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June 1997

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[City Life - 5 June 1997]

Libel Law v Press Freedom - By Chris Sharrat

Stopford Room, University of Manchester, Tuesday 10 June

Regular readers of City Life may recall a letter published in issue 329 from Helene Guldberg, a resident of Chorlton and publisher of the magazine LM (Living Marxism). The letter concerned the fact that she was one of two people named in a libel writ against the magazine from ITN. The writ concerns an article in the February issue of the magazine, 'The Picture That Fooled the World', which called into question ITN reports featuring emaciated Bosnian Muslim, Fikret Alic, behind barbed wire at Trnopolje. The still from the ITN film became the defining image of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Its depiction of Serb detention camps influencing worldwide opinion.

ITN dispute claims made in the magazine by German journalist Thomas Deichmann, that the footage was in fact shot inside the barbed wire fence looking out, calling into question ITN's news gathering capabilities. Hence the writ for libel. LM's response to this has been the setting up of the Off The Fence campaign and claims that 'Libel is a censorship law that the rich can use to silence their critics' (It should be noted here that Fikret Alic has since stated to The Observer that "We were 100 per cent behind that barbed wire. There was wire all around us.").

And the idea of this meeting? Hopefully to provide a forum to discuss libel law and press freedom. Speakers for the right include LM publisher Helene Guldberg; Granville Williams, Editor of Free Press, who will be putting the case for press freedom, and Tom Gibbons, a senior law lecturer at Manchester University who specialises in media law and will explore what English libel law actually entails. The USA, for example has freedom of speech as part of the Constitution, making it much more difficult to sue a magazine for libel. Similarly, the Deichmann story has received extensive coverage in Europe, without prompting similar writs from ITN.

Side-stepping the rights and wrongs of the original LM article for the moment - that dispute is likely to run and run - this promises to be an interesting insight into how the libel laws affect press freedom in this country.

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