Tuesday, 13 July 2010



PostHeaderIcon Megrahi, the media and the myths - Part 1: The Desert Deal
Monday, 12 July 2010 11:21

One of the earliest incarnations of this site was as a monthly online newsletter sent out to a few hundred interested individuals. The newsletter was consolidated by a very basic blog that served as a kind of portal in order to encourage people to register for the newsletter.

Few posts on the blog attracted more by way of traffic and comments than our analysis of the coverage provided by the Scottish media of the release, on compassionate grounds, of the man known as the Lockerbie Bomber, Al Megrahi.

Few events have caused as much controversy and debate and there can be little doubt that views on the release are entrenched. Whilst Scotland’s religious and legal institutions supported the release, the general populace were pretty much evenly split. The same can be said of the international community, the release was welcomed by some respected international figures whilst others, mainly Americans, reacted with anger.

Last week saw the Scottish/UK media re-visit, yet again, this pivotal moment in Scottish politics. The catalyst for this latest regurgitation of the story was the report coming out of Libya suggesting that Megrahi’s treatment had been stopped and that death may be only weeks away. The story however was quickly supplanted by bizarre headlines suggesting that Megrahi may live for a further 10-20 years.

The 20 year claim was based around a comment from a Libyan professor Karol Sikora who said of the type of cancer Megrahi had: "There was always a chance he could live for 10 years, 20 years," he said. "But it¹s very unusual."

The ‘imminent death’ reports disappeared and the 20 year claim then formed the basis for that weeks headlines. It culminated in the issue featuring prominently on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme ‘Question Time’.

Given this renewed interest, and the headlines and claims that are now gaining currency, Newsnet Scotland decided that it was time to take a fresh look at this coverage. We have also decided to re-publish our original analysis from almost a year ago.

Before you read on, please be aware that we do not seek to change the views of anyone regarding the actual release, we have already acknowledged that these views are entrenched. There are SNP voters who thought the release wrong just as there were Labour voters and indeed Labour politicians who thought the release the correct decision.

Even families of the victims were split as to the relative merits of keeping a dying Mr Megrahi in prison.

What we are seeking to do is to urge people to ask themselves whether the Scottish media have provided informed analysis, objective coverage and reasoned debate on this very serious matter or whether they have manipulated the story in order to satisfy an agenda.

The backdrop to the release was of course the 9/11 New York tragedy and the appalling 7/7 attack on London transport. These two events have redefined the political narrative as far as the Middle East is concerned.

We begin our look back at the coverage of this whole release issue at the point at which it all began. Not, as you might expect, with the announcement of the release by Kenny MacAskill in August 2009, nor with Megrahi’s actual release days later.

We begin in fact with the now forgotten interview of Alex Salmond in 2007, an interview conducted by the BBC’s Kirsty Wark. Ms Wark is a friend of former First Minister Jack, now Lord, McConnell who had only months earlier been replaced as First Minister by Mr Salmond after the SNP had shocked the political world by defeating Mr McConnell’s Labour party in the Holyrood elections.

Why begin here you ask?

Well, the interview relates to the (then) new SNP government’s attack on a secret deal that had been hatched by Tony Blair and Libyan leader Col Gadaffi in the Libyan desert – a deal that we now know concerned the Lockerbie bomber Al Megrahi.

It is interesting to note the reaction of Ms Wark and her tone as Alex Salmond makes clear his concern that such a secret deal had impinged on Scottish legal jurisdiction. A deal that was designed to facilitate the return of a then healthy Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi to Libya.

Not seen in this clip, but Ms Wark introduces the interview by informing viewers that the new SNP government were expected by many commentators to want to ‘pick fights’ with Westminster – and, adds Ms Wark, “they didn’t have long to wait”.

An interesting line taken by Kirsty Wark, who actually went as far as to accuse the First Minister of exposing Blair’s secret deal in order to make political gain and of “risking the sensitivities of the families of the Lockerbie victims”.

It’s clear that in 2007 a secret desert deal involving the transfer from Greenock prison of the convicted terrorist Al Megrahi did not concern Scottish journalists to any great extent. The effect on the families of victims, that such a transfer might have, did not lead to a huge outcry – the only outcry was that the new SNP government had exposed the deal.

In fact the highlighting of this secret deal by the SNP led to them being denounced by many media commentators, including Ms Wark, as simply trying to pick a fight. Alex Salmond was accused of 'grandstanding' for convening an emergency session at Holyrood in order to inform the Scottish parliament of the secret deal.

The deal had been done, the mechanism for agreed repatriation of Al Megrahi would be put in place and the man himself would in time submit an application to return to Libya. Critically, the procedures put in place by the then UK Labour government afforded Al Megrahi the right to make legal representation to the Scottish Justice Minister as part of this process.

In 2007 such an arrangement caused no great media concern. There were no outcries from Labour politicians, nor any cries of ‘outrage’ from BBC Scotland political correspondents. Tony Blair was not the ‘Toast of Tripoli’ and there were no thoughts of any American backlash.

UK companies stood to benefit from oil deals and the cost of such lucrative deals was the return of a long forgotten terrorist to the former pariah state of Libya - a small price to pay.

Aside from complaints by the SNP, who were only picking a fight after all, the whole thing was just another behind the scenes deal struck by the UK government. The episode was quickly forgotten and would have remained so had fate not intervened in the form of an incurable illness.

In 2009 the deal in the desert was rendered academic as Al Megrahi was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Doctors advising the Scottish Justice Secretary explained that a life expectancy of around three months was a reasonable estimate and, having satisfied the criteria for compassionate release, a dying Al Megrahi was allowed to return home to Libya on August 20th 2009.

A media circus then kicked off as presenters, commentators, journalists and politicians jostled with the families of victims and residents of the town of Lockerbie as each attempted to make points, report and analyse.

This week Newsnet Scotland will take a look back at the coverage of the release in the days and weeks following. How the Scottish press reported this dramatic event and, more importantly, how the event was covered by the BBC – specifically BBC Scotland.

CLICK HERE...........To be continued.....

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