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Chomsky, The Guardian, and Bosnia
By David Aaronovitch, Oliver Kamm, and Francis Wheen
March 20, 2006

Introduction, by Oliver Kamm

Last October, The Guardian published an interview with Noam Chomsky. The occasion was Chomsky’s nomination, in a poll run by Prospect magazine, as the world’s top public intellectual (an accolade I criticised in an accompanying article for the magazine). The interviewer was a young Guardian journalist, Emma Brockes.

I thought the interview a valuable and illuminating discussion. It asked tough questions, which Chomsky is not used to answering, about his relationship with some rather unsavoury elements who wrote about the Balkan wars in the 1990s.

The Guardian apparently took a different view. After complaints by Chomsky and a write-in campaign (much of it, I understand, highly abusive) orchestrated by a group called Medialens, the newspaper published a ‘correction’ to the interview, which it removed from its website. That 'correction' was written by The Guardian's Readers’ Editor, Ian Mayes, after he had investigated Chomsky’s complaints; it was published in the newspaper on 17 November.

The problem with The Guardian's correction, and the reason I enclose the word in quotation marks, is that in its discussion of the views of Chomsky and a writer he commended, Diana Johnstone, it was manifestly not correct. I and two other writers with experience of Chomsky’s arguments and methods, David Aaronovitch of The Times and Francis Wheen of Private Eye, were so concerned about Ian Mayes’s judgement and the apparent lack of any mechanism for appeal against it, that we sent Mayes a letter exhaustively setting out our reasons for believing a serious injustice had been done to Emma Brockes.

Ian Mayes referred to our complaint in a column on 12 December. He wrote:

I am now asked to consider a complaint about the content of the correction. This is not unprecedented, and it is not always a difficult thing to do. Corrections to corrections on simple matters of fact are made from time to time. On this occasion some argue that the correction concerning Noam Chomsky was flawed, should not have been made, and should be withdrawn.

I should say immediately that none of the material sent to me has convinced me that I should do that. But am I, in any case, the right person to consider such a complaint? That is a question asked in the complaint about the correction made directly to me. I think the answer is almost certainly not.


That was indeed one of the points we made. On the suggestion of Mayes and The Guardian's Editor, Alan Rusbridger, we approached the Scott Trust, owner of the newspaper, to appoint an external ombudsman to adjudicate on our complaint. In all this time, we held back from publishing our letter until we could be certain we had exhausted the newspaper’s appeals procedure.

We believe that point has now been reached. The Scott Trust has appointed an external ombudsman, but it has been made clear to us that his remit is restricted to judging whether Ian Mayes carried out his duties properly. That is not the issue we raised. We have never questioned the diligence and professionalism with which Mayes considered Chomsky’s complaints: we disagree with the judgement he came to. We hoped that the ombudsman would give a considered assessment of the evidence we presented, and that the dispute could be resolved with a correction – a real one this time – of Ian Mayes’s wholesale acceptance of Chomsky’s complaints, and an apology, in private at least, to Emma Brockes. As that evidence is not being considered at all, we have no option but to conclude our approach to The Guardian and publish our letter. We are doing this today on this site and also on David’s site.

We have made it clear to The Guardian and the Scott Trust that we appreciate their having an appeals procedure for complaints. But the procedure has not worked in this case. Where a complaint relates to the judgements made by the newspaper’s Readers’ Editor, there is on this evidence no way of holding him to account.

We are all longstanding readers of The Guardian; David and Francis have in addition been regular contributors to it. We subscribe to its values and admire its Balkan coverage of the last decade and a half. The newspaper’s conduct in the Chomsky affair is not in accord with that tradition or with the cause of historical truth. The letter we are publishing today sets out why.

To Ian Mayes, Readers’ Editor, The Guardian, 119 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3ER, UK. Thursday December 1.

