Thursday 21 April 2005    


The Week



Andrew Gilligan says that the press abandoned healthy scepticism when reporting the Bourgass story, and by doing so endangered us all

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Other articles by this author





Issue: 23 April 2005
Ricin certainties
Andrew Gilligan

In TV, they call it the ‘guilty building’ shot. When, for instance, you are making a hard-hitting documentary about the horrors of Sellafield but the authorities won’t let you inside, you drive along the fence with the camera running, then dub in some sinister music in the cutting-room later. You know the sort of thing. It starts with a long, low note, then a long, slightly higher note, then, as the Sellafield sign or, in extremis, a lamppost comes into view, a brief, nerve-jangling musical ‘sting’ like that bit in the Psycho shower scene.

I confess I’ve used the technique in the odd TV programme myself, but at least I always had a few guilty people, or guilty documents, to flesh out the thesis. In the BBC’s extraordinary coverage of the Kamel Bourgass ‘ricin plot’ trial last week, all they really had was the buildings.

‘It is a story that can only now be told ...of how al-Qa’eda spent years training, planning and preparing for attacks, not just in Britain but across Europe,’ gritted the corporation’s home affairs editor, Mark Easton, sinister music playing in the background, bodies piling up on the Paris Métro. ‘A series of co-ordinated chemical and biological strikes which could have left hundreds dead and millions in fear for their lives.’

This effort appeared on, of all places, Newsnight, normally the home port of the raised eyebrow and the cynical smirk. It tried everything: the slow-motion reconstructions, the tendentious location shots from around Europe (Lyons, Bratislava, Thetford), the library clips of those al-Qa’eda blokes running round Afghanistan, and that inevitable harbinger of a scare being well and truly mongered, David Blunkett. But all the tricks in the TV locker could not save it from one essential truth: that it was blatant, shameless bollocks.

‘By day, he sold chocolates. By night, he helped Kamel Bourgass make poisons,’ said Mr Easton of the key prosecution informant, Mohammed Meguerba, bravely striding through a suspiciously dusky, foreign-looking crowd as he delivered this line. Meguerba never actually gave evidence against Bourgass, but he was the sole, if slender, thread connecting this banal Islamic thug and murderer to a far more exciting world of Afghan training camps and international WMD conspiracies.

Sadly, according to defence sources, Meguerba told the authorities that he and Bourgass attended their al-Qa’eda camp, where they met Osama bin Laden, in the summer of 2002 — nine months, in other words, after al-Qa’eda had been kicked out of Afghanistan, the training camps closed and bin Laden had escaped on a donkey. The unreliability of Meguerba’s supposed confession can perhaps be explained by the fact that it was obtained by the Algerian security services, almost certainly under torture — not something Mr Easton troubled to mention.

There was so much in this report that could have been a Chris Morris parody: the uncritical acceptance of police and political spin, the failure to include a single sceptical voice, the police video tour of the Wood Green apartment of death (‘Everything was as Meguerba had said. There were the industrial scales,’ as the pictures showed a small set of household scales. ‘There was the coffee grinder.’ Could the plotters have been coffee drinkers, perhaps?)

But, of course, these are all secondary to the main point: there was no ricin, and even if there had been, it could not possibly have ‘left hundreds dead’. Ricin is not a weapon of mass destruction; it is an instrument of one-to-one killing, just like a pistol, a knife or indeed a kettle of boiling water. What there was found in the flat was nicotine — which, according to Meguerba, Bourgass planned to smear on car-door handles in the Holloway area.

Nicotine, however, is even less of a terror weapon than ricin. According to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, you have to swallow it in fairly substantial quantities to get ill. So the intended millions of victims would probably have had to lick their car-door handles for several minutes in order to suffer the desired deadly effects: not an especially common practice, even in Holloway.

Essentially, therefore, the story of this particular plot, at least, is the exact opposite of that told by the media: if anything, a rather reassuring picture of amateurishness, isolation and incompetence, a success for effective police work but a serious failure of journalism. Have we learnt nothing from the experience of Iraq? Can’t we recognise an agenda when we see one? The authorities may tell few direct lies in cases like these, but they are very good at pointing journalists in the wrong direction, then letting us charge off down the path under our own steam. That is exactly what appears to have happened here.

Despite serious disquiet in parts of the organisation about Mr Easton’s report, the BBC has remained quiet. One BBC film-maker, Adam Curtis, was bold enough to speak out: the reporting, he said, ‘was not in any way justified’. Mr Curtis repeated this at the Bafta awards ceremony earlier this week, which was being televised by the BBC; but by the time it came to be broadcast, his remarks had been edited out.

None of this is to say that there is not a real threat against us; or that there will be no serious attempts to kill us in future. There is, and there may well be, perhaps even before the election. That is why the failings of the Mark Easton approach are so important: not merely because they are bad journalism, but because they actually, if unconsciously, abet the terrorists.

The truth about Islamic terrorists is that they can kill us, but they cannot do it very often. In three and a half years, there has been only one Islamic terror attack in the West. Terrorism’s most effective weapon is not explosives, conventional or otherwise; it is fear. It is not what it can do to us; it is what it can persuade us to do to ourselves.

By stoking that fear, politicians and journalists are playing entirely into terrorism’s hands.