Damien Lewis, Sudan and ‘Death in the Air’: A Case Study in Irresponsible Television

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I. Introduction

‘Death in the Air’ was made in the course of 1999 by British film-maker Damien Lewis. This 27-minute long programme claimed to be an investigation of the use of chemical weapons within southern Sudan by Government of Sudan forces. It concluded that it had produced “compelling” evidence for its assertions.

In the documentary Lewis outlined the reason for his trip into southern Sudan: “The…task is to take samples from the alleged chemical weapons attack for analysis by the World’s top experts – at the UK’s Chemical and Biological Defence Agency and at VERIFIN, the equivalent agency in Finland.”  The word “chemical” was used 44 times in the programme. “Gas” is also mentioned several times, as is “poisoning” and “[c]ontaminated”. “War crime” is also mentioned.   Damien Lewis asserted in his programme that: “The results of the analysis by the UK and Finnish chemical weapons agencies provides tantalising evidence…” He further states: “Experts say the evidence so far is compelling” and said that there is “[a] convincing body of evidence.”

Given that in reality Lewis was demonstrably unable to produce a shred of evidence to substantiate a single one of his claims, ‘Death in the Air’ is perhaps no better example of irresponsible, sensationalist television journalism regarding Sudan (with the possible exception of Lewis’s other material on Sudan, programmes such as his 1998 ‘Exporting Evil: Saddam’s Hidden Weapons’ (1) ). The dozens of samples he theatrically produced in the course of his programme were subsequently subject to detailed, vigorous independent testing by chemical weapons agencies of his choosing in two countries: there was not the slightest trace of anything remotely indicative of the use of chemical weapons.

Claims of involvement with, let alone the use of, weapons of mass destruction such as chemical agents are amongst the most serious that can be levelled at any individual or entity. Extreme caution should be exercised in making such claims – especially with regard to Sudan. It is not the first time that false claims alleging Sudanese involvement with weapons of mass destruction have been made. In August 1998, the United States government launched a cruise missile attack on the al-Shifa medicines factory in Khartoum, claiming that the factory produced chemical weapons. The Clinton Administration failed to produce any evidence, and blocked any subsequent United Nations inspection of the factory. Independent tests carried out on the factory by a distinguished American chemist showed no traces of anything associated with chemical weapons. (2)  It is now accepted that the attack was a disastrous blunder by the American government.(3)

We strongly urge anyone interested in media accuracy, press sensationalism and misinformation in general, and with regard to Sudan in particular, to read the transcript of the programme and compare it against the results of the tests conducted which were central to the claims made within it. The entire transcript of the programme is available at http://www.phoenix-tv.net/html/orange/recent/sudanche1.htm

II. A Poor Track Record for Facts

It should be noted from the start that Lewis has a track record of making almost unbelievably elementary mistakes about Sudan. In ‘Exporting Evil: Saddam’s Hidden Weapons’, for example, he referred to southern Sudan as being “largely Christian”. This is a particularly odd mistake for someone such as Lewis to have made, given that he claims to have visited and reported from Sudan on several occasions. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s ‘Sudan: Country Profile 1994-95’, for example, records that Christians account for 15 percent of the southern population. This figure is carried in Human Rights Watch Africa’s 1996 report on Sudan. (4)  The definitive United States government guide, ‘Sudan A Country Study’, also states: “In the early 1990s possibly no more than 10 percent of southern Sudan’s population was Christian.” (5) Independent, standard references thus state that Christians account for between 10 and 15 percent of the population of southern Sudan. It is believed that Muslims account for between 12-14 percent of the southern population. By far the majority of southerners are neither Christian nor Muslim, and are adherents of native animist religions. It would be similar to Mr Lewis claiming in a programme about Ireland or the United Kingdom that Northern Ireland is largely Roman Catholic or that the Republic of Ireland was largely Protestant. It was a mistake repeated in ‘Death in the Air”s own marketing material in 2000 – which refers to “Christian rebels”. (6)  We include this as it demonstrates a scant respect for facts.