From David Aaronovitch, Oliver Kamm, and Francis Wheen

Dear Ian,

You have rightly described the role of readers’ ombudsman as being created by a “dedication to getting it right and no interest in getting it wrong”. And, in an article published on November 14 this year, you also quoted a proverb which argues that “he is always right who suspects that he is always making mistakes”.

Quite so. When therefore, as three life-time readers of The Guardian (and in two cases, readers who have also written for the paper), we came across an article which, in our opinion, was inaccurate, which gave incorrect information to the readers and, consequently, did a rather substantial injustice to a particular person, we decided to write to you and ask for some form of redress. Unfortunately, in this particular instance, the culprit was you, and the errors in the article were compounded by the actions that you took in consequence of making them.

On November 17 you published a column under the heading “Corrections and clarifications”, relating to an interview with Professor Noam Chomsky, which had appeared in G2 nearly three weeks earlier. At the end of this column you announced that, “The Guardian has now withdrawn the interview from the website”, though you didn’t say whether that was as a result of any recommendation from you. You may wish to clarify how that decision was taken in your reply to us.

You stated that you had found in favour of Professor Chomsky with regard to three “significant complaints”. The first concerned the reference by the author, Emma Brockes, to Professor Chomsky’s placing the word “massacre” in quotation marks with reference to events at Srebrenica in July 1995. You write, “This suggested, particularly when taken with other comments by Ms Brockes, that Prof. Chomsky considered the word inappropriate or that he had denied that there had been a massacre. Prof. Chomsky has been obliged to point out that he has never said or believed any such thing. The Guardian has no evidence whatsoever to the contrary and retracts the statement with an unreserved apology to Prof. Chomsky.”

As we shall argue in this complaint, Professor Chomsky most certainly does seem to believe that, in the sense that international legal and human rights organisations, NGOs and reputable reporters understand it, Srebrenica was not a massacre. Not only that but, in one instance at least - as we shall show - he puts the case directly and unambiguously.

You go on to discuss Professor Chomsky’s relationship to the author Diana Johnstone in the light of the headline to the interview (which, incidentally, you fail to make clear was not written by Ms Brockes), which read, “Q: Do you regret supporting those who say the Srebrenica massacre was exaggerated? A: My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough.”

You rightly point out that no such direct question was put to Professor Chomsky and that what therefore seemed to be a verbatim exchange was no such thing. An error of judgement of this sort was indeed worthy of correction, but the reason given for such an error in the following sentences actually manages to be incorrect itself. You wrote, “This part of the interview related to his support for Diana Johnstone … over the withdrawal of a book in which she discussed the reporting of casualty figures in the war in former Yugoslavia. Both Prof. Chomsky and Ms Johnstone, who has also written to The Guardian, have made it clear that Prof. Chomsky’s support for Ms Johnstone, made in the form of an open letter with other signatories, related entirely to her right to freedom of speech. The Guardian also accepts that and acknowledges that the headline was wrong and unjustified by the text.”

We shall argue that the information in this part of the correction is factually wrong and show that the headline was actually a fair summary of Chomsky’s support for Johnstone. Your error, in our view, was compounded by the two most unacceptable sentences in your column, which read, “Ms Brockes’s misrepresentation of Prof. Chomsky’s views on Srebrenica stemmed from her misunderstanding of his support for Ms Johnstone. Neither Prof. Chomsky nor Ms Johnstone have ever denied the fact of the massacre.” Our case is that Ms Brockes didn’t misrepresent Professor Chomsky’s views, didn’t misunderstand his support for Ms Johnstone (that misunderstanding, in fact, being yours) and that Ms Johnstone certainly, and Professor Chomsky effectively, deny the fact of the massacre.


