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FOCUS: Chomsky Interview Controversy
By Alison Freebairn
Balkan Investigate Reporting Network (BIRN)
December 23, 2005

British newspaper finds itself at the heart of a bitter dispute about Balkans war crimes following interview with high-profile intellectual.

Disagreement over an interview given by leading intellectual Noam Chomsky could re-ignite the debate over so-called revisionist thinking on the Balkan wars in general and the Srebrenica massacre in particular.

Chomsky insists that support he voiced for an allegedly revisionist author during the interview with the British Guardian newspaper was based purely on her right to freedom of speech.


But a group of writers and analysts have challenged the publication’s decision to retract a write-up of the interview, which was critical of his stance on the matter, and to apologise for misrepresenting his views.

The resulting controversy, described by the Guardian as “an extraordinary storm of opposing passions”, looks set to continue well into next year and may not be resolved until the appointment of an external ombudsman to review a recent complaint about the newspaper’s handling of the issue.

The Chomsky interview, conducted by journalist Emma Brockes and published on October 31, was withdrawn from the newspaper’s website following a complaint from the 76-year-old linguist, author and political analyst. A correction was also published. (Full interview is still available on Chomsky’s official website at:
 http://www.chomsky.info/onchomsky/20051031.htm )

Chomsky objected to the headline of the article – “Q: Do you regret supporting those who claim the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated? A: My only regret is that I didn’t do it strongly enough” - and references to his support for Diana Johnstone, whose writing on Srebrenica and the Balkan wars has been criticised as revisionist. 

However, the Guardian’s attempt to resolve the matter promptly caused further controversy. (The Guardian’s correction of the interview is available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/corrections/story/0,,1644017,00.html )

The newspaper has since declined to publish a letter signed by several high-profile authors, analysts and journalists asking for the correction and apology to be withdrawn. The apology, signatories argued, could legitimise future attempts to minimise the Srebrenica massacre, Europe's only legally established genocide since the Second World War.

“The Guardian apparently agreed to publish our letter, provided we shortened it to less than half its original length,” says Marko Attila Hoare, a signatory. 

“However, the Guardian's lawyer then rewrote the abridged letter in her own words, mutilating it and depriving it of most of its original meaning. This appeared to us to be motivated by an intent to minimise its impact… it amounted to an effective rejection of our letter, and we treated it as such."

Writing on December 12, readers’ editor Ian Mayes revealed that a complaint had also been received from journalists David Aaronovitch, Francis Wheen and Oliver Kamm over the nature and form of the original correction.

“The new complaint is concerned with what Noam Chomsky and Diana Johnstone, who was also referred to in the Chomsky interview and in the correction, do or do not believe with respect to the events at Srebrenica and to the description of the massacre itself,” Mayes wrote. (For full version of Mayes’ column see:
 http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,1665220,00.html )

Brockes’ interview was published just days after Chomsky had been named the world’s top intellectual by the London-based Prospect magazine. In the article, Brockes wrote of his dedication to a number of causes over the decades and opined that at least one of them – his backing for a claim by Living Marxism magazine that coverage of Serb-run detention camps by the British company Independent Television News, ITN, was a misrepresentation – was “ill-judged”.

She also queried his 2003 decision to sign a letter describing as “outstanding work” Johnstone’s book Fool’s Crusade, which analysed the background to the Balkan wars and argued that events in Srebrenica, and the official number of victims, had been exaggerated.

When the Brockes interview was published, Chomsky wrote a letter of complaint to the Guardian in which he stressed that his backing for Johnstone and Living Marxism had been in support of their freedom of speech alone. 

“As for [Brockes’] personal opinions, interpretations and distortions, she is of course free to publish them, and I would, of course, support her right to do so, on grounds that she makes quite clear she does not understand,” he wrote. (Chomsky’s letter to the Guardian available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,,1640770,00.html

On November 2, the Chomsky letter was published on the Guardian’s pages and website alongside a letter from Kemal Pervanic, a survivor of the Omarska detention camp and author of The Killing Days: My Journey Through the Bosnian War. 

In his own letter, Pervanic described Chomsky’s statement that Living Marxism was “probably right” in its assertion that the ITN footage was faked – an assertion later disproved in the British courts – as “an insult not only to those who saved my life, but to survivors like myself”. (Pervanic’s letter to the Guardian is available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,,1606321,00.html )

The Guardian received a formal complaint from Chomsky on November 3. A full version of his open letter, in which he attacks the Brockes interview as “a scurrilous piece of journalism” and accused the reporter of having “a definite agenda”, was published on Chomsky’s official website on November 13. (Chomsky’s Open letter in full version available at: http://www.chomsky.info/letters/20051113.html

The author also objected to the juxtaposition of his letter next to that of Pervanic, later stating, “Pairing aside, the heading given by the editors was: ‘Fall out over Srebrenica’. The editors are well aware that there was no debate or disagreement about Srebrenica once the fabrications in their article are removed.”
Four days later, the Guardian announced that it was pulling the Brockes interview from its website and removing all links to it on the grounds that it had “falsely portrayed [Chomsky] as denying that massacres were committed” in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war. (Decision available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,1644668,00.html )

The main complaint surrounded Brockes’ use of inverted commas around the word massacre, which in Chomsky’s view suggested that he was denying that a massacre had taken place at Srebrenica. In addition, Chomsky had argued that his support for Johnstone was based solely on her right to freedom of speech and to publish unpopular or controversial theories.

“Ms Brockes’ misinterpretation of Prof Chomsky’s views on Srebrenica stemmed from her misunderstanding of his support for Ms Johnstone,” readers’ editor Ian Mayes wrote on November 17.

A number of analysts and writers disagree with these findings and are now calling on the newspaper to reopen the case. The Guardian has declined to make further public comment on the issue while investigations are underway.

However, as the post of external ombudsman to the Guardian has not yet been filled, the process of investigating the new complaint – and assessing the decisions made over the original one - may take some time.

A full copy of the letter to the Guardian is published by BIRN in this issue of Balkan Insight, which also features the major contributions to the debate so far.

Alison Freebairn is a Balkan Insight contributor in London. If you would like to voice your opinion in connection with this debate, please write to editor@birn.eu.com


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