Megrahi, the media and the myths – Part 2: Outrage at the BBC



The purpose of this series of articles is not to re-visit the decision to release Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds nor to attempt to change anyone’s opinion of that decision, but rather it is to review the media coverage of the whole issue, starting with Blair’s secret desert deal with Gadaffi.

The purpose of this series of articles is not to re-visit the decision to release Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds nor to attempt to change anyone’s opinion of that decision, but rather it is to review the media coverage of the whole issue, starting with Blair’s secret desert deal with Gadaffi.
In Part 1 we covered the ‘Deal in the Desert’ and gave an example of the relatively ‘relaxed’ media response to the revelation that moves were afoot to facilitate the return of Megrahi to Libya.

The deal, and the media reaction to it, can be summarised thus:
In 2007 a dialogue with Libya was secretly opened up by the Labour government.  This culminated in a secret desert meeting in May of that year between Tony Blair and Col Gadaffi, the purpose of which was to agree a deal that would lead to the return of Al Megrahi and help the advancement of UK business interests in Libya.
Labour’s main opponents in Scotland – the SNP – on hearing about the clandestine deal called an emergency session at Holyrood where they revealed it to the Scottish parliament.  The SNP insisted that Al Megrahi had not just been part of the deal but had been the central reason for the deal.
Labour at first denied that Megrahi was part of discussions, but in December 2009 Jack Straw confirmed that Megrahi would indeed be part of what would come to be known as the Prisoner Transfer Agreement.
Political opponents in Scotland attacked Salmond, with Jack MacConnell accusing the new First Minister of trying to “hoodwink journalists” and describing the emergency announcement by Mr Salmond as “political calculation”.  Sections of the Scottish media echoed the attacks on the SNP move accusing their leader of ‘grandstanding’, of trying to politicise the Lockerbie tragedy and of showing no regard for relatives of the victims. 

The one thing that didn’t appear to cause much by way of alarm within the Scottish media was one of the the ultimate aims of the desert deal which was to see a fit and healthy Al Megrahi return to Libya.  There were of course a few notable exceptions, one being Ian Bell at The Herald, but by and large there was no huge outcry at the London/Tripoli machinations.

It was all academic though as Megrahi was diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer and subsequently applied for compassionate release.
In 2009 the Scottish Justice Minister considered the application and, having been satisfied that the criteria had been met, announced that the dying prisoner would be allowed to return to Libya.  No oil deals, no secret desert meetings and no agreement with Tripoli – the compassion that existed within the centuries old doctrine of Scots law saw Al-Megrahi step onto a plane on 20th August 2009.

Megrahi left behind a media circus the like of which we have never seen before, and are unlikely to see again.  But what was the reaction from the media ringmasters and political jugglers? 

  • Did the they react in the same manner as they had in 2007?
  • Would opposition parties attacking this judicial decision be accused, as Salmond had, of politicising Lockerbie?
  • Would calls for emergency sessions at Holyrood be described as grandstanding?
  • Crucially, would opponents of the release be accused of ignoring the feelings of families of victims?
  • Would they remember Labour’s role in the deal in the desert?

Let’s look back …

The BBC first entered the fray proper when in quite dramatic fashion Glenn Campbell confidently declared on 12th Aug 2009, fully eight days before the official decision, what Kenny MacAskill’s decision would be and when it would be announced.

This ‘leak’ signaled the beginning of a series of attacks by Unionist parties in Scotland on The Justice Minister.  Incredibly, those attacks included allegations that it was the Justice Minister himself who had leaked to the BBC – quite why Kenny MacAskill would deliberately bring such pressure on himself was never fully explained.

One week later and within hours of the announcement the BBC coverage was much as expected, the same Unionist MSPs were again given a platform to utter much the same rhetoric as they had done the previous week.

However, Iain Gray’s sudden declaration that, had he been First Minister then Megrahi would have died in a Scottish jail, was new and a clear departure from Westminster Labour who had negotiated the prisoner transfer agreement with Libya. The refusal of the BBC to ask Iain Gray to comment on the Prisoner Transfer Agreement was a very noticeable failure to scrutinise equally.  Moreover, Iain Gray appeared to be saying the he would have intervened in the deliberations of his own justice minister – another aspect that went unchallenged.

