Lockerbie, the death of Megrahi and the continuing shame of BBC Scotland

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By a Newsnet reporter  
 
“Whether he’s in jail or whether he’s with his family, it doesn’t impact me.  He should be able to be with his family and die in peace.  And I hope he has found some peace.

I am not disturbed by it.  I feel like if he is dying of prostate cancer, I don’t have any problems at all with him being able to be with his family as he dies.

I strongly believe in the Scottish Judicial system, and I support their decision.  The people of Scotland have been very good to me and my family.”

By a Newsnet reporter  
 
“Whether he’s in jail or whether he’s with his family, it doesn’t impact me.  He should be able to be with his family and die in peace.  And I hope he has found some peace.

I am not disturbed by it.  I feel like if he is dying of prostate cancer, I don’t have any problems at all with him being able to be with his family as he dies.

I strongly believe in the Scottish Judicial system, and I support their decision.  The people of Scotland have been very good to me and my family.”

These are the words of a Lockerbie relative speaking after the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.  The relative was American Caroline Stevenson, whose son, Syracuse student Sandy Phillips, was on board the ill-fated Pan-Am 103.

You won’t hear these words on BBC Scotland.  Indeed as far as our state broadcaster would have you believe there are no US relatives who support the compassionate release of Mr Abdelbaset al-Megrahi.

Last night on Reporting Scotland we were treated to what has now become BBC Scotland’s trademark brand of reporting when it comes to Lockerbie.  Innuendo, conflation and some carefully suggestive phrases suffocated what little fact was allowed into a tea-time item built around Megrahi’s funeral.

Not content with manipulating the story of Lockerbie and the circumstances surrounding Megrahi’s compassionate release when he was alive, they continued with the journalistic charade within hours of the unfortunate man being lowered into the ground.  In a journalistic desert, the BBC’s reputation for unbiased reporting has been a mirage to the viewer thirsting for fact – the picture distorted, the story unreal.

The case of Megrahi has left an indelible stain on the name of Scottish justice.  It has also been the catalyst for the ruination of journalistic integrity in our publicly funded broadcaster.  What were “the secrets Megrahi took to his grave?” asked Jackie Bird – the answer is of course is none, Megrahi died having narrated all he knew to author John Ashton, the secrets lie elsewhere.

Was Megrahi released because of an oil deal? asked Brian Taylor, giving voice once again to the three year old piece of nonsense originally designed to drag the SNP into Labour’s murky deal with former Libyan dictator Colonel Gadaffi .

That Taylor gave airtime to something that he knows has no basis in fact pretty much sums up his own role in mixing fact with smear.  This was followed by another, that Megrahi was somehow released as part of a deal in order to avoid an appeal that may have embarrassed Scottish justice.

Then, finally the subliminal suggestion that Megrahi’s illness was exaggerated in order to facilitate his compassionate release.  “did compassion become strained” asked Taylor “as Megrahi outlived his prognosis, surviving not three months but three years?”

“What is Scotland’s legacy from the release, will we be seen by the world as calculating or compassionate?”

Taylor’s questions have already been answered.  Megrahi was released on compassionate grounds and nothing else.  The only people who sought to profit from his release, whether healthy or otherwise, were Unionist politicians – predominantly Labour politicians.

The world has already spoken and the overwhelming view of Scotland is of understanding and admiration for the compassion we showed in the face of unremitting public hostility from both Washington and London, and the subliminal hostility from our own broadcaster.

That BBC Scotland couldn’t bring itself to report factually just this once and instead laced last night’s item with some outrageously pejorative and borderline accusations against a man whose conviction is as sound as their own integrity, summed the corporation up.

“Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was the only person ever convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, but why was it ordered and who was he working with?” asked Jackie Bird who then proceeded to answer her own nonsensically prejudiced question; “The two people who could shed more light on those questions are now both dead – Megrahi himself and the Libyan leader Colonel Gadaffi”.

And there we had it.  BBC Scotland’s Jackie Bird had declared the case closed.  Viewers were left in no doubt that Gadaffi had ordered the bombing and Megrahi had carried it out whilst taking the identity of his accomplice with him to the grave.

Bird could of course have explained that the man the US and UK authorities claimed was his accomplice had been cleared at the camp Zeist trial, but she didn’t, and with it BBC Scotland’s habit of reporting selectively continued.

