Will ITN's sound pedigree beat LM's uncontrollable mongrel?

Media - Ian Hargreaves

It used to be said of Fleet Street that dog didn't eat dog; but these days, you can't hear yourself think for the acidic rumblings from the bellies of the beasts.

One example is the Independent's aggressive inquiry into the deaths of two black men in Telford, no sooner launched than dismissed as "sloppy journalism" by the Sun and criticised by some local journalists. Later this month, on 28 February, an altogether longer-running media feud reaches the High Court, where ITN is suing for libel the political magazine LM.

This dispute arises from the broadcaster's award-winning coverage of conditions inside a Bosnian camp in 1992. Five years later, in February 1997, the first issue of the revamped LM (formerly Living Marxism, a mouthpiece of the hopelessly obscure Revolutionary Communist Party) included a long item by Thomas Deichmann that was headlined, "The picture that fooled the world".

ITN says that Deichmann's article accused its reporters Penny Marshall and Ian Williams of deliberately misleading viewers in the way they presented pictures of Bosnian Muslims, one emaciated, others merely haggard, standing bare-chested behind a barbed-wire fence. These were the pictures that, in the eyes of many, confirmed the brutality of the Bosnian Serb regime. The Mirror's follow-up headline read simply "Belsen 92", and the Mail's front page said, "THE PROOF". Across Europe and in Washington, ITN's pictures dominated television news.

When ITN moved against LM in 1997, the magazine appealed to sympathisers for money (its "off-the-fence" fund has raised £41,000 so far), and it circulated letters of protest. Among those who signed up were Harold Evans, Fay Weldon, Doris Lessing and Auberon Waugh - none of them, I imagine, much informed about the detail of the argument, but all uneasy at the prospect of a large, prosperous broadcaster crushing an upstart magazine.

Stories now started to circulate that LM was a nihilistic front for unreformed east European communism, and that the company that owns the magazine, Informinc, enjoyed clandestine support from Serbian backers. Helene Guldberg and Claire Fox, the magazine's co-publishers, dismiss such claims. If ITN wins, Guldberg says that she and the company will face bankruptcy, along with Mick Hume, the magazine's editor. Certainly LM's premises in a basement in Farringdon Road in London look more like the production line at the Silentnight bed factory in Barrowford than a nest feathered by Mafiavic loot.

But for richer or poorer, LM has become a phenomenon. Although it sells fewer than 10,000 copies an issue, it organises widely supported conferences, and Hume writes regularly in the Times. His magazine is admired by the political right for its contempt for the politically correct - its targets include environmentalism, counselling and pretty much anything to do with Tony Blair. It also appeals to the real left's instincts for making trouble. LM is, in Fox's words, "post politics" or, as Hume says, aimed at people "prepared to go against the grain and stand up for life, liberty and having it all".

Typical is the current issue, where Hume rages (in a fashionably cool manner, you understand) against "society's unhealthy obsession with the Nazi holocaust" - not on the David Irving grounds that mass slaughter of the Jews did not happen, but because "the Holocaust has become the ultimate symbol of our victim culture" and a facile reference point for western politicians seeking to justify war. There is something in this, though LM often shuffles dangerously along the precipice of a self-satisfied moral disinterest.

As for the libel action, the most widely held, but false, impression among those who have only dipped into the plot is that the argument turns upon whether the ITN crew deliberately set out to make the Trnopolje camp look like a prison camp by filming from inside an adjacent barbed-wired compound. In fact, most of the camp was enclosed only by chicken wire or other types of low fencing.

Yet ITN's coverage, which I have watched again, portrayed a diverse and confusing picture: a camp where some appeared to have arrived by choice, perhaps in search of safety, while others hinted at violence. Marshall and Williams smuggled out still pictures of torture victims, and they interviewed on camera a visibly terrified doctor. The famous sequence in which a barbed-wire fence stood between the ITN cameraman and Fikret Alic, the emaciated Bosnian, filled only a few seconds of a substantial report. In court, the argument will revolve around whether this sequence was fairly placed in context.

Even though the commentary said nothing about concentration camps, LM will contend that ITN knowingly used an image so suggestive that it had a responsibility to warn against its potential misinterpretation. LM may also try to argue that once other media picked up the still picture of the men behind the wire, ITN should have explicitly resisted any suggestion that it had uncovered Nazi-style atrocities.

I doubt that LM will succeed in either of these arguments, even though it may be true that, in some sense, the world was indeed fooled by the picture. It is also true that when a libel jury gets to work, anything can happen.

So, my money's on ITN, the Mike Tyson of this fight, though I hope that the bed factory isn't put out of business. In a world where media dog eats dog, we need the creature of sound pedigree, but we also need the untrainable mongrel.

The writer is professor of journalism at Cardiff University

This article first appeared in the 07 February 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The Prime Minister loses control