Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Things to come

How did you end up working for Sen. Obama?

His office called me when he began serving in the U.S. Senate in early 2005. He had just read "A Problem From Hell" and wanted to meet to discuss fixing American foreign policy. I thought, "Well that's interesting -- clearly he's in some other league." I mean, who spends Christmas reading a dark book on genocide? No other politician had ever contacted me to discuss it.

We were supposed to meet for only an hour but ended up meeting for three or four hours at a steakhouse. Suddenly it was almost midnight and I heard myself saying to him, "Why don't I just quit my job at Harvard and work in your office for a year or whatever?" I didn't even know what I was proposing, but he said, "Great."

How did you make the leap from journalist to going to work for a political candidate?

I got into journalism not to be a journalist but to try to change American foreign policy. I'm a corny person. I was a dreamer predating my journalistic life, so I got into journalism as a means to try to change the world. I didn't get into journalism by any means to win a Pulitzer Prize or do anything like that. Back then, I was obsessed with what was going on in Bosnia. I went over there because of that; I tried to get a job at NGOs ... But I didn't wait this long [to work for a candidate] because I was such a hardcore reporter. It was because I never met anybody worth doing it for before.

You were born in Dublin, Ireland, and grew up mainly in the United States. How did you come to write about genocide?

I read about the Holocaust in college [at Yale University]. Right around the time I graduated there were the concentration camps out of Bosnia with these emaciated men behind barbed wire. And I could tell a long story about why that moved me ... but it was so moving.

Genocide was the lens for me. And you can see genocide whether you go to Rwanda or you don't go to Rwanda, but you still have to figure out a way to inject concern for human beings into our foreign policy. This is what was so gratifying to me about the way Obama read "A Problem From Hell" -- for him it was about fixing American foreign policy.

--interview with Samantha Power


    DECEMBER 28, 1998

    My name is Phillip Knightley. I live at 4 Northumberland Place, London W2 5BS. I am aged 70 and I have been a journalist and author for fifty years. My most successful book has been The First Casualty which examined the way wars have been reported, photographed and filmed from the Crimea to the Falklands. This book is used in teaching journalism in many universities and colleges around the world and has been published in nine languages.

    In the years following publication of The First Casualty I have often been asked to examine and write about war photographs. I have been able to show that several well-known photographs of the Vietnam war, for instance, were not quite what they were made out to be at the time. I can go into details of these if the court wishes.

    In October 1994, an Australian monthly magazine, The Independent, asked me to write an article about the rise of women war correspondents. This interest had been sparked off by Maggie O'Kane's reporting from the former Yugoslavia and the fact that women comprised one third of the correspondents there. In the course of researching this article I came across the still photograph of the men at Tronopolje camp taken from the ITN TV footage. I was immediately struck by the fact that the image was too good to be true. I got hold of a tape of the ITN report and examined it frame by frame.

    Since my assignment was to concentrate on the role of women war correspondents, I commented only briefly on the ITN report itself. Here is what I wrote:

    "How accurate and fair were the detention camp reports? First there is the question of nomenclature. They were certainly not death camps in the Nazi sense. Nor, at the other end of the scale were they simply prisoner-of-war camps. If it were not for the Holocaust association then concentration camps would be accurate, in the sense that the Bosnian Serbs "concentrated" in the camp the people they wished to hold. Most correspondents now agree that detention camps would have been a fairer description.

    Next, all the inmates were not starving, and the emaciated man in Marshall's report may well have been an exception. A frame by frame examination of her film reveals at least one prisoner with a paunch hanging over his belt and most others do not seem dangerously thin. Phil Davison, a highly-respected correspondent from The Independent, who has covered all sides in the conflict, says, "Things had gone slightly quiet. Suddenly there were these death camps/concentration camps stories. They were an exaggeration. I'm not excusing the Serbs, but don't forget there was a blockade on Serbia at the time and there was not a lot of food around for anyone, Serbs included."

    "The International Committee of the Red Cross says that at that time the Croats and the Muslims were also running detention camps but no stories were written about them because the Croats and Muslims refused to allow journalists access to them. The ICRC conclusion is: "The Serbs, the Croats, and the Muslims all ran detention camps and must share equal blame."

    So I was well aware of the ITN report nearly two years before the LM controversy began. When it did I was appalled by what I saw as a freedom of speech issue and was impelled to write about it. I did, using some of the material I had already gathered for my earlier article. The article follows:

    "This ITN picture changed the course of the war in Bosnia. Now a German journalist claims the world was fooled. ITN says that this is an outrageous and untrue accusation. Who's right? Phillip Knightley, author of "The First Casualty", the definitive book on the reporting of war, offers a view.

    On 29 July 1992, Maggie O'Kane, a foreign correspondent for The Guardian, wrote a story about Serbian detention camps in northern Bosnia where several thousand Muslims were imprisoned. It was a graphic and emotional account and quoted one woman as recalling: "Where's your Allah now," they [the Serbs] said. "We're going to f--k all you Muslim women."

    Although O'Kane said that of all the camps, one called Trnopolje was the best one to be sent to--"they are fed there and the villagers can bring them supplies"--she nevertheless described Trnopolje as "a concentration camp", a phrase redolent of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, a decision she still defends, albeit with reservations.

