Setting the record straight
For the first time since LM began, I am having a relaxing break from editing this month. Instead I am spending March down at the High Court in London, defending the libel writ which ITN has brought against the magazine's publishers and me. After three years of prevarication, the trial is finally due to start on 28 February.
The case centres on an article entitled 'The picture that fooled the world', published in the February 1997 issue of LM, which investigated ITN's award-winning pictures of a Bosnian Serb-run camp. For legal reasons I cannot speculate about the evidence beforehand. I am confident about our case, less so about the justice of Britain's notorious libel laws. But there are some things of which we can be pretty certain. For one, as is the nature of such cases, there is likely to be a fair bit of mud flying around (see the Hamilton-Al Fayed circus).
I have no wish to play the libel lawyers' game of mutual character assassination, or to get involved in a slanging match with anybody. Some take a different approach to public debate. Over the past three years, many malicious rumours have been circulated about LM - who we get our money from, where our political loyalties lie, etc. None of these allegations has ever been substantiated, which is not all that surprising, since none of them is true. So, before the libel trial begins, let us try to set the record straight as to what LM is really about.
LM is an independent magazine with no links to any political party. (The magazine was originally published as Living Marxism by the Revolutionary Communist Party, before it was bought by Helene Guldberg and Claire Fox and relaunched as LM.) Run on the proverbial shoestring, the magazine survives through the money we raise from sales and events, and thanks to the generosity of our contributors (none of whom is paid for what they write), and of our supporters in the Friends of LM fundraising scheme (see page 13).
But what does LM stand for now? 'LM has become a phenomenon', Ian Hargreaves, professor of journalism at Cardiff University, wrote in the New Statesman in February, 'admired by the political right as well as the left'. As editor, I like to maintain an open door policy on contributors to LM, publishing authors of all political persuasions and none at all. The only condition is that they should have something thought-provoking to say, which chimes with LM's commitment to Question Everything.
There are, however, some broad principles that determine the kind of issues and arguments in which LM is particularly interested - and which mean that we often appear to be going against the grain of conventional wisdom.
LM stands for progress. This is, of course, a widely discredited concept. Contemporary society is uncomfortable with its own achievements. We live in an atmosphere of self-loathing in which it seems that, for many, industry equals pollution and poverty, science means Frankenfood and eugenics, while knowledge is just a code word for elitism and arrogance. Experimentation goes against the grain of the new religion of risk-avoidance, the first commandment of which is the precautionary principle - 'Thou shalt not chance it'. The saying 'nothing ventured, nothing gained' encapsulates the drive to take calculated risks that has brought humanity from the caves to something approximating civilisation. Today, however, its slightly less snappy equivalent would be 'nothing ventured...at all, unless we can have a detailed independent audit of all the long-term environmental consequences in advance'.
In the face of all this superstitious nonsense, LM upholds a future-oriented worldview that unambiguously champions the extension of human knowledge and control in every sphere. Raising productivity and investing in development are necessary stepping stones towards the creation of a more civilised and enlightened society, in which people can have more options about how they live. Removing all of the barriers to experimentation is vital, if we are first to assess and then to realise the potential benefits of new developments, such as genetic engineering. How many gains of the past 200 years would have been possible if the dead hand of the precautionary principle had been on society's tiller? If we allow it to take over now, we will end up more sorry than safe.
LM stands for a human-centred morality. Despite the fact that we live in a time of unprecedented opportunities, there has been a general loss of faith in humanity. Partly due to the failure of past experiments in social change, many no longer believe in our ability to take control of our destiny and make the right choices about changing things for the better. This dangerous fatalism makes it necessary not only to take on the mysticism of religions, old and new, but to challenge every contemporary notion that promotes a degraded view of humanity.
That is why this magazine has won a reputation, for example, as a scourge of such fashionable causes as animal rights, population control and environmentalism, and a trenchant supporter of unpopular issues like animal research or third world development. This is not because I have anything in particular against cats or trees. It is because the elevation of these moralistic causes, often at the expense of scientific or economic advance, is a side effect of humanity's tarnished self-image. What is sorely needed is a morality whereby what is deemed right in any given circumstances is that which will bring the greatest benefits to people.
It follows that lm stands for an ambitious definition of the human potential. We should insist upon our ability to handle life as autonomous individuals who can make our own decisions - and mistakes. Many contributors to this magazine have fiercely criticised the development of a therapy culture, in which we are all encouraged to see ourselves as victims who need counselling and support in order to cope with everyday problems. With the state now intervening in people's private affairs not as a nanny, but as a counsellor, it seems that every social policy pursued by the New Labour government has a therapeutic underpinning, designed to raise the 'self-esteem' of young people, poor people, single mothers, etc. That emphasis might sound fair enough. But since self-esteem is now defined simply according to how you feel about yourself, regardless of what you actually achieve, this approach looks more like a way of reconciling people to lower expectations.
LM, on the other hand, favours raising our sights in pursuit of life, liberty and having it all. In particular, that means opposing attempts by outside agencies to regulate interpersonal relations and invade the private sphere. There is an increasing tendency today towards the juridification of everyday life, with the growth of an entire industry seeking to sort out our personal affairs through mediation and the courts. Encouraging a healthy scepticism towards third-party intervention of any sort is a way of asserting our freedom to decide our own destiny.
LM stands for intellectual conflict and the polarisation of ideas. In an age when consensus is queen and 'adversarial politics' two dirty words, public debate has collapsed into a bland blancmange of the centre ground; we are all supposed to be New Labour now. New Britain is a society increasingly run by committee, press conference and special advisory group, where political life is being replaced by technocratic management techniques, and demos - the people - is being separated from democracy. Compared to that, we at LM are more comfortable with the imperfections of representative democracy, a system which at least rests on the assumption that the electorate can be trusted to judge for themselves, and that an open clash of ideas over the good society is the only way to establish some clarity about the best way ahead.
In sum, LM stands for restoring belief in people's potential to take control of their lives; seeing humanity as the subject rather than the object of history, as the author rather than audience. The magazine's aim over the past three years has been to change the agenda of public debate in that direction.
The precondition for making any of this possible is that we have the right to freedom of speech, to present the truth as we understand it without worrying about offending public opinion or existing morality. At a time when any contentious opinion is likely to be met with cries of 'you cannot say that', there is a pressing need to take a stand for free speech. The decline in support for this freedom is another reflection of the degraded view of humanity today, since it suggests that people cannot be trusted to handle ideas which are dangerous, extreme or just different. Some of us, however, would rather take our chances in the open court of public opinion than leave it to the experts and the authorities to control what can be said.
Many people have backed our stand in defence of free speech throughout the libel dispute with ITN, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank them all for their support, without which we could never have got this far. I would also like to extend special thanks to those who have pulled together to ensure that this issue of LM comes out, despite the pressures of the court case - especially Jennie Bristow and Brendan O'Neill on the editorial side, and our designer, Alex Cameron.
As I write, the future is in the balance; the publishing company, the co-publisher Helene Guldberg and me would all face the threat of bankruptcy if we were to lose the libel case. But whatever happens in court, the project we are involved in at LM will not be killed off. As they used to say at the end of those old Fu Manchu movies (probably the only international villain LM has not been linked with), 'the world shall hear of us again'. Starting with the April issue, on sale 30 March.
Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000