On June 13, George Monbiot devoted his Guardian column to naming and shaming a 'malign intellectual subculture that seeks to excuse savagery by denying the facts'. 'The facts', Monbiot noted, 'are the genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda.'
In a piece that recalled the iconic scene from The Usual Suspects, Monbiot lined up Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, David Peterson, John Pilger, and Media Lens, as political commentators who 'take the unwarranted step of belittling the acts of genocide committed by opponents of the western powers'.
According to Monbiot, Herman and Peterson are guilty of something called 'genocide denial'. Media Lens got off on the lesser charge of 'supporting genocide denial'. As for Chomsky, Monbiot Tweeted:
'And, to my great distress, as I rate him very highly, #NoamChomsky doesn't come out of it too well either.'
The 'it' in question was Monbiot's own investigation: think a one-man Chilcot Inquiry.
'Genocide belittling' and 'genocide denial' may sound like neutral terms, but in fact they are loaded, and aimed, in a particular direction by mainstream journalists.
Typically, someone is adjudged guilty of 'genocide denial' only when they question accounts of crimes committed by official enemies of the West. No-one is accused of 'genocide denial' if they present Iraq Body Count's (IBC) figure of 100,000 reported civilian deaths by violence since 2003 as the likely total number of Iraqis who have died through all causes. No-one is accused if they favour IBC's current figure over the Lancet study which estimated 655,000 Iraqi dead as a result of the war way back in 2006. The same applies to the many commentators who have rejected, or ignored, claims that US-UK-led sanctions killed more than 500,000 Iraqi children under five between 1990-2003.
Journalists can go as low as they please in estimating numbers killed in Western or Western-backed bloodbaths in, for example, Indonesia, East Timor, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Cambodia, Yemen, Iran and Afghanistan. No-one would dream of charging them with 'genocide denial'.
In his article, Monbiot initially focused on right-wing 'deniers'. He then turned to the opposite end of the political spectrum:
'But genocide denial is just as embarrassing to the left as it is to the libertarian right. Last week Edward Herman, an American professor of finance best known for co-authoring Manufacturing Consent with Noam Chomsky, published a new book called The Srebrenica Massacre. It claims that the 8,000 deaths at Srebrenica are "an unsupportable exaggeration. The true figure may be closer to 800."'
These words do appear in the book, but they are taken from the foreword by Phillip Corwin, formerly the UN Civilian Affairs Coordinator in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Curiously, then, Monbiot began his criticism of Herman by focusing on someone else's words. Different contributors to a book, even editors compiling the contributions, are not normally held to have collectively asserted what any one contributor has asserted.
'The leftwing website Media Lens maintained that Herman and Peterson were "perfectly entitled" to talk down the numbers killed at Srebrenica.'
One might, of course, debate what 'talk down' means. But this is what we actually wrote about what Herman (rather than Corwin) has argued:
'Herman and Peterson have also written:
'"There is a good case to be made that, while there were surely hundreds of executions, and possibly as many as a thousand or more, the 8,000 figure is a political construct and eminently challengeable." (Herman and Peterson, 'Milosevic's Death in the Propaganda System,' ZNet, May 14, 2006)
'Herman and Peterson, then, are not denying that mass killings took place at Srebrenica. They also do not accept the figure cited by Kamm and others, but that they are perfectly entitled to do.' (Media Alert, 'Dancing On A Mass Grave,' November 25, 2009)
Arguing that someone is entitled to debate the facts is not the same as arguing that they are entitled to falsify, mislead, wilfully deceive, or whatever 'talk down' was intended to suggest. Monbiot could simply have written: 'Media Lens maintained that Herman and Peterson were "perfectly entitled" to debate the facts.'
Readers may be surprised to learn that we have never written about the Srebrenica massacre - which took place six years before we started Media Lens - other than to affirm that it was a massacre. The whole emphasis of our November 4, 2005 alert, for example, was to show that Noam Chomsky had affirmed, and not denied, as the Guardian claimed, that there had been a massacre at Srebrenica.
With regard to Herman and Peterson's work, we checked our archives - after ten years of work on Media Lens, we found a grand total of two articles by them discussing Srebrenica posted on our website (a third mentions it in passing).
