FOCUS: Chomsky Interview Controversy
By Alison Freebairn
Investigate Reporting Network (BIRN)
December 23, 2005
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journalist Emma Brockes and published on October 31, was withdrawn from the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
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journalists asking for the correction and apology to be withdrawn.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
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:
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
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:
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
“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 firstname.lastname@example.org