History and politics are never a ‘High Court’ matter
It is a sad sign when a leading war reporter can declare that big issues are not for ‘media debate’ and threaten critics with libel writs.
Hardly a week seems to go by but that we are confronted with further evidence of how the allegedly liberal media class is giving up on freedom of expression and a free press. And not only from inside the Leveson Inquiry. Recently I read a top ‘left-wing’ journalist turned top journalism academic dismiss the notion that freedom of expression is a public good as ‘absurd’. If only those who went to the Tower and worse for a free press had known they were fighting for an absurdity, it could have saved a lot of trouble.
Now we have a liberal war reporter and award-winning foreign correspondent declaring that a major issue of political history is off limits for public discussion, because it is ‘not a media debate: it’s a matter for the High Court’. What is more, like many a champion of justice before him, he pledges to use England’s execrable libel laws against his critics – including us at spiked.
The hero of press freedom in question this time is Ed Vulliamy, once of the Guardian and now of the Observer. Vulliamy came to fame during the civil war in Bosnia in the 1990s, as one of the new crusading journalists who were demanding Western intervention against the evil Serbs. In 1997 I wrote a little pamphlet about these worrying trends in war reporting, where reporters from the morally uncertain West seemed to be ‘turning the world’s war zones into private battlegrounds where troubled journalists can fight for their own souls by playing the role of crusader’ (Whose War Is It Anyway?). I noted of Vulliamy that, ‘The fighting in Bosnia has been over for some time, but the Bosnian war which Ed Vulliamy of the Guardian is fighting in his own head and heart continues to escalate in scale and importance’.
Fifteen years later, Vulliamy is apparently still fighting that conflict, to judge by the title of his new book about Bosnia, The War is Dead, Long Live the War. But let us leave any refighting of such old battles for another time, if at all, once the publishers send us a review copy of the book.
For now, what is slightly more interesting is an online interview Vulliamy gave the Spectator to promote his book, published last Friday. Asked about those on the left who have disputed his argument that there was genocide in Bosnia, Vulliamy first defamed his opponents as ‘people who supported Karadzic and Milosevic and didn’t have the guts to say so’ (of course, a secret crush on Radovan Karadzic, that must be it; why else would we have opposed NATO intervention in the Balkans?).
Then he made his defining statement that ‘this is not a media debate: it’s a matter for the High Court’. The implication is that the history of the civil war in the Former Yugoslavia is not up for political discussion; it is settled and off the agenda. And if anybody in the media is rash enough to think that it is, then somebody will see them in court. Or in short: talk to the judge, cos the journalist ain’t listening.
In case there was any misunderstanding, Vulliamy then spelt out his invitation to the High Court: ‘I invite Noam Chomsky, or any of his friends who once worked at Living Marxism, to actually publish where I legally fabricated these reports about the [Bosnian Serb] camps, and to actually detail what it was I fabricated, because I will sue them myself.’
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Now, I cannot speak for the American professor Noam Chomsky; having never spoken to or met him, we don’t really qualify as ‘friends’ (even in the Facebook sense of the word). I can perhaps speak for LM magazine (nee Living Marxism), which I edited and which spiked editor Brendan O’Neill also ‘once worked at’. And I can say to the best of my memory that we never accused Vulliamy or anybody of ‘fabricating’, never mind ‘legally fabricating’, any stories about Bosnia. The one thing that some people seem to have made up is the misplaced suggestion that we accused others of fabrication.
Instead we simply pointed out our belief that Vulliamy and others were entirely wrong in almost everything they argued about the Bosnian War, from its causes to the way to end it justly. But the accusation of ‘fabrication’ never crossed our living Marxist minds or lips.
The irony is that, as Vulliamy well knows, we cannot really discuss the facts about the story he calls ‘the camps’, because the High Court has already spoken. Vulliamy was with the ITN crew in the summer of 1992 when they took their famous pictures of the Bosnian Muslim men behind the barbed wire in the Bosnian Serb-run transit camp at Trnopolje, which prompted headlines such as ‘BELSEN 92’ in Britain and around the world. Five years later, in February 1997, LM magazine published an article by German writer Thomas Deichmann which raised questions about that global interpretation of the image, and where the barbed wire fence had been that led the world to see Nazi-style concentration camps.
In response ITN and its journalists sued us for libel. We lost, like most defendants under our atrocious libel laws. The court conceded that the central fact in Deichmann’s article – that it was the news crew who were surrounded by the barbed-wire fence of an old agricultural compound - was true. But it ruled that we had falsely accused ITN of deliberately misrepresenting the images, although that was not our intention and the d-word never appeared in the article. Libel defendants have to defend not only the words they used, but also possible interpretations that the court might place upon those words. (Those who want to know more about this old story can see: Some last words on that libel trial.) We were left with a bill for almost a million pounds in costs and damages, and LM was forced to close.
So nobody has any need to threaten us with the law – debate about ‘those camps’ has already been officially shut down. Vulliamy was apparently not invited to join his ITN friends in suing us, and now seems to want a libel suit of his own. The remarkable thing has been the support that Vulliamy’s history-is-a-High-Court-matter stance has attracted, with serious journalists conceding his point and Twitter supporters taunting us to respond to the see-you-in-court challenge. Their message seems to be that silence is an admission of guilt, but if you say anything it may be used in evidence against you. In other words, as the cultural mantra goes these days, You Can’t Say That.
These responses confirm the continuing centrality of Bosnia as a moral parable to the shaky liberal imperialist case, to be invoked as a warning against non-intervention during every international crisis, most recently in relation to Syria. They also confirm how little regard there is for free speech in avowedly liberal circles today.
No question of politics or history should ever be ruled out of public debate and declared to be a matter for the High Court. No important issue should ever be hidden from examination behind a barrier of law or conformism. It should not be left to judges to decide what is true and who is permitted to say what. As John Stuart Mill insisted, our best chance of arriving at the truth is always to have everything out in the open.
The main reason we defended that libel case against LM, despite knowing we had little chance of winning under the law, was to make a stand for freedom of expression, and the right to publish the truth as we understood it at the time. Much has changed in the years between, but defending free speech and freedom of the press has become even more important – not only against the libel laws, but against the ‘I-believe-in-a-free-press-but…’ Leveson juggernaut, and illiberal liberals who now seem to believe that political and historical debate can be ‘a matter for the High Court’.
As a wise man once said, it’s a mad world, my masters.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever will be published by Imprint Academic this Autumn. (Pre-order this book from Amazon(UK).)