The dope sheet that duped the world
Media researcher Graham Barnfield follows a trail of paperwork from Trnopolje to ITN HQ and beyond
In a recent attack on LM magazine, ITN editor-in-chief Richard Tait praised his people for showing such 'restraint' on the Bosnian camps story in 1992, and insisted that 'We never called them "concentration camps", newspapers did' (Spectator, 24 May 1997).
In fact the label 'concentration camps' was not attached to Omarska and Trnopolje by unrestrained tabloid journalism. Before any newspaper editor had a chance to report on ITN's horror stories, these words were spelled out to the world's newscasters in a document that accompanied the ITN film - a document distributed by a company, Worldwide Telvision News (WTN), that had close links with ITN itself.
WTN sold ITN's footage overseas, along with a summary of the content of each picture sequence (the 'shot list') and some advice on interpreting them (the 'dope sheet'). Following the shot list - 'very thin man shaking Penny Marshall's hand/pan various refugees' - came a very informative piece of text:
'A British news team has the first independent proof of concentration camps being run by the Serbian authorities in Bosnia-Hercegovina.'
As the ITN images went around the world by satellite, so too did this dope sheet publicising the phrase which ITN now deny ever using. Transmission times on the document suggest that it went out prior to the first broadcast of Marshall and Alic's famous meeting. This means that the notion that ITN had 'proof' of concentration camps was in circulation among the world's broadcasters before the authors of headlines like 'Belsen 92' (Daily Mirror) and 'The Proof' (Daily Mail) had even set eyes on the footage. Television led the way, the newspapers followed.
Who was responsible for the dope sheet that first told the world ITN's pictures should be taken as proof of concentration camps?
In Europe, the footage was distributed through the European Broadcast Union (EBU) which facilitates co-operation between broadcasters. The Dutch, German and Turkish news programmes which drew explicit parallels between the ITN pictures and Nazi camps in their August 1992 coverage are all EBU members. But the EBU does not write its own dope sheets. It takes them from supplying agencies - in this case, WTN.
WTN traded under the name UPI until 1967, when it entered a partnership with ITN. The partnership was dissolved in 1982, and the American television company ABC acquired an 80 per cent stake in WTN; but ITN still held 10 per cent, and remains the corporation's largest UK shareholder. ITN and WTN share access to new footage and a central archive. As late as 1995, ITN executive Stuart Purvis was also a WTN board member. Even their company logos are almost identical. All of this suggests a very close relationship.
The dope sheet could have originated even closer to ITN itself. It is standard practice in the film industry for the cameraman to provide the information on the sheets, and WTN sources confirm that camera crews usually write the text accompanying the films they supply. Anybody ordering footage from ITN's sales department also receives a shot list from a central database.
A charitable interpretation might see a company that enjoyed a close relationship with ITN supplying text that would, even in Richard Tait's eyes, have lacked 'restraint'. When dozens of clients got the wrong end of the stick - via the EBU - neither WTN nor ITN got around to clearing the matter up. Hence Trnopolje became a concentration camp in the eyes of the world.
Cynics, on the other hand, might suggest that if the television industry's standard practices had been applied, the ITN news team could have written the dope sheet themselves. I could not get Richard Tait to give ITN's side of this murky story.
Either way, the trail of paperwork from Trnopolje to ITN's HQ on Gray's Inn Road and beyond suggests that those who want to know the whole truth about the camps story will have to do more than round up the usual suspects among the tabloid press.
Dr Barnfield teaches Communication Studies at Sheffield Hallam University