It’s necessary to remind ourselves of what Srebrenica was. It was not just one of those terrible things that happen in war, and of which all sides are guilty. Or, at least, so The Guardian has repeatedly told us. Take these excerpts from recent reports:

A forensic team working in the mass graves of Bosnia today announced it had found the remains of 227 victims of the massacre at Srebrenica. Murat Hurtic, the lead excavator, said the exhumation at the village of Snagovo, 30 miles to the north of Srebrenica, had discovered ‘147 incomplete and 80 complete bodies’ …

Bosnian Serb forces overran the UN-designated "safe zone" of Srebrenica in July 1995 and killed more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, the worst slaughter of civilians in Europe since the second world war.”

Simon Jeffery and agencies, November 11, 2005



….the massacre of thousands of Muslims at Srebrenica - the worst atrocity on European soil since the Nazi era.
Ian Black October 7, 2005


Heads of government and state from the Balkans joined the mourners, including, most controversially, Boris Tadic, the president of Serbia. He bowed before a monument to the victims and remained silent…

The massacre was carefully plotted. Murdering 8,000 people in less than a week requires logistical skills and organisation: men, weapons, ammunition, fuel, buses, lorries, excavators, bulldozers. All of this was finely calibrated by Mr Mladic’s staff. In the months that followed the orgy of killing, the Bosnian Serbs engaged in an elaborate cover-up operation, exhuming the corpses from the mass graves and scattering the remains in so-called “secondary mass graves” to confound local and international investigators.

That has complicated exhumation, recovery, and identification procedures for the victims. Experts believe at least 20 mass grave sites have yet to be discovered or investigated.

Ian Traynor in Srebrenica, July 12, 2005


This repeated understanding was presumably what a Guardian editorial was referring to when it argued:

Yet no one who has followed the cases being tried at the UN tribunal in the Hague - including the Srebrenica massacre - can doubt the nature of the crimes committed in the Balkan wars.
Leader, September 17, 2005

It is important to acknowledge the wording here. The editorial didn’t seek simply to repeat that there were “crimes“. What was important was “the nature of the crimes”. In the case of Srebrenica, as of June this year, a provisional list existed giving the names, parents’ names, dates of birth and unique citizen’s registration numbers of 8,106 individuals who went missing or who were killed in and around Srebrenica in the summer of 1995. A total of 7,789 names have been registered as missing with the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), and were used in helping to identify the remains of 2,079 victims. Not all the graves have been found (the most recent was discovered only weeks ago), partly because the perpetrators of the killings dug up many of the remains from their original burial place and moved them, often some distance.

The Human Rights community and most reputable observers have concluded that there was a systematic and planned execution of around 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces, and that - according to international definitions - this action was genocidal in intention. This is what is meant by the Srebrenica massacre. And this is what Diana Johnstone not only denies, but has made it part of her personal crusade to deny.


Johnstone’s book, Fools’ Crusade - Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions, sets out to portray, according to the dust-jacket, “the massive deception and self-deception by media and politicians”, which helped to mask the “aggressive military globalisation pursued by the United States, from Iraq to Afghanistan and beyond”. The second chapter of this book, ‘Moral Dualism in a Multicultural World’, deals extensively with events at Srebrenica, and how those events were interpreted.

To summarise, this is what Johnstone argues: that there is “a difficulty in knowing the truth about Srebrenica”. This is partly because “uncertainty has persisted concerning the actual number of people killed, the circumstances and motives involved and the political significance of the real or assumed killing that took place.” Johnstone urges, therefore, that “a number of factors should be taken into account”. These are:

1. The safe areas (including Srebrenica) were not demilitarised, but “served as Muslim military bases … safe bases from which to attack the Serbs”, and UN-protected food shipments were “suspected - correctly” by the Serbs of acting as a front for the shipment of weapons. The UN announcement of the demilitarisation of Srebrenica was “deceptive”.

2. The Muslim forces in Srebrenica were led by one Naser Oric who “had carried out murderous raids against nearby Serb villages”. Oric’s Muslim fighters beheaded the bodies of Serbs, reminding Serbs of the Ottoman occupation.