    Even though O'Kane had not seen Trnopolje herself, her story had great impact, especially on television news organisations. Within 24 hours, 350 journalists were racing to the camps to follow up the story. The first television reporters to arrive at Trnopolje were Penny Marshall of ITN and Ian Williams of Channel 4 News.

    In her award-winning report on 6 August, we see Marshall (then 30), blonde hair tied with a blue and white ribbon and dressed in a pink T-shirt and United Nations blue flak jacket (this description is important) walk briskly towards a large group of men, some stripped to the waist, standing near a high barbed wire fence. She stretches out her hand to one emaciated man and says "Dober Dan ("Good Day"). The man (later identified as Fikret Alic, now living in Denmark) smiles, responds, and shakes her hand. The camera pans from his waist up to his chest where his ribs are starkly prominent behind the barbed wire.

    Beamed around the world, and used as a grainy, still photograph in newspapers, the image changed the course of the war. In Britain two newspapers labeled it: "Belsen 1992". Another said, "A grim vision of a new Holocaust came to our TV screens last night." In Germany, a Berlin newspaper declared, "In Bosnia today a new Auschwitz is beginning." In the United States, ABC television said, "To see adults starving was like a throwback to the death camps of wartime Germany".

    Less than 20 minutes after Marshall's report was broadcast on American TV, President Bush had changed his policy towards Serbia. In Britain, Prime Minister John Major recalled his Cabinet from holiday for an emergency meeting at which it was decided to send 1,800 ground troops to Bosnia. Within weeks the Serbs had closed down the camps but the picture of the emaciated Bosnian Muslim behind barbed wire had entered the iconography of war, and any sympathy the public might have had for the Serbs in this bitter civil conflict evaporated overnight.

    Now Thomas Deichmann, a German freelance journalist and lecturer, a former war correspondent in Bosnia himself, a professional witness for the defence at the War Crimes Tribunal, has claimed that the picture is not what it seemed at the time and that the world was fooled. He says that the barbed wire, an essential element of ITN's image, was not intended to confine the Muslims but to protect a pre-war agricultural compound. Penny Marshall and her cameraman, Jeremy Irvin, had inadvertently entered this compound, so that if anyone was behind barbed wire, it was them. Further, the camp was a collection centre for refugees and many Bosnians had come there voluntarily to seek safety and could leave if they wished.

    He first published these accusations in the Swiss intellectual weekly Welt Woche on January 9. His story has since been picked up by publications all over Europe. But it was only when Britain's Living Marxism announced on January 25 that it was publishing Deichmann's article in its February issue that ITN reacted. It reached for its lawyers, Biddle and Company.

    They wrote to Living Marxism saying that Deichmann's accusations were "wholly false. . bogus. . and defamatory". They demanded the pulping of all copies of Living Marxism, an apology, damages and an undertaking not to repeat the accusations. Living Marxism's editor replied that he stood by Deichmann's story, publication of the magazine would go ahead, and that he found it "grubby" that journalists should attempt to silence other journalists through the courts.

    And silence them it has--at least in Britain. Elsewhere the debate has raged over who is right over the ITN image and does it matter, since, it is argued, even if the details of this particular story might be misleading, it still represents "the greater truth" about the Serbs and their camps. But in Britain, pending ITN's libel action due to start this autumn, none of the mainstream media will touch the story from fear of being dragged into the libel case--and labelled pro-Serb.

    WHERE DOES the truth lie? There is no easy answer. You could write a book about the limitations and defects of the way today's television reports wars, its emphasis on human interest stories that end up distorting the issues; about the mind-set of editors which results in hundreds of journalists descending, pack-like, on what the office back home considers the story of the day; and about the pandering to public demand for easily-identifiable "goodies and baddies" in complex wars in which all the right is never on only one side.

    I have examined Deichmann's accusations and interviewed him. I have viewed not only Penny Marshall's report but the out-takes, the material shot by the ITN cameraman but not used. I have looked at what Penny Marshall and Ian Williams have said about the story since 1992. I have sought the views of the War Crimes Tribunal and its investigators. And I have tried to establish the atmosphere in Bosnia and London at that time.

    More women war correspondents covered the war in the former Yugoslavia than in any other war and I believe that the way they reported it changed the emphasis of the coverage. Women were more interested in the suffering that war causes. Maggie O'Kane says that the suffering was greater on the Muslim side, that since she could not be everywhere, she would concentrate on stories about Muslim victims.

    Male correspondents, on the other hand, seemed more interested in writing about the possession of territory--who was winning the war and how? And when male correspondents did write stories about victims, as did seasoned TV reporter Michael Nicholson on children trapped in Sarajevo, they seemed to pass without the attention O'Kane and Marshall attracted.

    The fact that Penny Marshall is a woman was also a factor in getting the pictures that made her famous and in the effect they created. It was the sight of clean, neat, civilian woman, who--apart from the flak jacket--could have stepped straight from any European high street--walking up to a barbed wire fence that first caught the attention of Fikret Alic and his fellows. And it is the images of this casually-dressed woman greeting these gaunt, dispirited men that adds such power to the report--the normal meets the pitiful and shakes its hand.