The practical implications of Monbiot's criticism were not spelled out. Were we wrong to post the two articles? Should we delete them? What threat does our posting of Herman and Peterson's work pose, as against the threat to free speech of banning their work from our website? After all, if taken seriously, accusations of 'genocide denial' could be extended to suppress other views that are unpopular with powerful interests.
We found that the US website ZNet hosts literally dozens of articles by Herman and Peterson mentioning Srebrenica. Presumably, then, it is a world-leader in 'supporting genocide denial'. We asked Monbiot why he has not complained to ZNet (to which he is a regular contributor), or even mentioned their role. He chose not to respond on this issue.
To be clear, we reject the right of any court, any government, indeed anyone, to apply labels like 'genocide' to historical events and then, not merely argue but demand that they be accepted. The assumption that human institutions are in possession of Absolute Truth belongs to the era of The Inquisition, not to serious debate. There are rare cases when hate speech which is motivated by racism and likely to lead to violence can be condemned. But presumably Monbiot was not suggesting that Herman, Peterson, Chomsky and Pilger are trying to promote hatred and violence. We asked Monbiot, but again he did not respond. Please click here to see our email to him, and here to see the response he sent on June 17.
Distinguishing Deaths From Executions
Even putting aside concerns with the term 'genocide denial', Monbiot's article contains some major gaffes. For example, as indicated above, Herman does not argue 'that the 8,000 deaths at Srebrenica are "an unsupportable exaggeration"'. Rather, he argues that the 8,000 executions at Srebrenica are an exaggeration. Monbiot wrote to us:
'Given that 6,500 of the victims have already been exhumed and identified, and that there is very strong evidence (as there has been for years) to suggest that a further 1,500 or so await discovery, this statement is demonstrably wrong and without justification.'
But the 6,500 victims 'exhumed and identified' have been identified by DNA profiling that does not identify the cause of death - Herman and Peterson are questioning how many people were executed.
Freelance journalist Jonathan Rooper worked for the BBC for some 20 years. He was a journalist in TV current affairs before moving to BBC TV News where he became head of the News Features department. Rooper wrote to us:
'DNA-based identifications of persons reported missing in wartime does not and cannot address the manner of death in any of those identified. So even if the ICMP [The International Commission on Missing Persons] claimed in an email to George Monbiot on 13 June that it, the ICMP, had positively identified "6,595 of the 7,789 Bosnians [sic] reported as missing" from the Srebrenica "safe area" population after the date of its capture by the Bosnian Serb forces (i.e., after July 11, 1995), this does not support, and cannot be used to support, Srebrenica-massacre allegations [of 8,000 shot dead].' (Email to Media Lens, June 24, 2011)
And yet Monbiot insists that the figure of 8,000 executions is 'accepted by everyone except some extreme Serb nationalists and a small group of wilful deniers as the correct total...'
In his response to us, Monbiot was adamant:
'To describe it as "talking down" the number of deaths [sic – executions] is in fact an understatement: it amounts to the outright disavowal of cast-iron evidence.'
Again, this is simply wrong. Even if we accept that there is 'cast-iron' evidence of 6,500 deaths, there is not 'cast-iron' evidence of 6,500 executions. Some of the dead may have been regular battlefield casualties - the point Herman and Peterson are making.
Note, also, that the standard claim for Muslim deaths in Bosnia from 1993 and for many years thereafter was about 250,000 – a figure offered by the Bosnian Muslim authorities and accepted by many journalists. However, in Bosnian Book of the Dead: Assessment of the Database, Patrick Ball et al., estimate 96,895 deaths in total for the period of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, of which 57,696 (59.6%) were military and 39,199 (40.5%) were civilian. Does that make Patrick Ball et al. guilty of the charge of 'revisionism' or 'belittling', or even 'genocide denial'?
The 'Inverted Commas Problem'
A second gaffe is even more remarkable. Shortly after noting that 'genocide denial is... embarrassing to the left,' Monbiot wrote: 'Worse still, he places the Rwandan genocide in inverted commas throughout the text...' The 'text' in question is The Politics of Genocide. The 'he' is Edward Herman, although the book was actually co-authored with David Peterson.
