Last month a distinguished gentleman from the English upper-middle class came as close as he could to uttering an apology. In a review of Ed Vulliamy’s The War is Dead, Long Live the War (Bodley Head) John Simpson, the BBC world affairs editor, wrote: “I’m sorry now that I supported . . . Living Marxism when it was sued by ITN for questioning its reporting of the camps. It seemed to me at the time that big, well-funded organisations should not put small magazines out of business, but it’s clear that there were much bigger questions involved.” Simpson has at last admitted that moderate men of reasonable temperament can behave as badly as any fanatic.
Cheap recording technology, international travel and, above all, the profession of journalism are meant to ensure that those responsible for horrendous crimes are at least named, if not punished. The bitter history of the reporting of Trnopolje concentration camp in Bosnia shows that you can manufacture conspiracy theories as easily now as in the Middle Ages — and that journalism offers no protection against deceit.
Serbian militias intent on driving “Bosniaks” (Bosnian Muslims or ex-Muslims) and Croats out of north-west Bosnia established a network of camps during the wars of the break-up of Yugoslavia. At Trnopolje a UN report explained, “Killings were not rare . . . nor was the infliction of torture. Rapes were reportedly the most common of the serious crimes. The nightly terror of possibly being called out for rape or other abuses was reportedly a severe mental constraint even for short-term detainees.”
The world learned of Trnopolje in the summer of 1992, when Ed Vulliamy of the Guardian, Penny Marshall of ITN and Ian Williams of Channel 4 persuaded Serb forces to take them on a tour of occupied Bosnia. Their escorts stopped at the camp. ITN’s cameraman waited until the soldiers weren’t looking, hoisted his camera to his shoulders and shot one of the most famous images of the 1990s: starving Bosniak prisoners staring blankly at the outside world from behind barbed wire.
Every great crime produces a great lie. The evidence from the journalists, survivors and later war crimes trials was overwhelming. But someone always has an interest in denying the undeniable. In the case of the Serbs’ atrocities, the task of helping them fell to the Revolutionary Communist Party, a tiny group of media-savvy Trotskyists from the British far-Left. As with so many conspiracy theories, the “evidence” on which the RCP’s magazine Living Marxism erected its vast conspiratorial fantasy was laughably slight. The wife of a German crank by the name of Thomas Deichmann decided that the barbed wire ITN had shot hung on the wrong side of the fence poles. (You are going to have to bear with me on this.) Rather than filming inmates from the outside looking in, ITN had filmed free men from the inside looking out.
The notion that imperialist Western journalists had invented an atrocity to justify Nato intervening to save the Bosniaks was too enticing to resist. Hundreds of left-wing websites took up the cause. The journalists’ lives changed forever. Vulliamy’s The War is Dead is part of a career-long struggle he has fought to speak honestly about the Serbian atrocities. For years, I have watched him across our newsroom arguing with 1001 varieties of lunatic and thought of H.L. Mencken’s line, “for every nugget of truth, some wretch lies dead on the scrapheap”.
ITN was determined to defend its journalism, and sued for libel. It was not just picking a fight with the RCP. As Vulliamy explains so well, Serb nationalists, with real power, had every interest in propagating the lie. They wanted to avoid war crime charges, naturally. They also knew that the successful denial of past crimes makes the commission of future crimes all the easier. With an extraordinary credulity, the great and the good missed what was in front of their noses (not for the first time, you might say) and made the defence of the RCP a fashionable cause in the London of the late 1990s. Fay Weldon, Phillip Knightley and Harold Evans objected to ITN using the libel law against a small publication. Now, your correspondent has done what he can for the campaign for libel reform. I think it is fair to say that I am on the militant wing of the free speech movement. But neither I nor anyone I know believes there should be no libel law. Even in liberal America, public figures can still sue if an article either contains deliberate lies or is so full of wild falsehoods it might as well be a deliberate lie. The denial of the bestial nature of the Serb camps fitted that second category like a glove.
John Simpson was the most energetic of the RCP’s establishment defenders. He offered to give evidence on its behalf, and praised its assertion that war reporting was not “objective”. He took care to add that the Serbs’ ethnic cleansing of Srebrenica had happened but minimised the atrocities in the camps by saying that inmates looked equally skeletal after their release. All for nothing. When a camp doctor appeared in the witness box to describe the horrors he had seen, the RCP folded. Its barrister did not even cross-examine him.
Why did Simpson do it? Many journalists believe that the BBC was determined to undermine its rivals at ITN. The reporting of the trial by Nick Higham, the BBC media’s correspondent, was so biased against ITN that the Broadcasting Standards Council reprimanded him. Meanwhile Claire Fox of the RCP has gone on to become a panellist on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze. The BBC lets her get away with this: nobody questions the morality of whitewashing the worst crimes Europe has seen since Stalin.
But it’s no use meeting one conspiracy theory with another. Ideological deformations rather than the commercial interests of the BBC were at heart of the affair. When massacres happen, many want to resist calls from liberal interventionists for the West to send troops. Their “little England” argument that we should mind our own business is respectable and coherent. But they can rarely stop there. They have to go on to minimise or deny massacres, and when they do they merge with the far-Left and become just as cranky and as debased.
Vulliamy asked Idriz Merdzanic, a doctor interned in the camp, what he thought of the far-leftists and anti-interventionist opinion formers. “On the one hand, we are trying to survive what happened,” Merdzanic replied. “On the other, we have these people telling us that it is a lie, that it did not happen. It is hard enough to find words to describe the camps, but there are no words to describe what these people do.”