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Evading the charges

ITN and their supporters have had a lot to say about everything - except the actual questions which Thomas Deichmann raised in his LM article. Eddie Veale cross-examines their case

The central issues raised by Thomas Deichmann's article, 'The Picture that Fooled the World', seem simple and straightforward enough. To summarise:On 5 August 1992, a British news team led by Penny Marshall (ITN for News at Ten), with her cameraman Jeremy Irvin, and fellow reporters Ian Williams (ITN for Channel 4 News), and Ed Vulliamy (the Guardian newspaper) visited Trnopolje camp in the Bosnian Serb territory of northern Bosnia. They left with striking pictures of the emaciated Fikret Alic and other Bosnian Muslims apparently caged behind a barbed wire fence.

These pictures were broadcast around the world, and immediately became the defining image of the horrors of the war in Bosnia. In particular, the world media held up the picture of Fikret Alic behind the barbed wire as proof that the Bosnian Serbs were running a Nazi-style 'concentration camp', or even 'death camp', at Trnopolje. The impact of these images was to colour all subsequent coverage of the war, and to prove instrumental in persuading the American and British governments to adopt a more interventionist policy towards Bosnia.

But the image of Trnopolje as what British newspapers called 'Belsen '92' was misleading. Fikret Alic and the other Bosnian Muslims in the picture were not encircled by a barbed wire fence. There was no barbed wire fence surrounding Trnopolje camp. The barbed wire was only around a small compound next to the camp, and had been erected before the war to protect agricultural produce and machinery from thieves. Penny Marshall and her team got their famous pictures by filming the camp and the Bosnian Muslims from inside this compound, taking pictures through the compound fence of people who were actually standing outside the area fenced-in with barbed wire.

Whatever the British news team's intentions may have been, their pictures were interpreted around the world as the first hard evidence of concentration camps and a 'Holocaust' in Bosnia. Penny Marshall and Ian Williams have not called Trnopolje a concentration camp; nor did Ed Vulliamy at first, although he later seemed to remember that it was one after all (see page 20). All three British journalists have expressed concern at the way in which others have used their reports and pictures as 'proof' of a Nazi-style Holocaust.

Yet none of them has ever fully corrected the false interpretation placed upon those famous pictures, by telling the world the full story of that barbed wire fence and how the Trnopolje pictures were taken. Why?

That is, in essence, the question which Thomas Deichmann's investigative report asks of the ITN team and Ed Vulliamy of the Guardian. ITN has answered it with threats and libel writs, Vulliamy has responded with a libellous article of his own about Deichmann and LM in the Observer, and their allies have rallied round in support. The strange thing is, however, that none of them has yet addressed the actual questions which Deichmann raised. Instead they have deployed various bogus arguments as evasive manoeuvres.

The 'mere detail'

Rather than responding to Deichmann's revelations about the famous barbed wire fence at Trnopolje, some in the media world have tried to make out that this is a 'mere detail' in the story of the Bosnian camps, a 'single example', and that LM is simply 'splitting hairs'.

This seems a peculiar reaction from people who, until Deichmann questioned it, had insisted that the picture of Bosnian Muslims supposedly caged behind a barbed wire fence was the key image of the camps, indeed of the entire conflict, and the one thing above all others which had turned world opinion.

'That picture of that barbed wire and these emaciated men made alarm bells ring across the whole of Europe', Penny Marshall herself told German television in 1993: 'I believe that the report would not have caused such a reaction had it been transmitted without that picture, although the facts would have been the same.'

When Marshall and Williams' reports from the Bosnian camps won a Bafta award in March 1993, ITN took out a newspaper advert to congratulate itself (reproduced opposite). The image ITN chose to symbolise its triumph? The 'mere detail' of Fikret Alic and the barbed wire which, the advert's text boasted, had become 'a worldwide symbol of the horrors of the war in former Yugoslavia'. ITN was in no doubt which aspect of the story had changed American and British policy towards Serbia: 'world outrage was aroused by ITN's reports', it recalled with pride, 'and the picture of the emaciated Bosnian behind the barbed wire at Trnopolje appeared on front pages the world over. Western opinion began to move towards a policy of military "peacekeeping"'.

The 'single example' of the Bosnian Muslims apparently imprisoned behind a barbed wire fence at Trnopolje was the key to the way in which the Bosnian camps story was interpreted around the world. It was the image which prompted all of the comparisons with Nazis, Holocausts and the Second World War. Without it, the whole story would be called into question - as indeed would the dominant view of the war itself. Why else would Thomas Deichmann's investigation of a 'detail' have provoked such a reaction?

Camp caricatures

Some of our opponents have chosen to 'respond' to an imaginary article which Deichmann never wrote. Typical of this caricaturing tack was the letter in the Observer from Carole Hodge of Glasgow University, which claimed that the aim of the LM article was to 'cast doubt on the existence of camps in Bosnia where non-Serb civilians were tortured and murdered in 1992'.

