‘Back in the Nineties, I was in a very famous libel case…’ – the Dissertation post!

HistoryJack is what else but a student of History. Following several consultations with members of the Faculty of the Department of History at the University of York and many months of deliberation, I decided yesterday on a definitive topic for my undergraduate Dissertation. It is something I found to be both original and intellectually demanding but one that would provide myself with something that combined many of my existing interests.

The subject will be a comparative study of genocide denial in British libel cases of the 1990s. Wait, come back!

Whilst reading into the relationship between academic historians, independent enthusiasts and the murky swampland of cranks, cooks, crackpots and quacks (readers of a scientific bent will be familiar with the interplay between creationist and Spirit Science quackademics and actual scientists), I stumbled upon a fascinating factoid and what might be one of the bizarrest coincidences in British legal history. In the late 1990s; in fact, from the years 1997 to the Spring of 2000 to be precise, two libel cases were contested concurrently in the Royal Couts of Justice, Queens Bench Division – both of which concerned accusations of genocide denial and defamation of character.

The first case, best known to historians, was Irving v Penguin Books, the infamous suit filed by the far-right military historian David Irving against Deborah Lipstadt and her publishers for Lipstadt’s claim that Irving was a “dangerous” promulgator of racist pseudo-history and a prolific Holocaust denier. The case involved the expert witness testimony of Richard J. Evans, Professor of History at Cambridge and author of the now celebrated text In Defence of History, published 1997. Despite becoming known as ‘the Irving trial’ in the press, the civil case was brought against Lipstadt and Penguin by an Irving as claimant. English libel law then (and still) placed the burden of proof on the defendant and Lipstadt was forced into a costly legal battle against an author whose work had been published to popular and bestselling acclaim in previous decades. The outcome of a case, championed as a vindication of History and its methods, resulted in Irving’s professional discrediting as an author as well as bankruptcy from the award of legal costs to the defendants. Irving’s name became synonymous with Holocaust denial and he has not been granted a column or contract by a respectable newspaper or publishing-house since.

The second case remains less well-known among historians specifically but famous among journalists and the London intelligentsia; the suit brought by Independent Television News (ITN) and the journalists Penny Marshall and Ed Vulliamy against the publishers of LM, a magazine formerly known as Living Marxism. The magazine had printed allegations in 1997 that an ITN report on the Bosnian war broadcast in 1992 had fabricated evidence of atrocities committed by Serb forces, particularly the subsequently infamous scenes of starving concentration camp inmates in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The case, as did the Penguin trial, dragged on for three years and LM became a cause celebre for many on the intellectual Left, as well as several libertarians and conservatives who had opposed intervention in the Balkans and regarded LM‘s right to print the accusations as a free speech issue. Reputations were dragged through the mud of the docks in cross-examination and ITN won a resounding victory; the magazine folded but subsequently reformed under new imprints. Bosnian genocide denial has only become more contentious as former leaders of Serbian forces and political movements were tried for war crimes and genocide throughout the 2000s and 2010s. Even Noam Chomsky entered the lasting affray in 2005 and one of the most common tropes for Serb nationalists and their supporters who deny that genocide in the Balkans took place are rehashes of the original claims made by LM.

So what would this have to do with history? The libel trials provide, not least for their simultaneous occurrence, a tremendous insight into the relaitonship between historians, the public, the press and everybody else. The Irving trial was an instance of historians becoming agents of causation; Evans’ expert testimony led to Irving and his claims being completely discredited, with press and public confidence in History restored to new heights. Historians became actors and participants in major events in British legal history. Postmodernism and the narrative question were thrown into focus once more as the rationale for LM and Irving’s claims was invoked as a defeater for the claims of postmodernist conceptions of History. Denial of historical crimes against humanity and the spectre of organised racial hatred seeped into public consciousness again as the supporters of both denying parties were exposed as propogating intellectual fraud in the guise of radical scholarship and ‘dissent’.

The exact angle I wish to take with this study is not entirely settled upon yet. However, the trials were major subjects in polemical writing and reportage by one of my favourite and most-cited authors, Nick Cohen, and Richard Evans was one of the most influential forces in my decision to pursue History as an A-Level student. It would be an appropriate culmination of my study to turn the analytical focus onto the career of an historian who set the hare running to begin with.

Intellectual, social and legal history in a time very far removed from our own – the 1990s!

Here is to a year with some of my favourite writers and some of the darkest hours that modern history has had to confront.

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