You will recall the storm some months ago over an interview with Noam Chomsky by Emma Brockes in The Guardian, which the newspaper withdrew and apologised for after Chomsky complained about the characterisation of his vews. The Guardian was wrong to apologise, for reasons I and others have argued at length. As Stephen Glover of The Independent commented, of a long but superficial inquiry by an external ombudsman, John Willis: "If The Guardian really had been interested in establishing the truth, it would have encouraged Mr Willis to reconsider Professor Chomsky's original complaint in the light of the evidence adduced by Messrs Aaronovitch, Kamm and Wheen in their letter. Not for the first time, the paper is not as high-minded as it may seem."
One of the points that the interview raised was Chomsky's attitude to the libel case brought by ITN against Living Marxism (LM) magazine. LM had claimed that pictures of a Serb-run concentration camp at Trnopolje were faked. According to the interview, "Chomsky insists that 'LM was probably correct'". Moreover, Chomsky is quoted as saying that “Ed Vulliamy [of The Guardian, who also reported on Trnopolje] is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true."
So far as I am aware, neither Chomsky nor anyone else (apart from, inevitably, the semiliterate conspiracy theorists who post at Media Lens) has disputed the accuracy of these quotations. They are grotesque, for reasons set out by Vulliamy in The Guardian six years ago, on the conclusion of the libel case.
Some will say that Living Marxism won the "public relations battle", whatever that is. Others will cling to the puerile melodrama that ITN's victory in the high court yesterday was that of Goliath over some plucky little David who only wanted to challenge the media establishment. But history - the history of genocide in particular - is thankfully built not upon public relations or melodrama but upon truth; if necessary, truth established by law. And history will record this: that ITN reported the truth when, in August 1992, it revealed the gulag of horrific concentration camps run by the Serbs for their Muslim and Croatian quarry in Bosnia.
The law now records that Penny Marshall and Ian Williams (and myself, for that matter) did not lie but told the truth when they exposed this crime to the world, and that the lie was that of Living Marxism and its dilettante supporters who sought, in the time-honoured traditions of revisionism, to deny those camps existed.
Quite. Yet it appears that Chomsky really is a subscriber to such revisionism. A reader draws my attention to an interview Chomsky did a couple of months ago with Radio Television of Serbia, former mouthpiece of the genocidal tyrant Slobodan Milosevic. The interview is published on the hagiographic 'Chomsky info' site here. During the interview, this exchange takes place:
Chomsky: [I]f you look at the coverage [i.e. media coverage of earlier phases of the Balkan wars], for example there was one famous incident which has completely reshaped the Western opinion and that was the photograph of the thin man behind the barb-wire.
Interviewer: A fraudulent photograph, as it turned out.
Chomsky: You remember. The thin men behind the barb-wire so that was Auschwitz and 'we can't have Auschwitz again.'
Chomsky is referring to the famous pictures of an emaciated victim (his name was Fikret Alic) of the camp at Trnopolje. And he immediately assents to the notion that the picture was faked. Knowing Chomsky's tendency to obfuscate, I am not surprised that he leaves it to the interviewer to make a charge of fraud; there is no question, however, but that this is the case Chomsky is arguing, for he goes on to claim support for LM's charge:
The intellectuals went crazy and the French were posturing on television and the usual antics. Well, you know, it was investigated and carefully investigated. In fact it was investigated by the leading Western specialist on the topic, Philip Knightl[e]y, who is a highly respected media analyst and his specialty is photo journalism, probably the most famous Western and most respected Western analyst in this. He did a detailed analysis of it. And he determined that it was probably the reporters who were behind the barb-wire, and the place was ugly, but it was a refugee camp, I mean, people could leave if they wanted and, near the thin man was a fat man and so on, well and there was one tiny newspaper in England, probably three people, called LM which ran a critique of this, and the British (who haven't a slightest concept of freedom of speech, that is a total fraud)…a major corporation, ITN, a big media corporation had publicized this, so the corporation sued the tiny newspaper for [libel].
Let's take a look at what Knightley really said about the case. Here (from Nick Cohen) is a collection of contemporary newspaper reports of the trial, including one from The Guardian (which doesn't appear to be in the newspaper's own archive). I quote from that report at length:
One defence witness will be Phillip Knightley, author of The First Casualty, a book about how truth has been distorted through wars throughout the ages. He believes Deichmann [the LM writer who alleged the pictures were fake] may have gone too far but did raise a legitimate concern: 'The case shows the problems of war journalism. It's too easy to take one single incident and use that as a base to generalise about what's happening everywhere.
'In television journalism, it's risky to allow one seductive image to drive the story and to mould the story around that seductive image.'
For those with no direct experience of the wars that stained the last century, it is the defining image that conveys the suffering and emotion far better and with greater ease than reading thousands of words.
The defining image of the Spanish civil war was taken by Robert Capa in 1936, and was portrayed as showing a Republican soldier at the exact moment he was shot.
Knightley says the way this image was portrayed was misleading and illustrates the dangers of war reporting: 'I spent six months looking into it and no one wanted to talk about it. I was told the negatives had been lost.'
Capa's picture appeared in Life magazine a year after he sent it back from the battlefield, and only then did the caption contextualise it as showing the death of a soldier: 'It could be a Republican soldier slipping over in a field,' says Knightley.
Knightley argued, in short, that it's dangerous for people to form their opinions about a war from a single image. According to Chomsky's telling of this case for the defence, Knightley argued something rather different: that "it was probably the reporters who were behind the barb-wire", and not Fikret Alic and the other victims. From being a defence witness for LM in a libel case brought by ITN, Knightley has been miraculously transmuted into a supporter of precisely the revisionist case that LM mounted in accusing ITN of trickery. It is a reasonable bet that viewers of Serbian television, still less readers of the 'Chomsky info' site, will not trouble to check Chomsky's empirical claims, which is why it's important that others do.
Two conclusions follow from this. First, yet again, Chomsky is revealed as a man whose handling of source material is fundamentally untrustworthy. Every claim he makes, every reference he cites, needs to be checked independently. The further you penetrate, the greater are the evasions, short cuts and falsehoods, which form an interlocking structure. That a man who is allegedly the world's leading public intellectual abuses the practice of research in this way is scandalous.
Secondly, recall, that Chomsky habitually refers to his critics as apologists for state crimes, racists and so forth. Here he is calling the political philosopher Steven Lukes "an apologist for the worst slaughter relative to population since the Holocaust". Here he is accusing another political philosopher, Jeffrey Isaac, of "cold savagery with which he views his own passive acquiescence in what he knows -- or can easily discover -- to be perhaps the worst slaughter relative to population since the Holocaust". Here he is accusing, er, me of "tacit acquiescence to horrendous crimes". Coming from a man who obfuscates and denies the crimes at Trnopolje, who believes the barbed wire enclosing the camp was a piece of Western media trickery, this type of accusation is quite some compliment.