3. The Bosnian Muslim government pulled Oric’s men out of the enclave “deliberately leaving the enclave undefended”. This alleged fact “has aroused strong suspicion of a calculated sacrifice”. In addition, a former member of the Bosnian parliament has “insisted that many more Srebrenicans had survived than were acknowledged”.

4. The US used the “inevitable failure” of the UN safe area concept as a way of getting NATO to supplant the United Nations. “The UNPROFOR mission was a planned failure … used to discredit the whole tradition of neutral diplomacy” and colluded in by “Washington’s choice as Secretary General, Kofi Annan…”

5. “The number of Muslims killed or missing after the fall of Srebrenica is uncertain and more effort has been made to inflate the figures than to identify and count the real victims”. The original 8,000 figure was made up of 3,000 reported detainees and 5,000 who fled, of whom, according to one newspaper report, 3-4,000 had now turned up. Six years later “ICTY forensic teams had exhumed 2,361 bodies in the region and identified fewer than 50 … some of the bodies were certainly of Serbs as well as of Muslims”. Johnstone concludes that there is “no clear way to account for the fate of all the Muslim men reported missing in Srebrenica”, not least because some of the prisoners “were released in exchanges” or “even dispersed abroad”.

6. “The original accusation against the Bosnian Serbs was politically motivated.” Johnstone writes that “The accusation of a ‘Srebrenica massacre’ [note, these are Johnstone’s quotation marks] was used by the Clinton administration” to distract attention from Croat activities in the Krajina region, and on to “Serb misdeeds”. A presentation by Madeleine Albright of satellite photographs showing possibly massacre burial sites “successfully diverted attention” at the UN from the Croatian offensive against the Serbs. The photos themselves are problematic because “If … the massacres took place on the scale alleged, why were no photos displayed showing the massacres?”

7. “Insofar as Muslims were actually executed [note the use of the quasi-judicial word ‘executed’ rather than ‘murdered’ or even ‘killed’ here] following the fall of Srebrenica, such crimes bear all the signs of spontaneous acts of revenge rather than a project of ‘genocide’”. This is the context in which Johnstone claims that the separation of men of military age from women and children makes one thing obvious, “one does not commit ‘genocide’ by sparing women and children”. Johnstone claims that the separation actually happened “partly because the Serbs could exchange” Serb and Muslim POWs and partly because the Serbs were looking for Oric’s notorious killers. The rapid fall of the enclave “presented the Serbs with an opportunity to exact revenge”. Furthermore “some observers” think that the whole thing “was a ‘trap’ for the Serbs who stupidly fell into it.” In fact “one man who wanted to keep Bosnian Serb forces away from Srebrenica was Slobodan Milosevic”. He may have anticipated that “the accusation of ‘genocide’ in Srebrenica was used to construct the presumption that Milosevic was plotting to commit genocide in Kosovo.”

Exhausted, let’s just add one more bit of Johnstone at this point. On October 12 the Counterpunch website published an article by Johnstone entitled ‘Srebrenica Revisited’. We quote two paragraphs from this article. The first deals with some of those said to be still missing:


Thousands of those men did in fact reach Tuzla, and were quietly redeployed. This was confirmed by international observers. However, Muslim authorities never provided information about these men, preferring to let them be counted among the missing, that is, among the massacred. Another large, unspecified number of these men were ambushed and killed as they fled in scenes of terrible panic. This was, then, a ‘massacre’, such as occurs in war when fleeing troops are ambushed by superior forces.


And further on:

From the moment that Madeleine Albright brandished satellite photos of what she claimed was evidence of Serb massacres committed at Srebrenica (evidence that was both secret, as the photos were shown in closed session to the Security Council, and circumstantial, as they showed changes in terrain which might indicate massacres, not the alleged massacres themselves), the U.S. used ‘Srebrenica’ for two clear purposes… Exploitation of ‘Srebrenica’ then helped set the stage for the Kosovo war of 1999… To use ‘Srebrenica’ as an effective instrument in the restructuring of former Yugoslavia, notably by replacing recalcitrant Serb leaders by more pliable politicians, the crime needed to be as big as possible: not a mere war crime (such as the United States itself commits on a serial basis, from Vietnam to Panama to Iraq), but ‘genocide’: ‘the worst atrocity in Europe since the Holocaust’.

