Heard the one about LM and the South African millionaire?
You may have read the recent articles in the Guardian, the Observer, Prospect magazine and elsewhere, which expose 'the truth about LM' - that this magazine is in league with the far right and big business, and is funded by dubious sources.
If you missed the articles perhaps you are one of the many who was mailed or emailed copies by public-spirited individuals. Or perhaps you have picked up some of the more garish rumours doing the rounds of the internet and the journalists' bars, which our critics have not yet plucked up the courage to publish - like the story, emanating from somewhere in Clerkenwell, that LM is financed by a white South African millionaire who wants to undermine the left.
Entertaining though these highly inventive articles and bizarre bits of gossip are, their authors are not joking. These are serious attempts to discredit LM, designed to drive a wedge between the magazine and those who support it - especially those who support LM in the libel case brought by ITN.
I have neither the space nor the patience to dust off every speck of dirt thrown, but elsewhere in this issue we will try to set the record straight about some of the more serious specific allegations (see this issue). For now, let me simply repeat that LM is not funded by any foreign party or government, or the 'loony right', or big business, or any racist millionaires. If anybody can provide conclusive proof that we are, I will pay double the amount they find into their personal bank account.
The main political allegation running through these attacks is that LM is harbouring a secret agenda. It is such a well-kept secret, however, that our critics seem a little confused about exactly what it is.
In October both Guardian columnist George Monbiot and Observer columnist Nick Cohen claimed that LM is really a friend of the far right and big business, masquerading as a defender of free speech. Yet only a few months ago, their Guardian/ Observer colleagues Ed Vulliamy and Luke Harding were claiming that LM was really an ally of Serbia and Stalinism, posing as a defender of free speech.
So am I in league with Milosevic or Monsanto? Or is LM part of the International Communist/Capitalist Conspiracy? No wonder George Monbiot's article ends up sounding like a confused child at a parent's knee, asking of LM 'where do his politics come from [mummy]?' (Prospect, November, reprinted in the Guardian, 27 October).
Meanwhile Nick Cohen, the leap of imagination required to catch up with LM's new agenda apparently beyond him, falls back on the familiar terms of abuse picked up from his friends on the old left - first suggesting that LM contributors are like Tories (Observer, 25 October), and then, sinking ever-lower, implying that they are like Nazis (1 November). The emphasis is on the zzzzzzzs.
Our opponents may not be sure what our hidden agenda is, but they seem certain that we must have one. Why? Could it be that, since LM cannot easily be fitted into their complacent left v right worldview, they prefer simply to sidestep the magazine's politics? How much simpler it is to try to find LM guilty by association and innuendo, instead of engaging with the ideas in it.
Rather than take issue with LM's arguments, our critics insist that we must really stand for something else, demanding to know who is paying us to say these things. After all, if you can persuade the world that, in Monbiot's words, LM is 'not what it seems', that there is a hidden hand pulling the magazine's strings, then who cares what it actually says?
Every attack on LM now seems to include an allusion to our supposed friends and influence in high places. It is flattering to know that the magazine carries such clout in the circles where our well-connected critics move. The clear implication of their articles, however, is that LM is a secret tool of the rich and powerful, which no decent citizen should support.
They claim that we secretly run television channels, enabling us to get dishonest documentaries made by LM diktat. Join the LM team, says the Observer's Cohen, and 'see the doors of the media, big business and high culture open when you ring'. This is all a bit rich, when you consider that it is them who can whistle up entire pages of the broadsheet press in which to say whatever they like about LM, while denying us the right to reply.
In a recent letter to the Times, Richard Tait, editor-in-chief of ITN, even said of ITN's libel action that 'far from this being a rich company pursuing a poor', it is a case of ITN and its staff being hounded by 'a glossy and apparently well-funded magazine' (23 October). I know we live in a victim-obsessed age, but Tait's whining about his multimillion-pound media corporation being bullied by my independent maga- zine stands out as a prize-winning pathetic plea for martyrdom. Tait has previously said that this case is an issue of 'good against evil'. No prizes for guessing who is the wicked witch and who the innocent little Snow White in his fairytale version of events.