Megrahi’s release

It began with a late night broadcast on BBC Scotland on the day of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi’s compassionate release from a prison in Greenock in August 2009.
 
“The toast of Tripoli” was the phrase used that evening by BBC Scotland reporter Glenn Campbell to describe Scotland’s Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill – a shocking choice of words, and one that would prove to be indicative of what was to come.

This will be seen as “the defining moment” of the minority SNP Government, Campbell told the viewer, clearly believing the SNP would suffer a voter backlash.

Campbell’s career briefly flourished in the early days of the release, when first and award then a brief promotion to the network BBC team, found their way into the young Scottish reporter’s CV.

However over time, he returned to Pacific Quay and would become synonymous with BBC Scotland’s selective reporting of Scotland’s worst ever terrorist atrocity and arguably its most contentious trial verdict.  Campbell’s career may have momentarily blossomed, but his reputation would suffer.

Outrage

The phrase ‘outrage’ peppered his reporting of the Megrahi issue as licence payers’ cash saw him fly off in search of proof to back Unionist claims of a US backlash and damaged relations.

One episode in particular exemplified Campbell’s unrelenting quest to satisfy an agenda.  A trip to the USA in September 2009 saw Campbell come face to face with a US State Department official.

A carefully worded and blatantly loaded question by Campbell was fired at one Ian Kelly.

“Glenn Campbell from the BBC.  Has the United States forgiven the Scottish Government for releasing the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing?”

What the hapless BBC Scotland reporter hadn’t bargained for was the background of the US Official.  Ian Kelly’s father was from Edinburgh and he wasn’t about to be manipulated by Campbell.

Kelly dismissed Campbell’s blatant attempt at corralling the US official.  In a demonstration of diplomacy and professionalism, lacking in Campbell’s question, Kelly dismissed any suggestion that forgiveness was necessary.

The exchange is worth reliving in full, if for no other reason than to remind ourselves of the part that BBC Scotland left out of their transmissions [shown in blue].  Newsnet Scotland later tracked down the full official transcript.

Campbell: “Glenn Campbell from the BBC. Has the United States forgiven the Scottish Government for releasing the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing?”

Kelly: “Well, our views on that issue, of course, are extremely well known.  Again, we’ve passed these views both in private channels and in – also publicly.  I think just about everything that we have said to the governments in London and Edinburgh through diplomatic channels have mirrored what we’ve said publicly.  I don’t think it’s a matter of forgiving anybody.  I think all along, we recognised that Mr MacAskill had the right to do what he did.  We objected extremely strenuously at many different levels and in many different channels to the release of Mr Megrahi.

“I think at this point, we’re looking to move on.  We’re looking to continue the very important cooperation that we have with the United Kingdom and with Scotland.  We have very deep and abiding ties with Scotland.  These ties are cultural. They’re – we share political values.  We have many family ties.  My own father, as you probably can guess from my first name, is Scottish.  He was born in Edinburgh.  So we’re looking to move on.  We’re looking for a – to continue this important relationship that we have with Scotland.”

Campbell: “Is there any diplomatic price for the Scottish Government to pay?”

Kelly: “We are very close allies, and I think allies – I don’t think we’re looking to punish anybody, per se.  There’s no tit-for-tat here.”

And here is how Gary Robertson, back in the studio, responded to Mr Kelly’s remarks.

“That’s Glenn Campbell in the US capital, so the diplomatic damage may be limited but what about the impact on the attitudes of Americans at large.”

Faced with no evidence whatsoever of damage to diplomatic relations, BBC Scotland simply decided to invent it – according to Robertson there was ‘limited’ damage.

Campbell’s trip to the US was chronicled by a blog that was the forerunner to this site.  The BBC reporter had started his daily items from the USA with a diary – however as it became increasingly obvious that his fishing expedition at licence payers’ expense was producing no evidence of backlash and outrage, Campbell simply stopped adding to the diary.

The blog decided to finish it for him and so began ‘Glenn Campbell -The Ninestone Cowboy – a week in the USA.’  Campbell was certainly the fulcrum around which BBC Scotland’s misreporting orbited; however he was not alone in some shocking broadcasts.

Chisholm and a limp flag

BBC Scotland’s Political editor Brian Taylor was another who failed to live up to the journalistic standards one expected from the BBC.