As the day wore on a crescendo of additional voices against the decision flooded onto our screens and radios.  Families of the victims, with the exception of Jim Swire, were particularly vociferous in their condemnation, understandably so.  Leading American politicians also joined the chorus of disapproval – all of this was dutifully reported by the BBC.

And so at the end of the evening we tuned into Newsnight Scotland hosted by Gordon Brewer, surely we would receive some calm reflection and analysis.  Brewer’s BBC Scotland  colleague Glenn Campbell was there to provide the ‘expert’ analysis of both the decision and the hitherto unseen footage of Megrahi’s arrival in Tripoli.

Almost immediately we were presented with images of a frail Megrahi descending the steps of the plane onto the Tripoli tarmac.  A crowd of people could be seen welcoming him home – and clearly visible in this crowd, were two saltires.

Here the BBC’s handling was less than professional.  The images of Megrahi being warmly received will have been interpreted by many viewers as an inappropriate celebration of a convicted bomber – the saltires being waved demanded some sort of explanation.

Sadly, Glenn Campbell decided that no informed analysis was required, the scenes, he told the viewer, will heap further pressure on the SNP government.  Campbell also declared that the day may well turn out to be a “defining moment” for this SNP Government and, quite outrageously, Campbell then asserted that “MacAskill is the toast of Tripoli”.  The tone and nuance of Campbell’s delivery made it clear that, in his opinion, the SNP were damaged and would suffer.

Rather than educating the viewer, Glenn Campbell simply left them ignorant and his comments merely served to confirm his own prejudices.  Campbell had failed the viewer by refusing to offer even the most basic explanation of the scenes.

The ‘crowd’ welcoming Megrahi home were to be expected.  Libyan culture includes a strong sense of tribal belonging, those people were mostly family members or members of Megrahi’s tribe.  Equally, the saltire waving surely demanded at least an acknowledgement that Libyans considered Megrahi to be innocent.

Far from being waved in celebration at the return of a bomber, the flags were actually being waved as a sign of gratitude for the mercy shown by Scotland to someone they believed to be an innocent and dying man.

These glaring journalistic omissions were compounded by the interviews that followed.

Gavin Esler’s ‘interview’ with Kenny MacAskill for Newsnight UK was surely a low point in Esler’s career.  Esler’s face contorted in bitterness and rage as he shed any pretence of professionalism and spat one emotive accusation after another at Scotland’s Justice Minister.  Gordon Brewer’s interview that followed was handled better, but not much better.

Worse was to follow as throughout the weekend we were treated to interviews and sound bites from anyone and everyone who wished to attack the decision.  When two former First Ministers each took different views it was the anti-MacAskill view that prevailed.  Jack McConnell had decided that MacAskill had shamed Scotland whilst Henry Macleish supported the decision – Macleish was sidelined by the BBC in favour of McConnell.

Far from presenting both sides, the BBC seemed intent on giving a platform mainly to one.

As we entered the start of the following week the BBC’s behaviour became more and more questionable.  Monday morning’s daily phone in on Radio Scotland covered the Megrahi decision and what followed suggested that the portrayal of a massive anti-MacAskill sentiment by the BBC mightn’t be as accurate was being suggested.

Caller after caller supported MacAskill, overwhelmingly so.  So many texts, emails and phone calls were in support that show host Shereen Nanjiani began to plead for any listeners who disagreed with the decision to get in touch.  Radio Scotland’s Drive Time was similar as again texts were overwhelmingly supportive; show co-host Laura Maxwell also implored anyone who disagreed to contact the show.

That afternoons emergency debate at Holyrood was the single most important debate in the history of our parliament, a high profile event where every nuance and word would be scrutinised.  Proceedings were broadcast live as Labour, Conservative and Lib Dem MSPs lined up to accuse and attack Kenny MacAskill.

So imagine the gasps and resultant applause when, amidst the baying mob, Labour’s Malcolm Chisholm stood up and declared that he supported Kenny MacAskill’s decision; Chisholm then launched an attack on Iain Gray’s politicising of the issue.

Such a symbolic attack from a former cabinet minister on his own leader in the most high profile arena Scottish politics had ever witnessed should have been the day’s biggest item – bar none.  It was reminiscent of Robin Cook’s savaging of Tony Blair over Iraq when Cook resigned from cabinet.  It had echoes of Geoffrey Howe when he launched his famous attack on Margaret Thatcher.