While we-who-are-not-what-we-seem pursue our evil secret agenda, our critics insist that they are concerned only with maintaining liberal standards and upholding the truth. Yet their journalistic standards seem pretty flexible, and their attitude to the facts rather casual, wherever LM is concerned.
Nowhere is this clearer than in relation to the ITN libel case. This is a major legal battle in which people's livelihoods and the future of the magazine are at stake. Yet even when the issues are so serious, some of our critics seem quite prepared to deal in caricatures and simply to make things up. These papers have got our side of the case wrong so often (continually claiming, for example, that we say ITN 'fabricated' or 'faked' its infamous pictures from a Bosnian camp) that they must be either brazenly dishonest or bleedin' dim. (For more on the case, see this issue and the ITN-vs-LM Web site.) And they refuse to print any corrections. The Guardian did not even publish a letter from our solicitors, the respected firm of Christian Fisher, pointing out that George Monbiot had misrepresented our allegations against ITN. The Observer did print a couple of short letters in response to Nick Cohen's attacks on LM, but only after cutting out every suggestion that their articles might have included any inaccuracies or been economical with the facts.
Some of these people appear to have developed an irrational blindspot about LM, so that they are unable to hear the magazine's name without breaking out in a rash. At root it seems they simply cannot believe that LM says what it does - and that other people agree with it. LM's defence of individual freedom, our criticisms of environmentalism, appear to George Monbiot to be 'extraordinary', 'mysterious', even 'staggering'. In the age of New Labour, when ideas such as the regulation of people's private lives and 'sustainable development' have become part of the new state-sponsored religion, LM is clearly guilty of blasphemy and it should not be allowed.
All that has been written and said about LM of late amounts to a warning to people not to support the magazine in its legal battle with ITN. George Monbiot, normally a big critic of the use of the libel laws to censor, tells 'the world's leading liberals' who have backed us against ITN's writs that 'LM's survival is no great liberal cause'. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger assures his readers that, while he fights libel writs in the noble cause of truth, LM's 'dream' is to be sued by 'someone big and powerful - like ITN' (21 October). It's a fair cop - I have enjoyed the endless lawyers' conferences, legal drafting and fundraising so much over the 20 months of the libel case that I am thinking of changing the magazine's name to Legal Masochism.
Rusbridger, Monbiot and co appear to be drawing a new line on libel: defend free speech by all means, but not for 'deranged fundamentalists' like me.
Who is behind the war of words against LM? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it is connected to the libel case, which George Monbiot mistakenly reports as being about to come to court (if only that were true - see this issue). Guardian writers have been down on LM since the case began. But what of ITN itself? What part is it playing in all of this?
Some might imagine ITN executives running a black propaganda machine from behind the glass walls of their Grays Inn Road bunker in London. Others might think that sounds like a paranoid fantasy. For its part, LM certainly does not subscribe to any conspiracy theories.
But then you hear the story which a journalism student, Chris Mitchell, relates on the letters page of this month's LM. Mitchell reports that, when he wrote to Richard Tait of ITN with some questions about the LM case, Tait sent him back not the answers, but copies of the recent scurrilous Guardian and Observer articles, 'which show the true nature of LM'. The Guardian's Monbiot has himself publicly criticised ITN for allegedly doing a PR job for the Shell corporation in Nigeria. Yet the ITN editor-in-chief is still apparently prepared to use Monbiot's article in the greater cause of dishing the dirt on LM.
Perhaps Rusbridger, Monbiot, Cohen and co should stop wrestling with their consciences over the libel laws, and come out publicly as supporters of ITN's libel writs that threaten to bankrupt LM. Then maybe we will all know who our strange bedfellows are.
Out in the open - that is where we at LM prefer to fight all of our battles. That is why, from the first, we have called on ITN to settle our dispute through public debate, instead of using the libel laws to try to censor LM. There is no hidden agenda here. Perhaps more than any other publication in the country, LM makes a virtue of blowing its own trumpet as 'a magazine that will shout what others don't dare whisper'.
For my own part, I disdain to conceal LM's aims or agenda, and I am happy to take responsibility for the magazine's message. Above all in these matters, I believe in free speech. Those who prefer smears and whispers and writs to open debate will have to answer for themselves.
Reproduced from LM issue 116, December 1998/January 1999