The Hazards of Journalism
In 1998, in post as the defence correspondent of The Sunday Times for some three years, I’d been asked several times to put my name to a story brought to them by an Israeli journalist who they liked because his stuff was always wild and wonderful – plus as far as I could see, often unverifiable (either way…). The foreign editor was particularly keen to run this story, and the various people who became involved became equally keen – all it seemed except me.
Each time the story was proposed, I was put under increasing pressure to add my name to its byline (I presumed to give it some credibility), and had to argue keenly to get it put back onto the spike. And each time people with vested interests in it became more annoyed with me….
The problem with this story was that it was clear and very obvious nonsense – but judging from the vehemence of argument against my point of view (which latterly verged on the abusive) was apparently ideal Sunday Times material.
The story was that the Israelis had developed or were in the process of developing a special biological weapon that would attack only Arabs, for use said the fearless Israeli reporter, against Saddam Hussein. They revealed the top secret code name for this – “Operation Rain Dance”, a small amount of detail about where the “ethno bomb” was being made, and some ‘corroborative’ material about South African researchers who’d allegedly been attempting something similar against black people. Then an unnamed, “scientist” of unknown origin (but quoted in the same paragraph as the location of the Israeli research facility implying he was Israeli….), said this was rather a tricky business because Arabs and Jews are of the same semitic origin.
This last bit was actually true… In fact, Jews and Arabs are genetically identical, making the whole idea preposterous and impossible. The research into African possibilities for this nightmare notion is possibly less ridiculous as sickle cell anemia for example is suffered mostly by black Americans. (But as for some Dr Strangelove character holding the USA to ethic ransom some time soon – read about it in The Sunday Times maybe.
I’d earlier spoken with the UK’s chemical and biological weapons research establishment Porton Down about all this – an embarrassing conversation as following a visit and extensive off-the-record briefings there, I knew the answers.
However, on the occasion that The Sunday Times went ahead and published, one of the junior reporters had picked up on a British Medical Association investigation into “genetically based biological weapons”, so the January publication date of their report gave a news peg on which to hang the story.
I shall never forget this lady reporter shouting at me that I didn’t know what I was talking about, and did I think I knew better than the British Medical Association? (This was not I hasten to add either of the two reporters whose bylines graced the eventual headline.) My reciprocal question “What do the BMC know about biological warfare?” was ignored by the foriegn editor, and in went the story.
But unfortunately, I somehow ended up being named as one of two additional reporters at the end of the piece, despite the quote in the piece from Porton Down being very different to everything I’d told the news dask – and I suspect to what Porton might actually have said….
The reason I’m blogging about this rather sad episode, is that like a badly-buried body in the desert, every now and then this story re-appears – on this occasion, yesterday in the Pakistan defence forum website, where sensible chaps as they are, the piece receives short shrift – described rather charitably as “impossible” and “malarky”, the Sunday Times written off as a tabloid, along with another periodical which may have been daft enough to run a copy of the story (as they do).
You can read the piece plus comments here:
What do you think?
Sunday Times, November 15, 1998 -Israel Planning ‘Ethnic’ Bomb as Saddam Caves In,” by Uzi Mahnaimi and Marie Colvin