the whole story:
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Five years ago, ITN's images of emaciated men behind barbed wire
convinced the world that the Serbs were running Nazi-style concentration
camps in Bosnia. As ITN pleads innocent to the charge of inciting
the media riot that followed, Thomas Deichmann reviews the evidence
in those August 1992 bulletins
ITN on trial
On 7 August 1992 ITN lunchtime news (bottom left) reproduced Dutch
(top left), Turkish (top right) and American broadcasts (bottom
right) - all likening ITN's pictures to Hitler's concentration
camps ITN has made two official responses to my article 'The Picture
that Fooled the World' (LM, February 1997), which posed some embarrassing
questions about their award-winning reports from Bosnian camps.
One was a libel writ against the magazine. The other was a statement
that ITN 'stands by its reporting of the finding of the detention
camps, which were not referred to as "Nazi-style concentration
camps"' (23 January 1997). This raises an interesting question.
If ITN did not call the Serb-run camps at Trnopolje and Omarska
in northern Bosnia concentration camps, where did the whole world
get the idea that they were? Why was everybody convinced that
the ITN team led by Penny Marshall and Ian Williams had found
the 'proof' of a new Holocaust in August 1992? Did high-ranking
politicians, newspaper editors and millions of television viewers
suffer a collective hallucination while watching the ITN reports?
To answer the question I went back and reviewed ITN's news bulletins
from the key days of 6 and 7 August 1992. In one sense, ITN is
right: they did not call the camps Nazi-style concentration camps.
But I have made that clear all along. My accusation against ITN
is, first, that the way the pictures were produced and presented
gave the misleading impression that Trnopolje was a concentration
camp. And second, that when the world media broadcast that bogus
interpretation, ITN not only failed to correct it, but celebrated
it. Five years on, a close look at the evidence suggests ITN is
guilty on both counts.
The two key bulletins which broke the world-exclusive story of
the camps were the Channel 4 News at 7pm on 6 August (the day
after the pictures were taken), and the News at Ten on ITV that
same evening. The keynote image with which both programmes began,
and which was repeated throughout, was the picture of the emaciated
Fikret Alic apparently caged behind barbed wire at Trnopolje camp.
This image had the most tremendous impact on world opinion, immediately
inviting comparisons to the pictures of Nazi concentration camps
like Dachau, Bergen Belsen or Auschwitz where starving Jewish
prisoners behind huge barbed wire fences waited to be sent to
the gas chambers. 'They are the sort of scenes that flicker in
black and white images from 50-year-old films of Nazi concentration
camps', said the Daily Mail the morning after the image was first
broadcast (7 August 1992).
Yet, as I explained in detail in my February LM article, this
picture fooled the world. The hidden truth behind it was that
there was no barbed wire fence surrounding the refugee and transit
camp at Trnopolje, and no barbed wire encircling Fikret Alic and
the other Bosnian Muslims. (After five years of silence, ITN finally
had to admit that this was true in the High Court in April.) It
is also a matter of fact that the British news team themselves
were the ones surrounded by barbed wire. They were filming from
inside a small agricultural compound next to the camp, which had
been fenced in with barbed wire long before the war. By taking
the pictures of Alic through this compound fence, they left the
world with the clear impression that Alic and the camp were ringed
by a barbed wire fence, stoking up new fears of starving prisoners
in Nazi-style camps.
This is not a debate about trick photography. There is a huge
difference between seeing the places filmed by ITN as camps, and
seeing them as concentration camps. The refugee and transit camp
at Trnopolje was certainly grim, and the detention and interrogation
centre at Omarska was considerably grimmer. But neither bore any
comparison to the concentration camps in which the Nazis slaughtered
millions of Jews and others. Anything which suggested a comparison
between Trnopolje and, say, Auschwitz would not only have dangerously
distorted the truth about the Bosnian conflict - a civil war,
not a war of genocidal conquest. It would also do a grave injustice
to the victims of the Nazi Holcaust, by belittling the scale of
the century's great atrocity.