III. Questionable Sources and Questionable Commentators

There was no attempt or apparent desire on the part of Lewis to offset the customary use of propaganda in war, and particular civil war. This conflict has been fought for several decades, most recently between the Khartoum government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA). The slant of the programme was immediately apparent. Lewis’s choice of interviewees and commentators could not have been more partisan – starting with the SPLA itself which appears to have initiated the making of the programme. In its description of “Death in the Air”, the Rory Peck Awards themselves stated, for example, that Lewis has “built up a working relationship” with the SPLA, and that they asked him to investigate the use of chemical weapons in southern Sudan.

It should be noted that considerable caution ought to have been exercised from the outset with regard to SPLA claims. Dr Peter Nyaba, an SPLA national executive, in his book ‘The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider’s View’, has spoken candidly of what he describes as the SPLA’s “sub-culture of lies, misinformation, cheap propaganda and exhibitionism”: “Much of what filtered out of the SPLM/A propaganda machinery, notably Radio SPLA, was about 90% disinformation or things concerned with the military combat, mainly news about the fighting which were always efficaciously exaggerated.” (7)  A question unconsidered by Lewis is whether self-serving allegations of the use of chemical weapons might fall into the 90 percent of SPLA “disinformation” as described above?

Lewis also chose to feature Baroness Cox, the president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, as a commentator. In considering Baroness Cox’s reliability on Sudan, it is worth nothing that even in Andrew Boyd’s sympathetic biography of her, ‘Baroness Cox: A Voice for the Voiceless’, Dr Christopher Besse of Medical Emergency Relief International (Merlin), a humanitarian aid organisation with which Cox is closely associated (Dr Besse and Baroness Cox are both trustees of Merlin), is quoted as saying:

“She’s not the most popular person in Sudan among the humanitarian aid people. She has her enemies, and some of them feel she is not well-enough informed. She recognizes a bit of the picture, but not all that’s going on.” (8)

Lewis cannot have been unaware of the controversy surrounding Cox’s credibility on Sudanese affairs. On issue after issue her accuracy has been found to be wanting. Her claims about Sudan have been contradicted by the British and American governments, UNSCOM and human rights groups such as African Rights, Anti-Slavery International and prominent southern Sudanese anti-government leaders such as Bona Malwal – all of whom hostile to the Khartoum authorities. Even ‘The Times’ newspaper has described her as “ever so slightly unhinged”.(9)

Baroness Cox’s track record of making other unreliable claims concerning Sudan is a clear one. On 17 February 1998, in the British Parliament, for example, she claimed that four hundred Scud missiles (including support vehicles well over one thousand vehicles) had been secretly transferred to Sudan from Iraq since the Gulf War in the face of unprecedented satellite, electronic and physical surveillance of that country by the UN, the United States and other concerned members of the international community. It is a matter of record that Reuters reported that on the same day that Baroness Cox made this claim, the White House, no friend of Sudan’s, clearly stated:  “We have no credible evidence that Iraq has exported weapons of mass destruction technology to other countries since the (1991) Gulf War.”

The British government stated in relation to these claims that: “We are monitoring the evidence closely, but to date we have no evidence to substantiate these claims…Moreover, we know that some of the claims are untrue…”.(10)  The British Government Minister also cited UNSCOM, stating that: “Nor has the United Nations Special Commission reported any evidence of such transfers since the Gulf War conflict and the imposition of sanctions in 1991.” (11)  We mention this in some detail as Lewis allowed Baroness Cox to once again repeat much the same sort of unfounded allegations in the programme.