By now, Ian, it should be obvious to all but the most wilfully unobservant that Johnstone does not believe that there was a massacre at Srebrenica in the way that, say, The Guardian’s own best reporters and analysts do. In fact she deploys just about every conceivable argument in attempting to prove that the world community has engaged in a grotesque exaggeration of events in the enclave, either out of ambition - in the case of the US and its allies - or, in the case of much of the media, out of laziness.

Examine her arguments. The numbers of deaths are exaggerated, though she doesn’t know what they are; many possible victims were in fact exchanged, deported or arrived home safely and the international agencies are wrong to think they were killed; the enclave was left deliberately undefended by perfidious Bosnian leaders, possibly in the hope that there would be an atrocity; the enclave wasn’t a safe haven anyway, but a base for Muslim decapitators; such killing as there was is therefore best seen as revenge and not anything genocidal; the US was hoping for an atrocity so that the UN could be pushed aside; Milosevic was in no way responsible. At every possible point and in every conceivable way Johnstone seeks to minimise the scale and implications of what was done at Srebrenica.

There is at this point a legitimate parallel to be drawn with what has come to be known as “Holocaust Denial”. Most of those who may justly described as “deniers” are, of course, happy to acknowledge that crimes were committed against the Jews. Terrible crimes, even. What they deny, however, is that these were crimes that were out of the ordinary for what was a total war. The numbers were fewer than claimed, the physical evidence is deficient, the photographic evidence is unreliable, the deliberation less overt, the action more of a reaction to wartime exigencies, the comparisons with Allied “atrocities” (e.g. the bombing of Dresden or the attack on Hiroshima) legitimate, the Jews somehow complicit.

On a point of fact Johnstone is also wrong in her understanding of what constitutes genocide (or “genocide” as she invariably puts it). In international law genocide is:

… any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.


What happened at Srebrenica - the destruction of all men of a certain age because they were Muslims - clearly constitutes an act of genocide. That is the Srebrenica massacre, and it is absurdly pedantic to absolve Johnstone of denying the massacre on the basis that she does not say the words “I deny there was a massacre”.


So now we come to the connection between Johnstone and Chomsky. Your column stated that The Guardian accepted that, “Prof Chomsky's support for Ms Johnstone, made in the form of an open letter with other signatories, related entirely to her right to freedom of speech.”

This is a strange formulation because we don’t just have the open letter on which to base a judgement of Chomsky’s support. We also have the Brockes interview itself, in which there are (or were) direct quotations in which Chomsky supports the content of Johnstone’s work, and not just her right to publish it. As far the authors of this complaint know there has never been any suggestion that the quotations in the article were anything other than genuine. We also have a subsequent clarification from Chomsky himself, made two years before the Guardian interview, in which he explicitly endorses Johnstone’s analysis.

But before analysing that bit of writing we must add that, even in your own terms, your judgement is wrong. The open letter, signed by Chomsky and several others, reads in part, “We regard Johnstone's Fools’ Crusade as an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition.” This is hardly a defence of the right to be published based purely on freedom of speech. Such a defence could easily have noted that Johnstone’s work was flawed, or might be seen as a prolonged apologia for Milosevic’s Serbia, or have entered even the mildest criticism - any one of which would have rendered the appeal for free speech even more forceful. It didn’t; instead it recommended the book’s “appeal to fact and reason”. As we’ve shown, this “fact and reason” include effective denial of the Srebrenica massacre.