ITN, however, seems to have done nothing to discourage such comparisons.
Watching the news bulletins from 6 August, it is clear that ITN
editors deployed their powerful barbed wire image again and again
in order to make the maximum impact. My research has also shown
how ITN broadcast only the most sensational moments from its interviews
with the Bosnian Muslims through the barbed wire. For example,
the sequence where a man standing next to Fikret Alic said that
he felt safer in Trnopolje, and believed it was not a prison but
a refugee camp, was cut out, while the image of Alic behind the
barbed wire appeared as a backdrop to almost every item in the
bulletins (see '"Exactly as it happened"?', LM, May 1997)
Each of the news bulletins had at its heart an exclusive eye-witness
report from the camps: Penny Marshall reported for News at Ten,
Ian Williams for Channel Four News. Both journalists were rather
careful in most of their descriptions. Each explained that there
were refugees in Trnopolje, who, according to Williams 'were here
simply because they have nowhere else to go, their homes having
been destroyed', and both said that they had no first-hand proof
Yet Marshall and Williams left hanging the question of what kind
of camps these really were. Marshall for example introduced her
report for News at Ten by saying that 'The Bosnian Serbs don't
call Omarska a concentration camp...'. The obvious implication
was that others did call it a concentration camp, and Marshall
left it open as to who was right. On Channel Four News, Ian Williams
explained that they had seen 'seven alleged camps which were on
the original Bosnian list of alleged concentration camps'. As
regards five of them, he said, 'we are satisfied that these are
not concentration camps, at most they are refugee collection centres'.
But the other two camps in northern Bosnia did give 'grave concern'
about 'severe mistreatment'. Williams did not call Omarska and
Trnopolje concentration camps. But what conclusion was likely
to be drawn from his distinction between five non-concentrations
camps and these two others?
If Marshall and Williams left the issue of whether or not these
were concentration camps open to interpretation, the way in which
ITN framed their reports ensured that only one interpretation
was likely. The whole tone and structure of ITN's bulletins was
as suggestive as the misleading barbed wire image itself.
After Ian Williams' report, for example, Channel Four News presented
a background item, introduced with the image of Alic's torso behind
the barbed wire, entitled 'Crimes of war?'. Accompanied by black
and white archive footage of prisoners of war, it outlined how
war crimes had been defined and outlawed after the horrors of
the Nazi experience, drawing a clear connection between those
events and the claims of 'possible war crimes' in the Bosnian
Channel Four News then went on to report the reactions of US politicians
to the ITN film from Omarska and Trnopolje. Bill Clinton, then
the Democratic Party candidate in the approaching US presidential
election, was reported as saying that, 'you can't allow the mass
extermination of people and just sit by and watch it happen'.
There followed a lengthy interview with Tom Lantos, a Democrat
Congressman on the House Foreign Relations Committee, who declared
that 'those horrendous pictures' were 'reminiscent of the concentration
camps that the Nazis had during World War Two, minus the gas chambers....The
civilised world stood by during the early 1940s because it claimed
not quite honestly that it didn't know what was going on. Well
we now know what is going on. It is on our television screens
In fact, of course, 'it' (film from the camps) had only been on
the world's TV screens for one night, nobody had been sitting
and watching 'the mass extermination of people', and the idea
of Nazi-style concentration camps - 'minus the gas chambers' is
surely a contradiction in terms. Yet Channel Four News presented
all of this uncritically as good coin, allowing the tone of a
vital international issue to be set by emotional statements from
US politicians caught up in the heat of an election campaign.
The structure and the message of ITN's News at Ten was strikingly
similar. After Penny Marshall's report from the camps, senior
US politicians were wheeled on, shown the ITN bulletin, and given
a free hand to draw loose parallels with the Nazi past. Senator
Alfonso d'Amato explained that '50, 60 years ago, the leaders
of the world say we didn't know what was happening and it was
misinterpreted. We know what is happening now'. Tom Lantos was
also brought in again, to say that the world now had to sort the
Churchills from the Chamberlains of 1992.