    But both reporters--Penny Marshall and Ian Williams--have expressed reservations about the way the images have been interpreted. Penny Marshall has said, "I totally refute the charge that the report was sensationalist. I bent over backwards--Bosnian Serb guards feeding the prisoners. I showed a small Muslim child who had come of his own volition. I didn't call them death camps. I was incredibly careful. But again and again we see that image [the emaciated man] being used."

    And Ian Williams, in an interview with the British Press Gazette, a magazine for the media industry, the month after the story, told of his concern over the reaction to the pictures: "In a sense it's almost the power of the images going two steps ahead of the proof that went with them."

    SO WHAT sort of a camp was Trnopolje? Maggie O'Kane says it was a concentration camp. But this could be true only in the sense that it was where the Serbs "concentrated" Muslims, for whatever reason. It was not a concentration camp in the Second World War sense. In the out-takes from her report, Marshall makes strenuous efforts to find out what Trnopolje is: "What is this place?" but gets no satisfactory answer. The film images certainly imply it was detention camp and this is how the War Crimes Tribunal described it.

    Deichmann says that they were wrong. It was a refugee camp and that people were free to come and go as they pleased. In the out-takes of the ITN film, people can be seen leaving the camp and walking up and down the nearby roadway. A regional Red Cross official in the out-takes says it is a refugee camp, but then he is a Serb.

    The most likely explanation is that Trnopolje was both a refugee camp and a detention camp--there were at least two different groups of people there--and that this is what has confused the issue. Refugees had come there of their own free will and could leave at any time. But there were also Bosnian Muslims like Fikret Alic who had been transferred there from other camps, who were awaiting identification and processing, and who were not free to leave.

    But even this group was not confined by barbed wire. The out-takes show them in the main camp, outside the agricultural compound, and the main camp was not surrounded with barbed wire, as the War Crimes Tribunal agrees, but by a low chain-mail fence to keep schoolchildren off the road. As well, the barbed wire fence was no deterrent to anyone determined to escape because it was poorly constructed with wide gaps. What confined the Bosnians at Trnopolje, the War Crimes Tribunal says, was the presence of armed Serbian guards. So ITN was right in that the men in the film were detained in Trnopolje, but the image used to illustrate that was misleading because it implied that they were detained by the barbed wire. The barbed wire turns out to be only symbolic.

    Were all the inmates starving? No. Fikret Alic was an exception. Even in Marshall's report other men, apparently well-fed, can be seen, and the out-takes reveal at least one man with a paunch hanging over his belt. Phil Davison, a highly-respected correspondent who covered the war from both sides for The Independent says, "Things had gone slightly quiet. Suddenly there were these death camps/concentration camps stories. They were an exaggeration. I'm not excusing the Serbs but don't forget that there was a blockade on Serbia at the time and there not a lot of food around for anyone, Serbs included."

    So Thomas Deichmann is right in the sense that the ITN image is not quite what we all thought at the time. But aren't we blaming the wrong people? Television news being what it is, could we really have expected Penny Marshall or ITN's editors to have hedged such a powerful image with all sorts of verbal qualifications?

    Part of the blame must lie with us. Our appetite for such images encourages war correspondents to give us "black and white" stories and reveals our reluctance to make the effort to understand the complexities of war. Misha Glenny, author of "The Fall of Yugoslavia", regretting a missing element from the coverage of the war--a serious explanation of why the Serbs behaved the way they did--wrote: "The general perception is because they are stark, raving mad, vicious, mean bastards."

    So we believed the ITN picture to be the absolute truth because we wanted to and the most regrettable thing of all is that by reaching for lawyers ITN has stifled what could have been a fascinating and important debate. (The article ends here)

    When, like Capa's moment of death photograph, the ITN report was hailed as a great image, should the team have stood up and publicly said, "Hey, hang on a minute. It wasn't quite like that." In an ideal world, yes. We can hear Penny Marshall's concern in the quotes of hers I have used in the above article. And Ian Williams, to his credit, has said: "In a sense it's almost the power of the images going two steps ahead of the proof that went with them." But given the commercial pressures of modern TV and the fact that to have spoken out would hardly endear the ITN crew to their employers and might even have endangered their jobs, it is understandable but not forgivable that no one chose to do so.

    In my professional opinion this is a case of immense importance. It calls into question the whole way TV reports wars, the pressure for that one vivid image that "sums it all up", even though the issues may be so complicated that such an image may not exist and could even be--as in this case--misleading. This is a matter that desperately needs to be publicly debated. And it calls into question our basic right of freedom of expression.

  2. She has shot hoops with fellow Darfur activist George Clooney, and once proclaimed herself the "genocide chick."

    I need a drink.

  3. Chuckie K7:25 PM

    Classic indeed. Genocide chick is right. She puts a 'modus vivendi' for 'the Arabs' (not the Palestinians! is that metaphorical genocide? the whole for the part and erasure of the part?) and Israel at the top of the list for foreign policy musts. Then not one word about it in the interview.

  4. Very a propos: