Thursday, March 23, 2006

Kamm, The Guardian and bollocks

A few days ago, Oliver Kamm made the mistake of publishing his letter to Guardian about the Chomsky interview affair, a letter he co-signed with David Aaronovitch and Francis Wheen. (In the strange world of Stephen Pollard the three of them were “three musketeers”, using their “forensic” powers to uphold the "traduced" Emma Brockes's “bona fides” via this self-important, prolix communication.)

In the months since the interview, Kamm hinted in his habitually pompous way that great things were afoot regarding his complaint about the Guardian's retraction of the interview. It was all stalled, apparently, by the need to appoint a readers' ombudsman of appeal, to whom complainants could turn when Ian Mayes, readers' editor, failed to give satisfaction.

This situation was, it would seem, quite satisfactory to Kamm. It allowed him to characterise as temporary the present state of affairs, with the Brockes interview discredited, and Srebrenica not available as a stick with which to beat Chomsky. On 20th February, for instance, he reminded his readers of his “very long letter” on the subject. He also mysteriously drew attention to Brockes being shortlisted for an “Interviewer of the Year” award on a site so amateurish it has "British" misspelt in the title, and in a competition boycotted by three newspaper groups, as if this in some way preemptively validated his complaint. (Of course, if the awards did mean anything, one could point out that Brockes didn't win, while the Guardian itself was deemed "Newspaper of the Year".)

This was only the latest of a stream of bulletins on his campaign against a Guardian retraction. He also notified us of developments on 15th November, 19th November, 22nd November, 28th November, 1st December, 12th December and 4th January.

Now Kamm's made the error of letting the world read his tedious correspondence. It quotes at great length both Guardian reporters' and Diane Johnstone's writing on Srebrenica. And it tells us that Chomsky took part in a campaign against the suppression of Diane Johnstone's work. But what it doesn't do is quote any of Chomsky's books or articles on Bosnia, or justify what Kamm contends – that it is Brockes who is owed an apology because her infamous “massacre in quotes” claim was essentially correct.

All the letter even purports to do is show that “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” -- that is, it makes the case that Chomsky "seems" not to agree with some loosely defined organisations on usage of an ill-defined term, “massacre”. It does not claim to show that Chomsky ever referred to the Srebrenica massacre in quotes, which is what Brockes wrote in her interview – the letter doesn't even address this basic factual error.

One premise is that Johnstone minimised the Srebrenica massacre, by putting the term in quotes herself. Even here the letter falls down. Johnstone did refer to the Srebrenica massacre in quotes, but did not deny that many people were killed there. The sentence that Kamm et al. quote where “Srebrenica massacre” is written in quotes does not show what they claim, because it is a quote of what the Clinton administration referred to – they aren't scare quotes announcing an authorial view. She did question the official casualty figures (even today only a few hundred bodies have been found), and she did suggest that the killing at Srebrenica was emphasised to serve anti-Serb propaganda ends. The rest is essentially quibbling about terminology, where we see them, for instance, complaining about use of the “quasi-judicial” term “executed”. In sum, all they show is that Johnstone was sceptical about Western claims regarding the killing at Srebrenica.

Even if it were true that Johnstone had, in the sense of Brockes's interview, declared the non-occurrence of the Srebrenica massacre via quotation marks, it would not have implied anything about Chomsky's own views, let alone writing, on the subject. The link Kamm et al. try to make is that Chomsky endorsed Johnstone's book, Fools' Crusade. But this, just as with the Faurisson case that Kamm also likes to mention when he can, is an astonishingly flimsy ground on which to base very serious claims. The argument boils down to “Johnstone implied A, Chomsky says Johnstone's work is valuable, therefore Chomsky believes A”.

Balanced against this hand-waving non-argument is the easily verifiable reality that where Chomsky has been explicit about Srebrenica he has quite clearly accepted that there was a massacre there. If Kamm has, as he has suggested, read all of Chomsky's books, then why didn't he see this fact as relevant? Presumably, if he wasn't just being dishonest, he views his own inferences regarding Chomsky's beliefs as overriding what Chomsky has actually stated. If this is indeed the case, one would surely have expected him to have mentioned and justified it, an outlandish view though it may be.

As it is, the letter moves breezily on to conclude that Brockes was “certainly entitled” to her “interpretation” of Chomsky's defence of Johnstone's work. But the question isn't one of entitlement to views; it's one of whether Brockes was factually accurate in what she wrote. She wasn't, as the Guardian accepted. Unlike Kamm et al., Brockes herself has made no public statement that she felt she was wronged by the paper in its handling of the complaint. Nor has she released her tape of the interview, which would surely bolster her case if it contained anything like what she alleged Chomsky said. She is reported to have accepted the outcome.

So should we. The only people, surely, who could set any store by such a feeble, witless defence of the indefensible would be those as detached from reality as Stephen Pollard and his three musketeers.

More on this at Aaronovitch Watch.


Update: Having read through this again, I think I need to clarify something. It was misleading to say, "even today only a few hundred bodies have been found", with reference to the Srebrenica massacre. Several thousand bodies have been found, of which (as far as I know) several hundred showed signs of being blindfolded and/or bound before being shot. The question of how many of the remaining bodies were Muslim massacre victims, or how many victims there were overall, is something I'm not in a position to evaluate. Right now, it seems probable from witness statements and missing persons lists, if not forensic evidence, that there were several thousand Bosnian Muslim victims.

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