Here was a pivotal moment, here was Holyrood’s equivalent – it was massive.  However it was given scant coverage by BBC Scotland and wasn’t considered worthy of pursuit by their Chief Political Editor Brian Taylor who didn’t even mention it in his blog.

Indeed Newsnight Scotland that evening featured representatives from the four main Holyrood parties, representing Labour was Iain Gray.   Unbelievably the BBC Scotland interviewer completely failed to mention Malcolm Chisholm’s attack.  A story that should have had journalists drooling was buried.

It wasn’t just Malcolm Chisholm who supported MacAskill but newspaper letters, online polls, phone-in’s, texts and emails to radio shows were indicating strong support for MacAskill’s decision, the Unionist parties and indeed BBC Scotland itself appeared out of step.

BBC Scotland’s response to this show of support was to have another phone in.

Tuesday’s phone in would be on the same subject, this time however the BBC decided that trailers for the programme would echo a phrase uttered by Labour’s Iain Gray in Monday’s emergency debate at Holyrood – the BBC trailers called on Iain Gray’s “silent majority” to get in touch.

BBC Scotland was now openly soliciting views from only one side as they desperately tried to harvest some kind of anti MacAskill feeling.  Tuesday’s calls, if anything, were even more supportive of MacAskill with many venting their anger at the disgraceful behavior of the opposition in Monday’s emergency debate.

Indeed not just the public but also respected religious and legal institutions who expressed a view were overwhelmingly supportive of MacAskill. The Scottish Law Society endorsed the decision with Ian Smart stating “the decision had upheld the reputation of the legal profession”.  Retired judge Lord McCluskey said “There is no reason for us not to show compassion”.  Even the normally rabidly anti SNP Scotsman newspaper had calmed down it’s rhetoric and reverted to a more balanced coverage, even sympathetic at times to MacAskill.

The BBC however had other ideas and what happened next is probably one of the most blatant abuses of BBC privilege we will ever witness.

The role of the BBC is to present a non partisan view of events, to educate, inform and entertain – neutral political coverage and informed analysis is key to the BBC’s reputation.  It is for precisely these reasons that we, the viewers, are compelled to pay the licence fee.

Instead of simply covering the news and reporting the facts the BBC decided to influence the news as it hastily commissioned a poll from its favourite pollster – ICM. The resultant poll apparently showed those against the decision outnumbered those who supported the issue by almost 2:1. The BBC then announced that Scots were ‘opposed’ to the decision; Brian Taylor shamefully declared that “Scotland’s flag hangs a little more limply tonight”.

By the end of the week the poll had been headlined by the Scottish press and used as ammunition against the SNP by many Unionist politicians – in the opinion of Newsnet Scotland the BBC had deliberately influenced the political debate in Scotland.

It wasn’t finished there though, for when documents released by both Holyrood and Westminster revealed that Jack Straw had been heavily influenced by trade deals when negotiating the Prisoner Transfer Agreement with Libya – an agreement that the SNP had always opposed – the BBC decided to conflate the story with the compassionate release of Megrahi.

A revelation that ought to have badly damaged Labour was reported by the BBC as though it was related to Kenny MacAskill’s decision.

The BBC were reporting two completely separate events as though they were part of one and the same – it exemplified the BBC’s coverage of the whole issue.

It wasn’t just Newsnet Scotland who were appalled at the media coverage in Scotland – in particular the antics of BBC Scotland.  Respected journalist Kenneth Roy also felt compelled to comment on the coverage.

The Scottish Review published the following article by Kenneth Roy on the 27th August:

We may have discovered something about ourselves this week. It is something valuable:

Early yesterday morning, I received an agitated call at the office from a colleague who was still at home. ‘Have you heard the trailer for Radio Scotland?’ she asked. ‘They’re inviting “the silent majority” to phone in and oppose Megrahi’s release. No mention of any other opinions. How’s that for balance?’ So we listened to the first few minutes of the programme. The trailer had been careless, even provocative, in its choice of words, but there was an interesting explanation for the appeal to the silent majority. Shereen Nanjiani, introducing the programme, acknowledged that the calls received by the BBC in Scotland to that point had been decisively in favour of the minister’s decision. Surprise, surprise.