Even this, however, hardly matters, because in mid July 2003 Chomsky elaborated on his defence of Johnstone in a further message to supporters in Sweden. Again, this is worth quoting at length, because our presumption must be that you were not aware of its existence when you made your ruling:

Avsänt 7/12-03. Ej tidigare publicerat.

Dear friends,

I have heard from various friends in Sweden about an ongoing controversy concerning Diana Johnstone's book on the Balkans. I have known her for many years, have read the book, and feel that it is quite serious and important. I also know that it has been very favorably reviewed, e.g., by the leading British scholarly journal International Affairs, journal of the Royal Academy. I was therefore interested to learn of the criticisms and the controversy, and took the trouble to investigate what was sent to me…

Another document sent to me contains a number of charges:

(1) ‘According to her it cannot be a matter of genocide when women and children are spared. But to me it is obvious that genocide and crimes against humanity have been committed in Srebrenica…’

Reference is apparently to Johnstone's statement (p. 117) refuting the claim that the charge of “genocide” is demonstrated by the fact that the Serbs who conquered Srebrenica offered safe passage to women and children. In response to this absurd claim, she writes: “However, one thing should be obvious: one does not commit ‘genocide’ by sparing women and children.”

I do not see how her entirely appropriate comment justifies the charge in (1) [Please see above for the legal position on genocide. – DA, OK and FW]…

4) Mikael van Reis published an article in Göteborgs-Posten. I quote:

‘… the revisionist author Diana Johnstone, foreground figure in the slander-convicted magazine Living Marxism. She insists that the Serb atrocities - ethnic cleansing, torture camps, mass executions - are western propaganda. That is also what Slobodan Milosevic and his ilk profess. Thus the Ordfront left is suddenly travelling in the same compartment as postcommunist fascism.’

I do not know van Reis, and hope that the quotation is incorrect. However, if it is correct, it is quite remarkable…. LM was indeed convicted, and put out of business, thanks to Britain's outrageous libel laws … a huge corporation was able to put a small marginal journal out of business…

Johnstone argues - and, in fact, clearly demonstrates - that a good deal of what has been charged has no basis in fact, and much of it is pure fabrication….

A final comment on ‘genocide’. People are free to use the term ‘genocide’ as they please, and to condemn Racak and Srebrenica, say, as genocidal if they like. But then they have a simple responsibility: Inform us of their bitter denunciations of the incomparably worse ‘genocide’ carried out with the strong backing of the US and UK at the very same moment as Racak. Say, the massacre at Liquica [in East Timor], with perhaps up to 200 civilians murdered, one of many (unlike Racak), in a country under military occupation and hence a grave war crime (unlike Racak), and in this case simply a massacre of civilians, without even a pretext of resistance (again unlike Racak)….

And to continue, Swedes who display their outrage over these examples of Serbian genocide [note here the clearly parenthetical intention] clearly have the duty of informing us of their far more bitter condemnations of the massacres (again with decisive US-UK backing) through 1999, leaving maybe 5-6000 civilian corpses, according to the Church in East Timor… Perhaps they have issued bitter condemnations of their Western allies (and Sweden). If so, they have a right to use the term ‘genocide‘ in the case of the terrible but much lesser crimes of Racak and Srebrenica.


You need to know that the review to which Chomsky refers is, in fact, far from “very favourable”. The reviewer Richard Caplan, a British academic, starts ironically with the following, “Slobodan Milosevic emerges as a multiculturalist committed to the preservation of a reformed socialist Yugoslavia who was demonized by the West not because of his militant nationalism, which she maintains the West largely fabricated, but because he stood in the way of western hegemonic designs for the region”, commends the book for mentioning that there were atrocities other than those committed by Serbs, but then continues to accuse the book of containing “numerous errors of fact which Johnstone, however, relies on to strengthen her case”. The question for us must be, why does Chomsky so misstate the intention of the review if the only issue at stake is freedom to be published?

