoed down State's corridors.
At the start of the week possible critical policy
shifts were dimly perceived and highly tentative, but by week's end ITN's
graphic portrayal of what was interpreted as a 'Balkan Holocaust' probably
ensured that those shifts became irreversible. Those shifts remain fundamental
to policy to this day.
On 13 August the UN Security Council passed Resolutions
770 and 771, which for the first time authorised the international use
of force in Bosnia and promised to punish war criminals, the precursors
of the current international occupation of Bosnia and the International
War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague. On the 14th, the United Nations Human
Rights Commission appointed former Polish Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki,
a highly pious Catholic, as Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the
Former Yugoslavia, a position from which he tended to target only Bosnian
Serbs. And, on the 18th, Britain reversed itself and pledged to send 1800
soldiers to Bosnia for humanitarian aid operations, the first step towards
what became by mid-September a UNSC approved, enlarged UN Protection Force
mission in Bosnia--the seed that sprouted into IFOR and now SFOR.
Lost in the shuffle was any understanding of what
was actually going on in the camps, who ran them, and why. Official Washington
and the US press almost completely ignored an International Committee of
the Red Cross report issued on 4 August, describing ICRC visits to 10 camps
and their finding of blatant human rights violations by all sides. And
though the Serbs did indeed, as the
ICRC said, run more camps, it was not disproportionately more. In the rush
to convict the Serbs in the court of public opinion, the press paid no
more attention to other, later reports throughout the war, up to--and after--the
Dayton agreement, of hellish Croat and Muslim run camps. Nor did the press
understand that each side had strong incentives to hold at least some prisoners
Medieval xenophobes reincarnated as high-tech cowboys,
Western opinion leaders fixated their fear and anger against the unknown.
Defying reason and logic, a myth of a Serb perpetrated Holocaust, coupled
with the refusal to even acknowledge atrocities against Serbs, became conventional
wisdom. This was the first instance and future model for post-modern imperialistic
intervention to determine the winner in a bloody civil war.
Washington loves to go to war in August. The florid
atmosphere of August 1992, though not (yet) exactly a shooting match, comprised
a more than satisfactory propaganda war, vaguely reassuring those who lost
their bearings with the end of the Cold War, together with a new generation
of journalists who needed a fraught, dirty conflict on which to cut their
teeth. Bosnia made excellent sport.
It is no surprise, after all, that the temptation
for news organisations to try to change policy, when they knew how easily
they could, was overwhelming.