The News at Ten then reported that Radovan Karadzic, leader of
the Bosnian Serbs, while denying that Trnopolje and Omarska were
concentration camps, had promised to allow greater access and
improve conditions there. 'It should perhaps be pointed out',
the ITN commentary added, 'that Mr Karadzic has a track record
of promising ceasefires which never seem to happen. And the views
of the Bosnian vice-president today were, not surprisingly, rather
different'. The Bosnian Muslim vice-president Ejup Ganic then
assured ITN viewers that, 'Ethnic cleansing and concentration
camps are reality in Bosnia'. Nobody at ITN seemed to think it
necessary to 'perhaps point out' that the Bosnian Muslim government
had as bad a record as anybody when it came passing off war propaganda
as indisputable fact.
So no, ITN's famous bulletins of 6 August 1992 did not actually
call the camps at Omarska and Trnopolje in northern Bosnia 'Nazi-style
concentration camps'. But having studied them all in some detail,
it would come as a surprise to me if anybody had interpreted the
news in any other way.
The world certainly saw the ITN reports as proof of concentration
camps and a new Holocaust in Bosnia. In response to my allegations
in LM about their pictures from Trnopolje, ITN now says that this
misinterpretation was not its fault. How did it respond to the
global hysteria that greeted its pictures?
The ITN lunchtime news on the following day, 7 August 1992, provides
an answer. Far from correcting the international interpretation
of their pictures as evidence of Nazi-style atrocities, ITN advertised
it and even revelled in it, at the same time acting as if this
overnight international consensus on the existence of concentration
camps had nothing to do with the way they presented their reports
the night before.
The backdrop to ITN's 7 August lunchtime report was again provided
by the emblematic image of Fikret Alic supposedly ringed by a
barbed wire fence at Trnopolje camp. The bulletin reported on
how the world media had responded to ITN's film:
'ITN's pictures of the detention camps have been seen all over
the world. The images provided the first real evidence of brutality
towards prisoners in the former Yugoslav republics. And they provoked
international outrage from overseas television commentators.'
There then followed some examples of this 'international outrage',
starting with excerpts from how the US network ABC News had introduced
the ITN footage the night before: 'Faces and bodies that hint
at atrocities of the past. But this is not history, this is Bosnia.
Pictures from the camps: A glimpse into genocide.'
The ITN voiceover explained that 'It was the evidence the world
had been waiting for', and detailed exactly what it was that the
world had interpreted the ITN footage as evidence of:
'The pictures flashed around the world. The Dutch talked of concentration
camps. In Muslim Turkey they said ITN's pictures resembled Hitler's
camps and brought the greatest disgrace to mankind. And the Germans
said the pictures were reminiscent of World War Two.'
Next, against a backdrop of newspapers with banner headlines like
'BELSEN '92' alongside reproductions of the famous barbed wire
picture, ITN reported that 'today's British press was unequivocal
in its interpretation of the pictures, adding more pressure on
the government to take action to intervene in the Yugoslav crisis'.
For me, the whole tone of ITN's post-event reporting demonstrated
that in fact it did not have any problem with the way the world
understood its news bulletins from the night before. As the reactions
to the reports snowballed towards further Western intervention
in Bosnia, ITN seemed entirely unembarrassed, indeed keen to boast,
about its new role as foreign-policy maker. 'For now', the ITN
lunchtime news report of 7 August 1992 ended, 'horror stories
from Bosnia dominate the headlines. They clearly have generated
a response in the United States. Their long-term effect may depend
on the media's ability to come up with more'.
Such was ITN's self-congratulatory response to the way in which
their reports convinced the world there were concentration camps
and genocide in Bosnia in August 1992. Yet since the publication
of my article 'The Picture that Fooled the World', ITN has insisted
that what matters is that their journalists did not refer to these
places as 'Nazi-style concentration camps'. What point are they
trying to make?
Ian Williams and Penny Marshall at Omarska and Trnopolje
Channel 4 News turned up the contrast to make this graphic (6
This article first appeared in LM 102