In our smaller way we found the same ourselves yesterday. For our Megrahi forum, which we ran throughout the day, we commissioned 10 people, regular or occasional contributors to the magazine, of several ideological beliefs and none, to address the ethical and political issues of Kenny MacAskill’s decision. Not one opposed it. R D Kernohan, once the director of the Scottish Conservatives, was easily the most reluctant supporter, but in the end even Bob endorsed Megrahi’s release. We also invited readers to express a point of view, expecting some divergence from the commissioned pieces. The result was the same.

What is going on here? Appalled by the initial media coverage, I wrote a Monday editorial headed: ‘The weekend of unreason’. The response to this piece strongly suggested that others were equally appalled. Among the comments, a Church of Scotland minister emailed to say that, having read the newspapers, he felt he had lost his moorings.

The tone in so many papers was disturbing, the attacks on Mr MacAskill descending into a personal viciousness beyond the familiar coarse knockabout of journalism. The Herald kept its nerve and its humanity, but many of the others lost theirs. We would expect no more of the Mails and Expresses of this world, but the bristling fury of Scotland on Sunday was shocking.

For reasons best described as atavistic, the flying of a few Saltires (not, however, ‘the sea of flags’ claimed by the more imaginative observers) at Tripoli airport seems to have unhinged both the political and media classes and convinced them that the world had turned against poor old Scotland.

Brian Wilson, the former Labour minister, in a particularly bilious outburst, claimed that Scottish stomachs had turned at the spectacle. My own remained unchurned. The spectacle was mildly embarrassing, but worse things happen at sea; or, more often, in the air. By yesterday, the Prime Minister was still ‘repulsed’ by the thought of it. Perhaps the word he meant to use was offended. No matter. The shamed Saltire was enough to outrage the patriots among us and turn delicate stomachs. Well, Mr Wilson’s, to name one.

By the beginning of this week, it is possible that many people had had enough of self-righteous caricature and that the stomachs which were turning were doing so mainly in revulsion at the rhetorical violence of the newspapers. A deeper explanation is equally possible. The opinion polls may show that the ‘silent majority’ for which Shereen Nanjiani was touting are as implacably opposed to Mr MacAskill’s decision as they were before it was announced. Or they may simply be indifferent one way or the other until confronted by a person with a clipboard. Or they may not even be a majority. But there is a growing sense that the media and the political opposition may have misjudged the mood and spirit of a considerable number of thinking Scots. We may have discovered something about ourselves this week. It is something valuable.

When I was a boy in socialist working-class Scotland, humanitarian principles still counted for a great deal. The national allegiance to the Labour party was not simply tribal and unquestioning, as many now casually assume. The people were not fools. They saw in the ideals, if not always the policies, of that party the hope of a better society. They acknowledged for example that the prisoner must not only be visited but that he should be rehabilitated; there was a widely held acceptance that prison was the mark of our failure as a society and should be used as a last resort.

These values, at least on the vital question of prison reform, appear to have been abandoned. When Mr MacAskill, long before he was left to wrestle with his conscience on Megrahi, began to introduce alternatives to custody for relatively minor offenders, in an attempt to reduce the intolerable pressures on the prison system, he was roundly abused not only by the Conservatives in the Scottish parliament, but by the new breed of tough guys on the Labour benches. It was left to Cherie Blair QC to champion Scottish enlightenment on this issue. I am glad she did, but the position of her party colleagues in Scotland has more in common with the punishment lust of the Murdoch press than with the traditional values of the Labour party.

Suddenly this week, it seems also to be oddly out of step with the public mood. If the BBC are having difficulty whipping up the silent, disapproving majority, we may soon have to conclude that, far from talking ‘sentimental drivel’ (the accusation levelled against him by one Gerald Warner in Scotland on Sunday), Kenny MacAskill in his clumsy way articulated some half-buried idealism in the Scots. Many years ago, the old actor Andrew Cruickshank told me what he longed for in his native land. He longed for a ‘gentle, civilised nationalism’. He was not talking about political nationalism, of course; he was referring to the national culture, our way of looking at ourselves and the world. I never thought I’d live to see it, or anything like it, but I dare to believe that this week we are moving, inch by inch, towards it.

Read part 3 here