At face value, this does indeed look awful. Are Herman and Peterson denying that there was any kind of genocide in Rwanda? This recalls the worst kind of apologetics arguing that there was no Nazi Holocaust, no gas chambers, no policy to exterminate Jews.
But even a glance at The Politics of Genocide reveals that the authors are using quote marks to refer to what they call 'the standard model' (p.53) of the Rwanda genocide - that there was a conspiracy by Hutu to eliminate the Tutsi from Rwanda. Herman and Peterson claim that this account is 'a propaganda line' (p.51) that 'turned perpetrator and victim upside-down' (p.51). Thus, in writing of 'the Rwanda genocide' using inverted commas, they are referring to a particular version of what happened and proposing an alternative version of events which, they claim, better fits the known facts.
What they are not doing is suggesting that there was no genocide in Rwanda. As Peterson commented to us, if they are to be 'accused' of anything, it should be 'genocide reallocation', not 'genocide denial'. That Monbiot could even make the accusation, which could hardly be more damning, calls into question how seriously he had studied the material he was citing.
This error closely echoes Emma Brockes' infamous comment about Noam Chomsky in the Guardian:
'Chomsky uses quotations marks to undermine things he disagrees with and, in print at least, it can come across less as academic than as witheringly teenage; like, Srebrenica was so not a massacre.'
The Guardian was forced to accept that Chomsky had never put the Srebrenica massacre in quotation marks. Brockes' article was deleted from the Guardian website (which Chomsky, rightly, considered unnecessary). See here.
The prize-winning former Guardian journalist, Jonathan Cook, sent us this comment on the inverted commas:
'It is worth noting that Norman Finkelstein did something identical in his book "The Holocaust Industry". He states in the Introduction:
'"In the pages that follow, I will argue that 'The Holocaust' is an ideological representation of the Nazi holocaust." (p3)
'He also says in a footnote on the same page:
'"In this text, Nazi holocaust [his italics] signals the actual historical event, The Holocaust [his italics] its ideological representation."
'In Monbiot's opinion, does this make Finkelstein, whose parents were survivors of the Nazi holocaust and many members of whose family were killed in the death camps, a Holocaust denier?' (Email to Media Lens, June 17, 2011)
'I thought his response to you was preposterous. He's either suddenly become remarkably dimwitted (eg. not being able to understand the distinction being made by Herman and Peterson between combat casualties and executions) or he's not playing straight. His rationalisations are now such a mess it's actually difficult to disentangle his various arguments and to know whom he's accusing of what.'
As discussed, Monbiot also included John Pilger as part of the 'malign intellectual subculture'. Pilger commented:
'A common recipe for smear is half or quarter truth, conflation, misrepresentation, a pinch of sneer and a dollop of guilt-by-association. Stir briskly. Chef Monbiot is a curiously sad figure. All those years of noble green crusading now dashed by his Damascene conversion to nuclear power's poisonous devastations and his demonstrable need for establishment recognition - a recognition which, ironically, he already enjoyed. Predictably, the born-again attack as "denialists" those who continue to point out Western propaganda's mendacious constructions and omissions. Goodbye George.' (Email to Media Lens, June 29, 2011)
People who care about freedom of speech use the term 'genocide denial' with extreme caution (as discussed, on rare occasions, political commentary that promotes racism and violence can be condemned). It is most often used as a crude device to taint commentators with a version of 'Holocaust denial' employing a similar term.
As used in the current debate, it amounts to little more than saying: 'I charge you with disagreeing with me. How do you plead?' The question has no meaning because it is not a crime to disagree with someone, not least because, Enlightened Beings aside, other people can never claim to be in possession of Absolute Truth (and Enlightened Beings have nothing to fear from open debate).
So why has Monbiot turned on us rather than, say, ZNet in this way? The reason, we believe, is that we have repeatedly challenged his journalism. In November 2002, at a crucial time in a key newspaper, Monbiot advanced a preposterous scheme for overthrowing the Iraqi government. He added:
'But if this option is tried and fails, and if war turns out to be the only means of removing Saddam, then let us support a war whose sole and incontestable purpose is that and only that...' (Monbiot, 'See you in court, Tony,' The Guardian, November 26, 2002)
We pointed out that this was as damaging as it was absurd. There was no way for the British public to 'support' some kind of 'just war' on Iraq in this way – there were no mechanisms for applying that kind of public pressure. Moreover, there was no justification for urging the public to support war on any basis – Britain and the US had no legal or moral right whatever to wage war on Iraq. The only hope in November 2002 was to encourage as many people as possible to oppose war in all circumstances.