Lewis also featured members of Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) in his programme despite the fact that this organisation is an openly partisan supporter of the SPLA rebels. It is a matter of record that NPA immediately echoed SPLA claims about “chemical” warfare, stating in August 1999 that NPA “have confirmed beyond doubt earlier reports that the government of Sudan used chemical bombs against the civilian population of the towns of Lainya and Kaya on the 23 July 1999”.(12)

The fact is that the activities of Norwegian People’s Aid has long been of concern to some of its donors. The Norwegian government had previously commissioned an independent investigation into NPA. The subsequent report stated that NPA “has taken a clear side in the war. It supports the causes of SPLA/M…NPA’s solidarity approach means that in practice the activities of NPA are closely related to the political and military strategies of the rebel movement.” (13)  Amazingly, Lewis presented a NPA nurse as “confirming” that there had been a use of “chemical” weapons – despite the fact that the nurse is working for a partisan support rebel solidarity group and that, in the light of the test results, her expertise as a chemical weapons expert is all too questionable.

IV. The Test Results

At the heart of the programme’s credibility – and that of Lewis himself – is his claim that “[t]he results of the analysis by the UK and Finnish chemical weapons agencies provides tantalising evidence…” and that “[e]xperts say the evidence so far is compelling”.

Even a cursory examination of what the British and Finnish chemical weapons agencies actually said unambiguously contradicted the claims made in ‘Death in the Air’. The Finnish laboratories stated: “Analysis of the gloves, control soil sample and one water sample, revealed no relevant chemicals. Analysis of all soil samples and one water sample revealed the presence of 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene (TNT). In addition to TNT, one soil sample contained the following degradation products of TNT: 1,8-dinitronaphtalene, 1-nitronaphtalene and 1,5-dinitronaphthalene.” That is to say, no evidence of any chemical weapons. There was, however, evidence that a conventional bomb had gone off.

The British government’s chemical and biological defence agency at Porton Down rigorously tested seventeen samples of water, soil and shrapnel provided by Lewis for the spectrum of known chemical agents. In the government’s response, the British Minister of State for Defence Procurement stated that “very careful analysis of all the available evidence” led the government to “conclude that there is no evidence to substantiate the allegations that chemical weapons were used in these incidents in the Sudan.” More of Lewis’s samples were independently tested in the United States. The minister also stated with regard to these and other samples that “a separate set of samples taken from the sites of the alleged CW attacks in the Sudan was tested independently in the US. The results of these tests also indicated no evidence of exposure to CW agents. I understand that Mr Lewis also passed samples to the Finnish institute responsible for chemical weapons verification (“VERIFIN”) and I am advised that this analysis likewise found evidence of TNT but none for CW agents.” In fact, the British government remarked on “the consistency of results from these three independent sets of analysis”. The British government reiterated its findings in October 2000, when, specifically referring to Lewis’s claims, they once again stated that “there was no evidence to substantiate the allegations that chemical weapons were used in Sudan. (14)

Mr Lewis also chose not to mention that a United Nations medical team had also travelled to the area in which it was claimed the chemical weapons attack took place. A Spokesman for the United Nations Secretary-General stated that this medical team had:

“gathered medical samples (blood and urine) from 13 of the 35 people who had reported symptoms. The samples were sent for analysis to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), an independent laboratory in Atlanta.”

The United Nations further stated that:

“The results…as reported to the United Nations, indicated no evidence of exposure to chemicals.” (15)

Yet despite all the unambiguously negative test results on soil, water, shrapnel, blood, urine and glove samples,  Mr Lewis somehow found the courage to claim in his programme that these tests provided “tantalising evidence…”, that “[e]xperts say the evidence so far is compelling” and that there is “[a] convincing body of evidence.” It is for the readers of this study to draw their own conclusions about Mr Lewis’s credibility and ethics as a reporter.

It is also worth noting that Lewis spent several minutes in the programme describing symptoms he presented as being caused by a chemical weapons attack. The VERIFIN report stated: “The health hazards described in literature for TNT and its degradation products, match quite well with the symptoms described by the victims.” That is to say that Lewis was describing symptoms consistent with the use of standard explosives. Damien Lewis, and presumably the “independent team of US & British military experts” that accompanied him, were apparently unable to identify the effects of conventional explosives, let alone chemical weapons.

V. The 2000 Rory Peck Awards

Amazingly, ‘Death in the Air’ was a finalist in 2000 in the prestigious British Rory Peck Awards for freelance film-making, with the judges stating: “This piece shows determination and stamina in getting the story – he has obviously built up contacts and come out with good evidence”. Lewis may well have shown determination and stamina; and he is self-evidently a good story-teller, but the simple fact is that the evidence by which the programme stands or falls is simply non-existent. It is a matter of record that Lewis added to his documentary in July 2000 and that the deadline for entries for the 2000 award was July 2000. Lewis would have been aware of all the negative test results back by early June – results which comprehensively invalidated the entire thesis of his programme. Despite having the opportunity, Lewis did not draw the judges’ attention to the fact that all of the independent agencies that examined his “evidence” found nothing to support his allegations. Instead he persisted in claiming “tantalising”, “compelling” and “convincing” evidence when there was quite clearly no such thing.

If a scientist or doctor had been party to such a shoddy, and dangerously inept piece of work – publishing, for example, a paper claiming a great medical breakthrough on the basis of tests which subsequently proved to show no such thing – and seeking to claim a prize for doing so – he or she would probably be suspended from his profession or possibly even struck off the medical register. Amazingly enough, in making it through to the finals of the Rory Peck award, rather than shunning such a questionable piece of work the British freelance film industry appears to have actually embraced this programme. The judges for the 2000 Rory Peck Awards were either misled or their standards in judging the award were remarkably slapdash.

VI. Conclusion

‘Death in the Air’ is not just an indictment on Lewis’s professionalism, but a disservice to British reporters and film-makers in general and, given that the programme was actually short-listed as a finalist in the Rory Peck awards, a particular disservice to those awards. Given this sort of unprofessional and blatantly propagandistic output it is perhaps little wonder that Western journalists and film-makers are sometimes viewed with suspicion within parts of the developing world.

‘Death in the Air’ was ultimately a huge non-story. But it nonetheless succeeded as a piece of sensationalist propaganda. The media has a responsibility to the truth. This was certainly not evident in ‘Death in the Air’. Nor was it seemingly present in the 2000 Rory Peck Awards.

Appendix 1:

Appendix 2:

The text of the British Government’s Letter to Baroness Cox Regarding the testing of Damien Lewis’s samples at the Chemical and Biological Defence Agency, Porton Down

Ministry of Defence, Whitehall, London SW1A 2HB

Reference D/MIN(DP)/ECS/13/3/3

5 June 2000

Dear Caroline

You wrote to me on 6 October about allegations that chemical weapons had been used by Sudanese Government forces against its internal opponents. I know that you have subsequently pursued the matter in the House of Lords and that Baroness Scotland has responded to a number of your points. I am sorry that it has taken so long to reply but, as I am sure you appreciate, on a question of such sensitivity we needed to carry out very careful analysis of all the available evidence.

First of all, I would like to assure you that the Government treats very seriously all allegations that chemical weapons have been used. As you know, the limited information available from the reports of the incidents in Sudan last July suggested that if chemical agents had been used, then they were likely to have been arsenical “riot control agents”, ie chemicals that produce sensory irritation or short-lived disabling physical effects. The initial analysis carried out at CBD Porton of the samples provided by Damien Lewis was therefore undertaken on the assumption that such agents may have been involved. Given the lapse of time between the alleged incident and the collection of the samples, CBD assessed that no intact trace of such agents would remain. Accordingly, tests were carried out only to determine the presence of elemental arsenic. This was found to be present but only in concentrations well below normal background levels. Mr Lewis was then informed of these results by CBD.

Although there was no clear evidence indicating the use of chemical weapons, I concluded that, given the seriousness of the allegations, further analysis should be carried out to screen for chemical agents, their environmental degradation products, and riot-control agents. This has now been completed. The methods used involved gas and liquid chromatography, combined with mass spectrometry for chemical agents and riot control agents, and atomic absorption spectrometry for arsenic. These techniques are also used in carrying out analysis of samples to meet the requirements adopted by the Organisation for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). A total of 17 samples of water, soil, and shrapnel collected from three sites in the Sudan were analysed for the presence of known chemical agents, ie the classical nerve agents, mustard, and other recognised agents, for their environmental degradation products, and for riot-control agents. They were also screened for the presence of arsenic.

