Why we were right to fight
Ten years after a libel trial closed LM magazine, its former editor reflects on how that case foreshadowed the battles over free speech today.
It is 10 years this month since the London libel courts closed down LM magazine, leaving me as editor out of a job and facing a personal bill for around a million pounds in damages and costs, in one of the more outrageous attacks on a free press seen under Britain’s infamous defamation laws.
I have neither the energy nor inclination to refight old courtroom battles. We lost the case in court, correctly under the dire defamation law as it stands, and that was that. But it is perhaps worth glancing back to the wider issues surrounding the LM libel trial – not out of any misplaced nostalgia or wish to commemorate an anniversary for its own sake, but to see how the stand we took back then on the principle of free speech has been proved rather prescient by events over the past decade.
The judgement of the libel court means that there are still limits on what I can say about the LM case itself, and anyway the legal semantics are not what is interesting now. So here is just a brief background to the case itself – for those who want to know more see Some last words on that libel trial. In February 1997 a small independent magazine called LM – which we had just relaunched under that ‘Cool Britannia’-style title, having previously been incarnated as Living Marxism – published an article by the German journalist Thomas Deichmann about media coverage of camps in Bosnia. We were quickly issued with libel writs by the multimillion-pound news corporation ITN and two of its journalists. The seemingly endless case eventually came to court three years later in March 2000.
The offending article concerned the infamous images, filmed by an ITN news team, of a very thin Bosnian Muslim behind barbed wire at a Bosnian Serb camp at Trnopolje in 1992. After ITN broadcast these evocative pictures it sparked international outrage about possible Nazi-style atrocities – ‘BELSEN 92’ as one British newspaper captioned them – that led to fervent demands for Western intervention in the civil war in the Former Yugoslavia.
Almost five years later, Deichmann’s investigative report into the background to those images argued that this was no Nazi-style death camp, and that in fact it had been the camera crew rather than the inmates who were surrounded by a barbed wire fence that made up part of an old agricultural complex adjoining the camp. That central fact about who was ringed by the barbed wire was established in court and even acknowledged by the judge in his otherwise remarkably one-sided summing up against LM.
Nevertheless we lost, as defendants in British libel trials tend to do. The court ruled that we had failed to prove that the ITN journalists had ‘deliberately’ misrepresented the facts about the camp. The word deliberately had never appeared in the article; we did not have any interest in questioning the motives of the journalists, being far more concerned with the way the wider world interpreted those images. But ‘deliberately’ was the meaning the court placed upon the article, and so we were left to defend something LM had not actually argued, asked to prove not just what had happened eight years before the trial but what the journalists had intended at the time. As I have suggested before, despite the brilliance of our barrister Gavin Millar, it is hard to see how it could have been done successfully without the aid of a time machine and a mind reader. Encouraged by the judge, the jury inevitably found against LM after four hours’ deliberation and awarded heavy damages which, when the mind-boggling costs were added, brought the bill to around a million. The magazine was shut down.
The loss of the independent and free-thinking LM magazine was a bitter blow, particularly as a result of a court case brought under appalling laws by a major media organisation. Ten years on I have no real regrets, but I have experienced a decade-long sense of mounting frustration about the limits imposed on free speech in our society. It was through the debates around the libel case that it first became clear to me that we are living in a new and unique age of censorship: one where freedom of expression seems to prevail in an apparently anything-goes media culture, yet where there are certain things that cannot be said, certain quasi-sacred beliefs and dogmas that cannot be called into question.
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At the time of the libel case, LM magazine was pilloried by much of the liberal media for questioning their quasi-sacred belief about the Balkan war – that the Serbs were effectively the new Nazis, and that the West had a moral duty to intervene against them. Those images of the men behind the barbed wire were offered by many as proof of this historically illiterate claim. For refusing to accept the consensus view, and asking the wrong questions, LM and its writers found ourselves accused by liberal writers of being Serbomaniacs, apologists for atrocity, even Holocaust deniers.
In fact there were two reasons why we wanted to ask those unacceptable questions about the Nazification of the Serbs, neither of which had anything to do with supporting Serbian nationalism – LM took no side in the bloody and destructive Yugoslav civil war, apart from siding against Western intervention that we saw could only make matters worse. Both will be familiar to regular readers of spiked in relation to other issues over the past decade.