Monbiot responded by attacking us in his Guardian column, and we believe he has never forgiven us for pointing out his disastrous error of judgement and for our subsequent challenges of his work on Iran and the media.
It took fully five weeks for the Guardian to publish a response to the claims Monbiot made on June 13. Herman and Peterson submitted separate pieces to different sections of the Guardian, including Comment Is Free (Katharine Viner and Matt Seaton), the op-ed page (Becky Gardiner, Gwyn Topham, Libby Brooks), the response column (Joseph Harker), as well as the Guardian's editor Alan Rusbridger and its ombudsman Chris Elliott. On June 21, response column editor Joseph Harker told Peterson:
'You make a number of assertions, so we'll look into them and get back to you.'
In the lengthy period of 'review' that followed, Herman was told by Becky Gardiner, editor of the Guardian comment pages, 'that too much time has elapsed' to publish his response to Monbiot. Natalie Hanman, the editor of the online Comment is Free (CiF) section, told Herman that there was no space to publish his 760-word response.
On July 5, Harker finally responded with five reasons explaining why he had rejected Herman and Peterson's submissions (see here together with Peterson's detailed responses to each of these points). These five points were presumably supplied by 'experts' on Srebrenica and Rwanda, possibly the same two sources that Monbiot had previously cited in his response to Media Lens. Harker invited Herman and Peterson to submit a joint response under 550 words that would fit 'within our editorial guidelines'.
In the meantime, the Observer had published another critical piece by Nick Cohen on the 'Chomskyan self-delusion' of 'west-hating' leftists, with pointed reference to Srebrenica.
After further Guardian edits and under the slanted headline, 'We're not genocide deniers', Herman and Peterson's response finally appeared on July 19. On the same day, Herman and Peterson posted copies of their original, rejected responses on ZNet.
Guardian readers posted comments below the truncated response from Herman and Peterson, with the majority in support and several providing links to the fuller rebuttals posted at ZNet. The CiF moderators swiftly got to work playing 'whack-a-mole' to remove these comments whenever they popped up. Even a comment by Peterson himself, linking to these longer pieces, was removed. Unusually, this was later restored, most likely in response to public complaints.
Less than a week after Herman and Peterson's condensed response had appeared in the Guardian, a speedy rejoinder was published by James Wizeye of the Rwanda high commission in London. Apparently no extensive Guardian investigation was required for the Rwandan official's claims.
By this point, the Guardian had grudgingly allowed Herman and Peterson 500 words to defend themselves against the ugly and false charges of 'genocide denial' in several thousand words printed by the Observer/Guardian.
Jonathan Cook summarised the debacle:
'This whole episode really has been a fabulous case study of how our most liberal media ensure that certain reasonable views are beyond the pale of respectable discourse. The Guardian has allowed Monbiot to misrepresent the positions of the people he defamed as genocide deniers; then, despite prolonged lobbying, the Guardian has denied DP and EH a proper platform on which to defend themselves; then it has censored those on the talkbacks who tried to inform the wider readership of the pair's much fuller defence, published elsewhere, and the Guardian's role in trying to stop the two from responding; and now it has allowed the pair to be misrepresented again.
'This isn't an isolated stitch-up; this is a strategy. this is how the media - from Murdoch to the Guardian - operate when they want to severely limit the framework of a debate. The Guardian is doing everything possible to ensure its wider readership is not exposed to DP and EH's ideas, and is doing it by labelling and dismissing them as genocide deniers. No one is winning this argument because no argument is taking place. The Guardian is not presenting reasoned criticisms or allowing DP and EH to present their arguments properly. Instead the Guardian is winning the non-debate because it is the one able to dictate the terms of the non-debate. This is trickery, dressed up as a free media.
'That Monbiot is at the heart of this deception reflects very poorly on him.' (Email, July 26, 2011)
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian