Roy Greenslade apologises to ITN over libel case

Guardian writer and professor of journalism Professor Roy Greenslade used his media column on Wednesday to offer an apology to ITN for his part in 2000 libel case over a photograph depicting the conflict in Bosnia.

Horrifying: The images were broadcast around the world

LM magazine, formerly called Living Marxism, was forced to close after the libel action taken by ITN left it bankrupt. The left wing magazine published an article claiming footage broadcast by ITN in 1992 of emaciated Muslim prisoner Fikret Alic in a Bosnian detention camp was deliberately misleading.

Images from the camp became some of the most iconic of the conflict and were broadcast across the world. The Daily Mirror compared the images to those of Nazi concentration camps, leading with the headline “Belsen 92” alongside the image of Alic.

But in the LM article titled ‘The picture that fooled the world’, German journalist Thomas Deichmann claimed that the man was not in a concentration camp, as had been implied, but a refugee camp.

However, a jury did not accept the claims and ruled that ITN had been libelled and awarded damages of £75,000, as well as payouts of £150,000 for ITN reporters Penny Marshall and Ian Williams.

Professor Greenslade was one of a number of high-profile voices at the time – including Noam Chomsky - that were critical of ITN for using the libel law against another publication, claiming it was a threat to free press.

But in a book review column on Wednesday for ‘When Reporters Cross the Line’ by Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert, Professor Greenslade apologised for getting it wrong.

After explaining the background to the case, he said: “Here comes the bit that still gives me a red face. I agreed to give evidence for the magazine, not because I thought it was correct in its assertions, but because I do not believe media organisations (or journalists) should use the libel law.

“I stood by the supposed subtlety of my position but, as Purvis and Hulbert illustrate, there was good reason for ITN’s legal action. It was the only way to prevent lies being spread about their journalism as the LM allegations gained credibility.

“Indeed, until I read the chapter, I didn't realise just how much traction the false LM story gained at the time,” he went on. “I hereby apologise to ITN’s reporters and Vulliamy [a Guardian colleague] for having offered to help LM. There are rare occasions, such as this, when a libel action is the only way to deal with a false story that has the potential to ruin reputations.”

Professor Greenslade said he was rebuked over the incident by Guardian colleague Ed Vulliamy, who had been to the camp and later gave evidence to The Hague war crimes tribunal.

At the time, Vulliamy was highly critical of those supporting LM. “ITN filmed that which was before our eyes,” he said.

“The prisoners were there, the fence was there. I think ITN has done the right thing. The moral and political stakes are high. Who shouldn’t do what over libel is a sideshow.”

Prior to the case and its subsequent closure, LM sold around 10,000-15,000 copies each month. Another publication, Spiked, was promptly formed after its demise.

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