Four Senators and a story – what caused the new Megrahi row?

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David Miliband’s dramatic U turn over Megrahi’s return to Libya, PM David Cameron’s flip flopping over whether he will meet the ‘fantastic four’ senators or not whilst bellowing ‘It’s all Scotland’s fault’ and placing a protective arm around BP.
 
The compassionate release of Al Megrahi is back in the news …… and some.


David Miliband’s dramatic U turn over Megrahi’s return to Libya, PM David Cameron’s flip flopping over whether he will meet the ‘fantastic four’ senators or not whilst bellowing ‘It’s all Scotland’s fault’ and placing a protective arm around BP.
 
The compassionate release of Al Megrahi is back in the news …… and some.
 
Megrahi, who is suffering from prostate cancer, was granted compassionate release in 2009 by Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill after medical evidence suggested that a three month life expectancy was a reasonable estimate.  Megrahi is now reported to be weeks from death after his treatment stopped; he is on palliative care only and, say reports, is so weak that a cold could kill him.
 
However, a little over a fortnight ago at around the same time that these reports were coming out of Libya the UK press and broadcast media decided to have yet another little dig at the Scottish government over their decision to grant compassionate release.
 
On 4th July – American independence day – The Sunday Times published an article headlined ‘Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s release always looked dodgy’.
 
The article began “The revelation that the Lockerbie bomber may live for longer than expected adds to suspicions that a dirty deal was done to ensure his release” and contained remarks purported to have been made by a professor Karol Sikora in which the professor apparently claimed that Al Megrahi could theoretically live for another 10 or 20 years.
 
The article also conflated the 2007 oil deal brokered by Tony Blair with the 2009 release saying:
It also revives the suspicion, as we wrote at the time, that “a dirty little deal was done”.  London put pressure on the Scottish government to add Mr Megrahi to a prisoner release programme because his confinement was delaying a lucrative oil exploration contract for BP. The Scottish government either bowed to this pressure or had its own reasons for wanting the release.”
 
Later that Sunday afternoon The Sunday Telegraph also ran with the story adding:  “Jack Straw, then Justice Secretary at Westminster, admitted last year that trade and oil agreements were an essential part of the British government’s decision to include Megrahi in a previously planned prisoner transfer agreement with Libya.  He wrote to his Scottish counterpart to say it was “in the overwhelming interests of the United Kingdom” to make Megrahi eligible for return to Libya.”
 
The following day, the 5th July, the story had been picked up by several other UK daily newspapers and online news sites including The Scotsman and The Herald. 

The Herald article wrote that Sikora had advised Kenny MacAskill and added that Mr MacAskill had said: “there was a firm consensus among medical experts that he [Megrahi] would die from prostate cancer within three months.”
 
Online magazine ‘The First Post’ wrote:
The London cancer specialist on whose advice the alleged Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, was freed from jail last year on compassionate grounds, has admitted that he is finding it “embarrassing” that Megrahi has outlived his three-months-to-live prognosis by more than eight months.”

Hours after the story appeared in The Sunday Times it had crossed the Atlantic and featured on American broadcaster NBC’s independence day morning news.

The following link is the item as it appeared on the show – the presentation and claims from the London based English presenter are literally unbelievable.
Click Here

The story was then headlined in American newspapers and online news sites the following day.  Central to the US coverage was the figure of Professor Karol Sikora and his apparent ‘role’ in providing the three month prognosis that led to a dying Megrahi being released.

Such misleading stories have been routine since Megrahi’s return to Libya in August 2009.  Misinformation and false claims have been mixed in with the 2007 BP oil deal to the extent that many people now believe many of the myths.

So, this latest, albeit sensationalised, rehash of the story was destined to be the usual two day wonder until the unexpected happened – four unremarkable US senators picked it up.

The senators took the reports at face value and responded to the revelations about professor Sikora by firing off a letter to the UK’s British ambassador Sir Nigel Sheinwald.

There was only flaw, the reports – according to Sir Nigel – were not true, the senators had been duped.

Sir Nigel quickly sent a letter to the senators explaining that their understanding of issue was not correct and in fact the reports on which the senators had based their letter were “untrue”.

However it was too late and on July 08th the NBC New York Times ran a headline: ‘Senators Outraged Over Lockerbie Bomber’s “Terminal” Prognosis’:

The article contained the following paragraph:
Several U.S. senators are blasting the British doctor who diagnosed a convicted terrorist with terminal cancer so he could be released from a Scottish prison on compassionate grounds.  That doctor, apparently paid by the Libyan government to make the “terminal” diagnosis, now admits the convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdel Baset al-Megrahi could live 10 or 20 more years.
 
“There is clear reason to believe that this terrorist was released from prison based on false information about his health,” said New York Senator Chuck Schumer
.”

The story about the senators letter was out and UK based claims that were intended, yet again, to merely nip at the heals of the Scottish government were about to morph into a monster and grip the UK government, both the previous Labour and the current coalition, by the throat.

Similarly headlined articles appeared in the US and each centred on the medical evidence and the role of Professor Sikora.  It was clear that the catalyst for both the letter and the resultant demands for an investigation into the release was not, as is being reported in the UK, the 2007 BP oil deal, but was in fact the senators erroneous beliefs regarding Professor Karol Sikora.

The BP oil deal was included in the senators’ letter, but only as a side issue near the end – the main thrust of the letter was the completely mistaken belief that professor Karol Sikora had supplied the medical evidence on which Kenny MacAskill based his decision and that this evidence may have been fraudulent.

The diplomatic row that has threatened to disrupt David Cameron’s first official visit to the US and that may threaten the so called ‘special relationship’ was caused by confusion over a mischievously worded story that originated in the UK.

The BP aspect of course has now been picked up, not least due to the fact that the oil giant is under considerable pressure in the US over their handling of the Gulf oil leak.  However, the letter and the immediate US media reports make it clear that the major issue was never BP but what they believed to have been the role of Professor Sikora

The fury in the US has taken David Cameron by complete surprise and has led to some rather distasteful remarks from the new PM who appears in a state of shock.  Cameron’s comment that he believed the decision to be “a mistake” was clumsy, but his comment that he believed Megrahi should have “died in jail” is unbecoming for someone who aspires to be a world statesman.

Worse though has been the sight of the PM, who is in the US representing the four constituent parts of the UK, trying to use one of those parts – Scotland – as a kind of human shield in order to protect himself and the oil company BP.  His comments that “BP did not release Megrahi” but that it was the Scottish government was crass and displayed a lack of courage and fortitude.

It’s a strange sort of Union that sees the smaller partner not just isolated in times of international difficulty but actually being attacked on the world stage by the larger partner.  Why David Cameron hasn’t echoed the views of the UK ambassador and targetted those media outlets responsible for the misinformation is perplexing, Sir Nigel Sheinwald’s attacks on the ‘untrue’ media reports seem to have been overlooked

This brings us to the role of the UK media.

The original story has rebounded quite sensationally, with the UK newspapers and broadcasters gorging themselves.  However the contents of the senators letter – exhibit 1 in any investigation – hasn’t featured much at all.  In fact the erroneous claims about the medical evidence that was the central theme of the letter has been airbrushed out of the UK media coverage.

Could it be that the combined forces of the UK media, both press and broadcast, are reluctant to shine a light into the origins of this episode because they realise that by doing so they will have to implicate themselves?

BBC Scotland have now, belatedly, alluded to the original letter content as a result of quotes made yesterday by the senators.  The BBC web article however still insists that the BP claims were the main reason for the calls for an investigation.

The BBC is now ‘requesting’ members of the public contact them to make their own points – the link to the article and the request form is here.

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