The reason may be that, as he makes absolutely clear later in the message, he agrees with her. If Swedes are to condemn Serbian crimes, he argues, then they must first condemn the far worse crimes that have taken place in East Timor - “massacres…..leaving 5-6,000 civilian corpses” Only then can they use the word ‘genocide’ to talk about the “terrible, but much lesser crimes of Racak and Srebrenica”. And that’s exactly the point, Ian: the Srebrenica massacre that most of the world accepts took place in July 1995, was not - emphatically not - in any way a “much lesser crime” than Liquica or the East Timorese massacres. And it was an act of genocide.

Chomsky’s reason for downplaying or questioning the scale of what happened in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 is that he wishes to deny to the US and her allies - forces that he believes to be the biggest threat to world peace and prosperity - the pretexts on which he believes they base their interventions. In this battle someone like Johnstone is an ally, not a neutral. We refer you to a review by Adrian Hastings of Chomsky’s own book The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo, which was published in 1999. Hastings notes that:

What is most striking to a Balkanist about this book is what is left out. There is no discussion of the character, aims and methods of Milosevic, no attempt whatever to place the war in Kosovo in the context of a decade of wars - in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia - and very little attempt even to portray what had actually happened in Kosovo in the twenty years before 1999…

Hastings continues:

It is a little surprising to find that the names of Sarajevo, Vukovar and the like never appear. Where he does refer to previous events in ex-Yugoslavia he often gets them wrong, uncritically accepting Serbian propaganda or using any conceivable quote to hammer the West. Thus the statement that the ‘violent expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Serbs from Krajina’ is ‘acknowledged to be the most extreme single case of ethnic cleansing in the horrendous wars of secession in Yugoslavia’ (p. 26) is certainly untrue. The ethnic cleansing of Muslims in eastern Bosnia in and after April 1992 was far worse in every way ….

Hastings concludes, “Chomsky just has not entered deeply into what he is talking about and he is not greatly interested in anything except digging out material for anti-American invective.”


It’ s pretty obvious by now that, even if you don’t accept every aspect of the above argument (and we most certainly think you should), Emma Brockes was certainly entitled to the interpretation she put on Johnstone’s work and Chomsky’s defence of it. Yet the interview was not amended by, say a change of headline or an appended note, it was removed altogether - expunged from history - and Brockes was exposed to vilification and ridicule from various supporters and allies of Professor Chomsky. She has been accused of fabricating quotations and of being a journalist lacking in integrity and comprehension - accusations given a spurious boost by your own column. To compound things Diana Johnstone was allowed to write the following in the Comment section of The Guardian on 23 November. Referring to an interview that the reader could no longer find, Johnstone wrote that:

In apologising to Noam Chomsky (Corrections and clarifications, November 17), The Guardian’s readers’ editor also had the decency to correct some errors concerning me in Emma Brockes’s interview with Chomsky (G2, October 31). Despite this welcome retraction, the impression might linger from Ms Brockes’s confused account that my work on the Balkans consists in denying atrocities.

But - as we’ve seen - that is indeed part of what Johnstone’s work consists in, and the impression was the truth - a truth which, thanks to your column, has now been suppressed.

There is one last point we wish to make. There is at least the suspicion that your retraction, apology and The Guardian's decision to remove the interview from the website, were motivated in part by legal advice, which stressed the possible vulnerability of the newspaper to a libel action (one which Chomsky was pledged not to undertake). If that’s true, then your claim to be fully independent is - to be blunt about it - a fiction. You cannot represent both the interests of the reader in always being told the truth, and also the legal department of the newspaper in attempting to minimise its liability. You may wish to clarify the position in your response.

We apologise for the necessary length of this letter, and do not expect a speedy reply. We do, however, expect a correction of the correction and (in private, at least) an apology to Emma Brockes. We are sending copies of this letter to the editors of The Guardian and G2 and to Emma Brockes herself.

Yours sincerely,

David Aaronovitch
Oliver Kamm
Francis Wheen


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