question, as Mr. Chris Tarrant might say, is worth £150,000. When
quizzed about the accuracy of a past statement during a recent
libel trial, who came up with the memorable line "I was not
knowingly not telling the truth"? Was it Jeffrey Archer,
Jonathan Aitken, Neil Hamilton or Mohamed Fayed?
it was none of those veterans of the sleaze wars. It was Ian Williams,
ITN journalist and seeker after the truth. The £150,00 was his
share of the £375,000 libel damages awarded to ITN and two reporters,
over an article published in LM magazine (circulation 10,000)
three years ago-damages that have already forced the magazine
to close, and still threaten to bankrupt myself as LM editor
and Helene Guldberg, the co-publisher.
sit in Court 14 through three weeks of our libel trial was to
experience justice through the looking-glass. English libel law
is a system where the defendants are presumed guilty unless they
can prove their innocence; where a journalist such as ITNís Penny
Marshall, who has reported on wars and crises around the world,
could claim that being criticised in LM had "upset
me more than anything else that has happened to me," and
get aggravated damages for her hurt feelings; and where the judge
could sum up by telling the jury, as Nick Higham reported on BBC
News, that "LMís facts might have been right, but,
he asked, did that matter?" Standing on the steps of the
High Court after the verdict, I told the assembled media that
while we apologised for nothing, we would not be appealing, since
"life is too short to waste any more time in the bizarre
world of Mr. Justice Morlandís libel court."
of LMís fiercest critics, and ITNís most fervent supporters, have
come from the liberal-left media. Meanwhile, many who have condemned
ITNís actions and defended our right to publish are conservatives
who one might not think of as the natural allies of a magazine
that began life as Living Marxism. This lineup reflects some of
the strange alliances that have drifted together as we thrash
around in the uncharted waters of post-Cold War politics, nowhere
more so than in the debate about Western intervention in the former
Yugoslavia-one of the issues behind the libel case.
375,000 obvious reasons, I cannot repeat the allegations that
the article in LM made about the presentation of ITNís famous
pictures of an emaciated Bosnian Muslim and a barbed-wire fence
at the Serb-run Trnopolje camp in 1992. But I can say that LM
has consistently tried to counter the crude attempts by too many
in the media to Nazify the Serbs and compare the conflicts in
the former Yugoslavia to the unique horror of the Holocaust. For
that I have been branded an appeaser, a revisionist and even a
"tinpot Holocaust denier" (the political equivalent
of calling me a paedophile) by some liberal-left journalists who
have renounced their CND heritage to become born-again members
of the NATO fan club, the new imperialists.
Bosnia to Kosovo and beyond, journalists who once criticised Western
intervention around the world have linked arms with Baroness Thatcher
to lead the charge for military action against the Serbs and others.
While many of the old school have expressed their discomfort with
the notion of journalists embarking on a moral crusade, more liberal
commentators seem to have slipped easily into the uniform of laptop
lay behind this amazing conversion on the road to Yugoslavia?
For all their high-minded talk of a humanitarian mission to save
Bosnia, Kosovo and the world, it seems to me that the primary
motive behind many liberalsí new enthusiasm for intervention can
be found closer to home. Like Saul, their first concern is with
saving their own souls.
reducing complex foreign conflicts to fairytale struggles between
good and evil, they put themselves on the side of the angels.
At a time when few of the old certainties seem to hold at home,
how comforting it is for the Western conscience to rediscover
such a clear sense of moral purpose "over there." The
crusading hacks are really using other peopleís life-and-death
conflicts as a therapy session through which to give their own
lives more meaning. Listen to some liberal journalists talk about
a conflict like Bosnia or Kosovo as "the test of our generation,"
or as the chance to walk in their fatherís footsteps on the moral
high ground by fighting the new Nazisí (the contemporary equivalent
of the Devil himself). In the fashionable language of self-help,
they are meddling in places such as the former Yugoslavia on an
outreach programme designed to raise their own self-esteem.
aspect of the therapeutic world view that is particularly ruinous
of good journalism is the "privileging" of emotionalism
over analysis. With the rise of victim journalism, too much foreign
reporting seems to have become an endless search for more sensational
images of suffering, which can be cropped out of any proper context
and published under headlines about another Holocaust.
to the code of therapeutic journalism, the feelings of the eyewitness
reporter are deemed "authentic" and those who question
them are "rewriting history." After the libel case,
ITNís chief executive, Stewart Purvis, claimed the verdict as
"a victory for frontline journalism over pundit journalism,"
while editor-in-chief Richard Tait stated in typically modest
style that ITN reports constitute the "first draft of history"
which must be "saved from the dishonesty of the partisan
and the ideologue."
assumption seems to be that eyewitness accounts cannot be questioned
after the event-a notion which has dire consequences for critical
and comment journalism in newspapers, let alone for the history
books. Those who subscribe to the I-Felt-It-So-Itís-True school
of reporting might like to look at what the infamous "partisan
and ideologue" Malcolm Muggeridge wrote 35 years ago in an
article entitled "The eye- witness fallacy": "Out
of righteousness and sincerity have come more deception than out
of villainy and deceit."
every issue is to be reduced to a simple battle between good and
evil, who wants to hear the devilís side of the story? If your
enemies can be branded as Nazis, are not those who criticise you
little Lord Haw-Haws who should be hanged and not heard? If victimsí
feelings are paramount, how can one tolerate the expression of
offensive ideas? Our illiberal liberals will not stand for it.
They are even prepared to see the repugnant English libel laws
close down an independent magazine, and to hail it as "a
blow for freedom of speech" (Richard Tait). Yet if we are
to make sense of these uncertain times, the one thing we surely
need is the freedom to express uncomfortable opinions, and an
end to the tyranny of the libel laws over a free press.
send to know for whom the libel tolls; it tolls for thee.
Hume is the editor of LM