Thomas Deichmann's LM article was based on the careful study of several hours of unedited (and largely unbroadcast) videotape shot by the ITN team during their visits to Bosnian Serb-run camps in August 1992, and on his own research trip to Trnopolje during which he inspected the camp site and talked to people who had been guards and Red Cross officials at the camp during the war. He also interviewed the respected Dutch attorney Professor Mischa Wladimiroff, who has conducted his own investigations into Trnopolje and the barbed wire. If at the end of all that Deichmann had tried to deny the existence of camps in Bosnia, he would deserve either the Stalin award for rewriting history or an eye-test.

Drawing on his extensive research, what Deichmann did was to present a dispassionate view of Trnopolje camp, free from the usual histrionics. There is no such thing as a 'good' camp, and the ITN rushes show that many Bosnian Muslims in Trnopolje were bewildered and frightened people who would undoubtedly rather have been somewhere else. Yet many were refugees who, as Deichmann makes clear, came to Trnopolje of their own volition and stayed there voluntarily, seeking some degree of safety in a Bosnian Serb-controlled region ravaged by war. Others were waiting to be transported out of the region. For many of the people there, Trnopolje was the lesser evil compared to the alternatives in the war zone outside.

The real distortion of the history of Trnopolje has not been perpetrated by Thomas Deichmann, but by those who seized upon the ITN reports as proof that it was a concentration camp where people were penned behind a barbed wire fence. Thomas Deichmann has done more than 'cast doubt' on that distorted thesis; he has exploded it.

You can't say that

A favourite tactic of Deichmann's critics has been to ignore the facts which he has uncovered altogether, and simply to declare that it is illegitimate to raise such questions. The message is that the 'truth' about Bosnia and Trnopolje camp has been set in stone, and cannot be questioned. Anybody who attempts to criticise the accepted wisdom will find themselves beyond the pale and liable to heavy punishment.

This is the perspective from which the likes of Ed Vulliamy have been screaming 'Holocaust denial' and 'Historical revisionism' at LM. It is a favourite witch-hunting tactic of our times. As even the British government has discovered, the cheapest way to discredit somebody these days is to try to associate them with Nazism. People like Vulliamy will now shout about Holocaust denial whenever somebody dares to disagree with them. And yet he has the nerve to accuse us of trivialising genocide and insulting its victims.

In similar vein, ITN management took the unusual step of posting a statement denouncing Deichmann and LM on the staff noticeboard inside their HQ. It declared that 'ITN believes these allegations will only serve the interests of those who choose to deny the extent of the crimes that took place in northern Bosnia during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia'. So never mind whether the allegations are true or not - the point is that only those who deny war crimes would want to state such a truth.

Crying 'Holocaust denial' and 'historical revisionism' serves as an all-purpose excuse for ITN and its allies. If they can brand LM and Deichmann as beyond reason in this way, it relieves them of any responsibility to account for their own actions and arguments - in particular, to account for the reports and pictures which the world wrongly interpreted as proof of a Holocaust in the first place.

Get Deichmann

The last recourse of ITN and its allies has been to sink to a petty campaign of personal abuse and character assassination against Thomas Deichmann. It has been said that Deichmann's evidence is tarnished because he is married to a Serbian woman (half-right - he is married to a woman), he is a Communist, he is a Nazi, etc. We are still waiting for somebody to discover that he is really an alien involved in an X-files conspiracy.

Deichmann is quite capable of replying to the attacks on his integrity. It need only be noted here that whenever people start such frenzied mud-slinging one can be sure that somebody has something to hide. The baiting of Thomas Deichmann looks like a desperate ploy to distract attention from the issues his report raises. It seems McCarthyism is alive (if a little unwell) in ITN's HQ on Gray's Inn Road.

It is about time ITN, Ed Vulliamy and the rest stopped the scaremongering and addressed the real questions. Better still, they should show the full, unedited film which they shot at Trnopolje on 5 August 1992, and let the world judge for itself.


1. ITN reporter Penny Marshall (in UN flak jacket) enters the south side of the small agricultural compound next to Trnopolje camp, through a hole in the compound's barbed wire fence. The people in front of her are Bosnian Muslim refugees who have come into the compound to sit in the shade of a tree.


2. The ITN crew approaches the north side of the compound, where curious Bosnian Muslims gather inside the camp, but outside the area that is encircled with barbed wire. Note the wheelbarrows, remains of the farm goods which the barbed wire fence was erected around the compound to protect long before the war.


3. In one of the famous shots which ITN did broadcast, Penny Marshall shakes hands with Fikret Alic and other recent arrivals from camps at Omarska and Keraterm, through the compound's fence. Eagle-eyed readers might spot that the wire is attached to the pole on Alic's side, showing that it is the news team which is fenced-in by barbed wire, not the Bosnian Muslims.

This article first appeared in LM 98

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