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May 1997

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[The Spectator - 17 May 1997]

MEDIA STUDIES: Never heard of Living Marxism? Thanks to ITN's writ, you have now by STEPHEN GLOVER.

Living Marxism is not a magazine which will be very familiar to most Spectator readers. It is published by the British Revolutionary Communist Party, and sells 10,000 copies a month at a cover price of £2.50. The causes it espouses are a ragbag. During the Gulf war it rooted for Saddam Hussein. In Bosnia it cheered on the Serbs. After Dunblane it opposed proposals to limit the use of guns. Most eccentrically of all, the magazine was sympathetic to Neil Hamilton's candidature in Tatton.

For all its apparent dottiness, the publication would have remained a well-kept secret for aficionados had it not been for ITN. This news organisation is suing Living Marxism over its publication in February of an article by Thomas Deichmann about ITN's reporting in Bosnia. As a result of this writ, the magazine is making a huge issue of press freedom. There have been demonstrations (I ran into one a couple of months ago in Oxford) and a public meeting in Church House in Westminster.

Two weeks ago a letter appeared in The Spectator under the headline 'Press Freedom'. The signatories were a disparate bunch including Noam Chomsky, Philip Knightley, Roy Greenslade and Auberon Waugh. The letter complained that 'a major news broadcaster is using libel law to thwart an open press and this has serious implications for journalists.' It urged all journalists 'to support LM against the libel writ, and defend a free press and open debate'.

Well, should we? The natural sympathies of many of us will be with a small publication, even a slightly lunatic one published by the British Revolutionary Communist Party, when it is set upon by a large and powerful outfit like ITN. It seems a piece of bullying on the broadcaster's part. The magazine may be driven out of business. Add to this the superficial plausibility of Thomas Deichmann's case against ITN, and your immediate inclination may be to contribute to Living Marxism's fighting fund.

Mr Deichmann's article alleged that an ITN crew led by Penny Marshall gave a false impression of conditions in Trnopolje camp in north west Bosnia which they visited on 5 August 1992. The ITN team produced a film which showed a starving man, Fikret Alic, standing behind a barbed-wire fence in the company of others in a Bosnian Serb camp. This horrifying photograph was later reproduced in newspapers around the world, including the Daily Mirror, which published it under the headline 'Belsen 92.' It was probably the most influential image of the war, and persuaded many people that the Serbs were evil aggressors.

Mr Deichmann alleges it was a put-up job. Relying on unused ITN footage which he has mysteriously produced, as well as on a film shot at the same time by a Bosnian Serb crew, he argues that Fikret Alic was in fact standing outside a barbed-wire fence, not inside as the film clip suggests. In fact he suggests that there was no barbed-wire fence surrounding Trnopolje camp, only an internal fence inside a small enclosure next to the camp. He furthermore suggests that conditions in the camp were generally good, and cites pictures of apparently well-fed looking people.

I am in no position to pass a definitive judgement on Mr Deichmann's allegations. It seems rather unimportant that he did not visit Bosnia until 1993, and that he is regarded in his own country, Germany, as a pretty obscure journalist. However, it is impossible to overlook the recent appearance of Fikret Alic during a talk by Mr Deichmann in Bonn. The former inmate of Trnopolje camp asserted that 'We were 100 per cent behind barbed-wire.' Some of this wire, Mr Alic said, was dismantled before the visit of the ITN crew. When I mentioned Mr Alic's statement to a spokesman for Living Marxism, she in effect said that he was lying.

Nor can we set aside Living Marxism's extreme pro-Serbian views which put it in sympathy with Mr Deichmann. It has been alleged, and denied, that the magazine has received Serbian funds. This is no more than a supposition based on the fact that a glossy, low circulation publication carrying practically no advertising manages to survive at all. What is beyond dispute is that Living Marxism has argued that the Bosnian Serbs neither practised ethnic cleansing nor created what the rest of the world has chosen to regard as concentration camps. It apparently hopes to use Mr Deichmann's allegations to bolster a general point, which is not true. There is surely now enough evidence from numerous sources to support the existence of several Serbian-run 'death camps' of which Trnopolje seems to have been one of the least disagreeable.

This does not mean that the ITN crew may not have been guilty of sensationalism in its report of what happened in Trnopolje. Manipulation of facts is, of course, an altogether more serious charge. I can understand why ITN felt so stung, but it was surely an awful mistake to dignify the allegations of an unknown journalist and an unheard-of magazine with a writ. So long as this matter proceeds, the waters are bound to be muddied in a way that will hardly be to the benefit of the broadcaster. Even if it wins, ITN will be represented as the mean giant which slew the foolish dwarf.

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