Two episodes stand out.  The first was the debate in the Holyrood Chamber, called at the behest of Unionist opposition MSPs, ‘angry’ at Megrahi’s compassionate release.  The chamber was packed and observers from around the world watched as Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats lined up to condemn Kenny MacAskill.

Speaker after speaker attacked the decision – there seemed no-one outwith the benches of the SNP who would stand with MacAskill.  Then, in a remarkable show of courage, one Labour MSP stood up and publicly criticised his own leader.

When Malcolm Chisholm spoke in Kenny MacAskill’s defence it was the moment of the debate – or at least it should have been.  Chisholm not only supported MacAskill, but very publicly chastised his own leader Iain Gray for politicising the issue of Megrahi’s release.

The story was all but buried by BBC Scotland and Brian Taylor couldn’t even bring himself to acknowledge the moment on his own blog.  That evening on Newsnight Scotland, Gordon Brewer faced representatives of all three Holyrood Unionist parties, including Iain Gray.  Chisholm’s solitary and very brave stand wasn’t mentioned.

The second was when Taylor claimed, in a news broadcast, that the compassionate release of al-Megrahi had left Scotland’s flag “hanging a little more limp”.  International reaction to the release had commended MacAskill’s actions – save for understandable anger from many US families (who Dr Jim Swire has now revealed were shamelesly conditioned by their own officials and the prosecution team at camp Zeist), there was almost unanimous appreciation world wide for the showing of mercy.

Senators

And so the BBC continued, another episode saw ignorant and easily disproven claims by poorly informed American Senators broadcast with apparent relish into Scottish homes.

So poorly informed were these US politicians that their original letter of complaint was treated with contempt by the UK’s Ambassador to the USA who informed the unfortunate Senators that they had been duped by misreporting in the UK media [The Sunday Times had published an article claiming that Kenny MacAskill had acted on a medical report paid for by Libya – the claim was false]. 

The UK Ambassadors letter has never been reported on by BBC Scotland.  Nor the letter discovered in the offices of Libya’s former Head of Intelligence, after the death of Gadaffi, which supported Megrahi’s claims of innocence.

Even now, the BP oil deal negotiated by Tony Blair in the infamous ‘Deal in the Desert’ continues to be conflated with the release.

Three months

Sadly, the truth lies ‘abandoned in a ditch’ as the juggernaut of lies rumbles along – with BBC Scotland whistling at the wheel, and it will continue. 

Megrahi’s real crime was that he did not die on schedule.

The drowning man was plucked, gasping for the extended breath that his family’s bosom alone could provide and helped by drugs not available to him in a Scottish jail.  Persuaded by a Libyan official to abandon his appeal, Megrahi took what he believed was his last chance to return home alive.

How long would he have lasted in Greenock’s Gateside prison no one will ever know, but the good name of Scottish NHS doctors has been another piece of collateral damage in BBC Scotland’s quest as we are ‘reminded’ that Megrahi was given “less than three months to live”, but lasted three years.

He of course never was given three months to live, it was always a media myth.  The prognosis was merely an estimate given the conditions present, the medication available and the alien environment Megrahi languished in.  In the end, drugs, his family and familiar surroundings saw Megrahi outlive the prognosis, not the first cancer sufferer to do so and hopefully not the last.

Another prisoner who has outlived his life expectency is of course Ronnie Biggs – but there is no political capital to be had in attacking Jack Straw for that show of clemency.  Readers of this site have also pointed to one now deceased former dictator who lived for six years after being released on medical grounds by Mr Straw – Chilean General Pinochet.

There’s more that could have been written here … much, much more.  Misleading headlines, claims of a Megrahi confession, doubts over his illness, dodgy polls and phone in programmes pleading with those who disagreed with the compassionate release to get in touch.

Megrahi’s death comes one week before a planned protest outside BBC Scotland’s HQ in Glasgow, we hope that it is dignified.

Those organising the protest would do worse than to remember the 270 souls who perished when pan Am 103 was blown out of the sky – perhaps there might even be a moment of reflection for the man some have dubbed victim number 271.

 

[Newsnet Scotland would like to ask the organisers of Saturday’s planned protest to please get in touch.  We would like to conduct an interview, either online or other, with a view to drafting an article for publication.]