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'If it's freedom you want, steer clear of the forces of liberalism.'
By Mick Hume (Posted April 8,2000)
This 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?
Actually 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 f375,000 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.
To 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 ITN's 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 'LM's 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 Morland's libel court'.
Some of LM's fiercest critics, and ITN's most fervent supporters, have come from the liberal-left media. Meanwhile, many who have condemned ITN's 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 line-up 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.
For 375,000 obvious reasons, I cannot repeat the allegations that the article in LM made about the presentation of ITN's 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.
>From 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 bombardiers.
What 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 liberals' new enthusiasm for intervention can be found closer to home. Like Saul, their first concern is with saving their own souls.
By 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 people's 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 father's footsteps on the moral high ground by fighting ithe new Nazis' (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.
One 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 or more sensational images of suffering, which can be cropped out of any proper context and published under headlines about another Holocaust.
According to the code of therapeutic journalism, the feelings of the eye-witness reporter are deemed 'authentic' and those who question them are 'rewriting history'. After the libel case, ITN's 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'.
Their 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-It's-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.'
If every issue is to be reduced to a simple battle between good and evil, who wants to hear the devil's 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 victims' 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.
Never send to know for whom the libel tolls; it tolls for thee.
Mick Hume is the editor of LM Magazine