14 November 2005 (updated 17 November)

The Guardian's deceit

By Noam Chomsky

This is an open letter to a few of the people with whom I had discussed the Guardian interview of 31 October, on the basis of the electronic version, which is all that I had seen. Someone has just sent me a copy of the printed version, and I now understand why friends in England who wrote me were so outraged.

It is a nuisance, and a bit of a bore, to dwell on the topic, and I always keep away from personal attacks on me, unless asked, but in this case the matter has some more general interest, so perhaps it's worth reviewing what most readers could not know. The general interest is that the print version reveals a very impressive effort, which obviously took careful planning and work, to construct an exercise in defamation that is a model of the genre.  It's of general interest for that reason alone.

A secondary matter is that it may serve as a word of warning to anyone who is asked by the Guardian for an interview, and happens to fall slightly to the critical end of the approved range of opinion of the editors. The warning is: if you accept the invitation, be cautious, and make sure to have a tape recorder that is very visibly placed in front of you. That may inhibit the dedication to deceit, and if not, at least you will have a record. I should add that in probably thousands of interviews from every corner of the world and every part of the spectrum for decades, that thought has never occurred to me before. It does now.

It was evident from the electronic version that t was a scurrilous piece of journalism. That's clear even from internal evidence. The reporter obviously had a definite agenda: to focus the defamation exercise on my denial of the Srebrenica massacre. From the character of what appeared, it is not easy to doubt that she was assigned this task. When I wouldn't go along, she simply invented the denial, repeatedly, along with others. The centerpiece of the interview was this, describing my alleged views, in particular, that:

....during the Bosnian war the "massacre" at Srebrenica was probably overstated. (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.)

Transparently, neither I nor anyone speaks with quotation marks, so the reference to my claim that "Srebrenica was so not a massacre," shown by my using the term "massacre" in quotes, must be in print — hence "witheringly teenage," as well as disgraceful. That raises the obvious question: where is it in print, or anywhere? I know from letters that were sent to me that a great many journalists and others asked the author of the interview and the relevant editors to provide the source, and were met by stony silence — for a simple reason: it does not exist, and they know it. Furthermore, as Media Lens pointed out, with five minutes research on the internet, any journalist could find many places where I described the massacre as a massacre, never with quotes. That alone ends the story. I will skip the rest, which also collapses quickly.

More interesting, however, is the editorial contribution. One illustration actually is in the e-edition. I did write a very brief letter in response, which for some reason went to the ombudsman, who informed me that the word "fabrication" had to be removed. My truncated letter stating that I take no responsibility for anything attributed to me in the article did appear, paired with a moving letter from a victim, expressing justified outrage that I or anyone could take the positions invented in the Guardian article. 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.

The printed version reveals how careful and well-planned the exercise was, and why it might serve as a model for the genre. The front-page announcement of the interview reads: "Noam Chomsky The Greatest Intellectual?" The question is answered by the following highlighted Q&A, above the interview:

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

It is set apart in large print so that it can't be missed, and will be quoted separately (as it already has been). It also captures the essence of the agenda. The only defect is that it didn't happen. The truthful part is that I said, and explained at length, that I regret not having strongly enough opposed the Swedish publisher's decision to withdraw a book by Diana (not "Diane," as the Guardian would have it) Johnstone after it was bitterly attacked in the Swedish press. As Brockes presumably knew, though I carefully explained anyway, there is one source for my involvement in this affair: an open letter that I wrote to the publisher, after editors there who objected to the decision, and journalist friends, sent me the Swedish press charges that were the basis for the rejection. In the open letter, readily available on the internet (and the only source), I went through the charges one by one, checked them against the book, and found that they all ranged from serious misrepresentation to outright fabrication. I then took — and take — the position that it is completely wrong to withdraw a book because the press charges (falsely) that it does not conform to approved doctrine. And I do regret that "I didn't do it strongly enough," the words Brockes managed to quote correctly. In the interview, whatever Johnstone may have said about Srebrenica never came up, and is entirely irrelevant in any event, at least to anyone with a minimal appreciation of freedom of speech.