One reason was to do with the denigration of history. We saw that the fashion for comparing every relatively minor conflict to the Nazi Holocaust, a trend which came to a head around Bosnia, could only lead to diminishing the significance of that unique historic crime against humanity. The other reason was to do with the distortion of contemporary political realities. The danger we identified in branding the Serbs (or anybody else for that matter) as the new Nazis was that it reduced complex regional conflicts to a simplistic moral parable, where the Good West must intervene against the Evil Other. This was the constant theme of the shrill liberal crusade for intervention in Bosnia, which seemed to us to have more to do with self-redemption in British media and political circles than with anything resembling Balkan realities. That crusade reached its crescendo in the US-UK war against the Serbs over Kosovo in 1999.
When we published Deichmann’s article and were sued for libel, all of these issues became focused into one: the right to free speech. Because every debate about politics, history, war or the Holocaust depends ultimately upon having the freedom publicly to express the truth as we believe and understand it.
And free speech is a classic liberal cause, right? So as veterans of the left at LM we turned to the liberal media and campaigners for support for our struggle in the role of David versus Goliath – only to discover that this is the age of illiberal liberalism. Those claiming to speak from a left-liberal position are often the most censorious in calling for bans, and preaching the hardline secular gospel of Thou Shalt Not Say That. Thus while many free thinkers did rally to LM’s cause against the libel laws, more of the influential liberal lobby either turned a blind eye or actively supported our opponents. I well remember influential media figures arguing that, yes, we might have a point about the pictures and the fence, but more important than those facts was ‘the greater truth of Bosnia’ – that is, the unquestionable quasi-sacred belief that the Serbs were the new Nazis.
So outraged were the British and international media’s liberal crusaders about our refusal to toe their dogmatic line, that some of them have not stopped going on about it ever since. LM has been gone for a decade but they still cannot believe that we said what we thought true about their Nazification of the Serbs, and are still having their shrill, screechy little tantrums about the LM case in their newspapers and blogs.
Meanwhile over the ensuing decade, illiberal liberalism has spread its malign influence and other issues have been declared off limits and questions ruled taboo by the high priesthood of the church of Thou Shalt Not Say That, covering issues ranging from race, immigration or Islam to homophobia and climate change. The emotive charge of being an heretical ‘Denier’, first levelled at me from the liberal establishment during the LM case, has now become a staple way of closing down debate on outré political issues.
Hence we have come to the point where, in our ostensibly very liberal and sometimes even libertine-looking British culture, hardly anybody really believes in free speech. The cri de coeur of the British liberal is ‘Of course I believe in free speech, but…’, or perhaps ‘I will not tolerate your intolerance!’. So conventional has it become to impose limits on what can be said or asked that to declare that you seriously do believe in free speech for all, whatever they want to say – once deemed a basic value of Voltairean liberalism – is today to invite the allegation that you must be out of your mind.
England’s execrable libel laws have long been the deadest of all the dead weights bearing down on freedom of expression in our society, chilling debate on controversial issues. Ten years ago it was clear to us at LM that there could be no truly free speech until those laws were got rid of. Today there is finally a growing liberal campaign against the use of libel law to silence criticism and debate, around cases such as that of the science writer Simon Singh, now being sued by alternative therapists. Yet many of those prominently supporting this campaign were far from keen to defend the heretics of LM against the libel laws 10 years ago – and some of them still relish our courtroom defeat, as if a defendant losing a libel case in Britain really was the same thing as being proved wrong (only Jeffrey Archer surely still believes that).
Indeed most of the current outrage about libel tourism and the law seems informed by the same selective attitude towards free speech. It is a complaint about decent, respectable British scientists and writers and academics being sued by unscrupulous foreigners and chancers. The notion that irresponsible and indecent thinkers might need defending against the law and the informal censors – indeed might need it far more than the mainstream and the moderate do – seems even more alien to these champions of what we might call ‘free speech for folk like me!’ than it was a decade ago.
When we emerged to face the largely hostile media throng after the LM libel trial in March 2000, I told them that the only thing the trial had proved beyond reasonable doubt was that libel law was a menace to free speech and a disgrace to democracy. The ensuing years have proved that all too true. In the final issue of LM I wrote that ‘There is life after a libel trial’ and advised readers to ‘watch this space’. That space was filled some months later by spiked, which has since been fighting new battles with the would-be censors of today – first with me as editor and then, since 2007, Brendan O’Neill. I remain very proud of the stand we took with LM – I still have the photo of us emerging from the Royal Courts of Justice on my mantelpiece at home – and just as proud of the way that spiked has continued the often-unpopular fight for free speech against all-comers.
Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.