No intact CW agents, their associated environmental degradation products, or riot-control agents were identified in any of the samples. Low levels of arsenic were detected in 15 of the samples, but, again, only at levels well below expected natural limits for environmental samples. Conventional TNT explosive was present in eight of the samples, mainly those collected from near to the alleged bomb craters or from presumed bomb fragments. CBD concluded from its analysis that these samples bore no evidence of the CW agents for which they had been tested. I enclose a copy of the CBD report.

You may be aware that a separate set of samples taken from the sites of the alleged CW attacks in the Sudan was tested independently in the US. The results of these tests also indicated no evidence of exposure to CW agents. I understand that Mr Lewis also passed samples to the Finnish institute responsible for chemical weapons verification (“VERIFIN”) and I am advised that this analysis likewise found evidence of TNT but none for CW agents. Given the consistency of results from these three independent sets of analysis, I believe we must conclude that there is no evidence to substantiate the allegations that chemical weapons were used in these incidents in the Sudan.

The Government is informing OPCW and the Sudanese Government of the results of the CBD analysis. I am also arranging for a copy of my letter and the results of the CBD’s analysis to be passed on to Mr Lewis.

I am copying this letter to Baroness Scotland, Lord McNair, Viscount Brentford and Lord Ahmed who took part in the debate on the Sudan in the House of Lords on 13 October.

Yours ever

Liz

Notes:

1       See, for example, ‘Damien Lewis and Sudan: Questionable Journalism on “Chemical Weapons”‘, published by MSANEWS, 30 July 2001 at 17:14:57.

2       See, ‘U.S. Evidence of Terror Links to Blitzed Medicine Factory Was “Totally Wrong”‘, Andrew Marshall, ‘The Independent’, London, 15 February 1999; ‘No Trace of Nerve Gas Precursor Found at Bombed Sudan Plant’, ‘Chemical & Engineering News’, 15 February 1999.

3       ‘Clinton Bombed Civilians on Purpose. American Tests Showed No Trace of Nerve Gas at “Deadly” Sudan Plant. The President Ordered the Attack Anyway’, ‘The Observer’, London, 23 August 1998. Front-page.

4       ‘Behind the Red Line: Political Repression in Sudan’, published by Human Rights Watch/Africa, New York, 1996, p.193.

5       See ‘Sudan – A Country Study’, available at the Library of Congress web-site: see particularly, section on regionalism and ethnicity.

6       ‘Sudan – Death in the Air’, Phoenix Television, web-posted at http://www.phoenix-tv.net/html/orange/recent/sudanche.htm

7       Peter Nyaba, ‘The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider’s View’, Fountain Publishers, Kampala, 1997, pp.55, 66.

8       Andrew Boyd, ‘Baroness Cox: A Voice for the Voiceless’, Lion Publishing, Oxford, 1998, p.324.

9       ‘The Times’, (London), 30 January 2001, p.27.

10      House of Lords ‘Official Report’, 19 March 1998, cols. 818-820.

11      House of Lords ‘Official Report’, 19 March 1998, cols. 818-820.

12      Norwegian People’s Aid, ‘Confirmed Chemical Bombing in Southern Sudan’, 2 August 1999, posted on Relief Wet, www.reliefweb.int.

13      ‘Evaluation of Norwegian Humanitarian Assistance to the Sudan’, a report submitted to the Royal Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, COWI, Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Oslo, November 1997, p.27.

14      House of Lords ‘Official Report’, 31 October 2000, cols. WA81.

15      ‘Note for the Spokesman of the Secretary-General on Sudan’, Note delivered by the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Mr Philippe Borel, to the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, 17 October 1999.

16      As published in ‘The ASA Newsletter’, Issue No. 79, 2000, Applied Science and Analysis Inc, available at http://www.asanltr.com/newsletter/00-4/sudan_verifin.htm

The European-Sudanese Public Affairs Council sent this media contribution to Media Monitors Network (MMN)

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