The article is then framed by a series of photographs. Let's put aside childhood photos and an honorary degree — included for no apparent reason other than, perhaps, to reinforce the image the reporter sought to convey of a rich elitist hypocrite who tells people how to live (citing a comment of her own, presumably supposed to be clever, which will not be found on the tape, I am reasonably confident). Those apart, there are three photos depicting my actual life.  It's an interesting choice, and the captions are even more interesting.

One is a picture of me "talking to journalist John Pilger" (who isn't shown, but let's give the journal the benefit of the doubt of assuming he is actually in the original). The second is of me "meeting Fidel Castro." The third, and most interesting, is a picture of me "in Laos en route to Hanoi to give a speech to the North Vietnamese."

That's my life: honoring commie-rats and the renegade who is the source of the word "pilgerize" invented by journalists furious about his incisive and courageous reporting, and knowing that the only response they are capable of is ridicule.

Since I'll avoid speculation, you can judge for yourselves the role Pilger plays in the fantasy life of the editorial offices of the Guardian. And the choice is interesting in other ways. It's true that I have met John a few times, much fewer than I would like because we both have busy lives. And possibly a picture was taken. It must have taken some effort to locate this particular picture, assuming it to be genuine, among the innumerable pictures of me talking to endless other people. And the intended message is very clear.

Turn to the Castro picture. In this case the picture, though clipped, is real. As the editors surely know, at least if those who located the picture did 2 minutes of research, the others in the picture (apart from my wife) were, like me, participants in the annual meeting of an international society of Latin American scholars, with a few others from abroad. This annual meeting happened to be in Havana. Like all others, I was in a group that met with Castro.  End of second story.

Turn now to the third picture, from 1970. The element of truth is that I was indeed in Laos, and on my way to Hanoi. The facts about these trips are very easy to discover. I wrote about both in some detail right away, in two articles in the New York Review, reprinted in my book At War with Asia in 1970. It is easily available to Guardian editors, because it was recently reprinted. If they want to be the first to question the account (unlike reviewers in such radical rags as the journal of the Royal Institute of International Affairs), it would be very easy for a journalist to verify it: contact the two people who accompanied me on the entire trip, one then a professor of economics at Cornell, the other a minister of the United Church of Christ. Both are readily accessible. From the sole account that exists, the editor would know that in Laos I was engaged in such subversive activities as spending many hours in refugee camps interviewing miserable people who had just been driven by the CIA "clandestine army" from the Plain of Jars, having endured probably the most intense bombing in history for over two years, almost entirely unrelated to the Vietnam war. And in North Vietnam, I did spend most of my time doing what I had been invited to do: many hours of lectures and discussion, on any topic I knew anything about, in the bombed ruins of the Hanoi Polytechnic, to faculty who were able to return to Hanoi from the countryside during a lull in the bombing, and were very eager to learn about recent work in their own fields, to which they had had no access for years.

The rest of the trip "to Hanoi to give a speech to the North Vietnamese" is a Guardian invention. Those who frequent ultra-right defamation sites can locate the probable source of this ingenious invention, but even that ridiculous tale goes nowhere near as far as what the Guardian editors concocted, which is a new addition to the vast literature of vilification of those who stray beyond the approved bounds.

So that's my life: worshipping commie-rats and such terrible figures as John Pilger. Quite apart from the deceit in the captions, simply note how much effort and care it must have taken to contrive these images to frame the answer to the question on the front page.

It is an impressive piece of work, and, as I said, provides a useful model for studies of defamation exercises, or for those who practice the craft. And also, perhaps, provides a useful lesson for those who may be approached for interviews by this journal.

This is incidentally only a fragment. The rest is mostly what one might expect to find in the scandal sheets about movie stars, familiar from such sources, and of no further interest.

The Guardian later apologised to Chomsky, see Corrections and clarifications: The Guardian and Noam Chomsky, The Guardian, 17 November 2005

See also:

[home] [archive] [focus]