Ethical journalism includes understanding how some stories can change the world

By Steve Crawshaw

In the past couple of weeks, there has been a small flurry of attention for an extraordinary Bill which the government brought for its second reading in parliament last month. The stories are hardly surprising: the Overseas Operations Bill provides for a de facto decriminalization of torture. What’s not to be shocked by?

The Bill will be argued over in committee stage throughout this month, where key amendments can be introduced. As a campaigner against torture, I am happy for the attention the Bill has begun to receive — following  criticisms of the proposals by a field marshal, a former commander in chief of land forces, a former attorney general, a former defence secretary, the bishop to the armed forces and many more.

But here’s the strange thing: why did it take six months for this Bill to come under the spotlight? There was nothing fundamentally new about what any of them were saying. Some of the most senior signatories of letters expressing concerns had gone public months earlier with expressions of dismay for this “stain on Britain’s standing in the world”, and the damaging implications for the armed forces.

Instead, the misleading government narrative – that the Bill’s only real impact will be to limit “vexatious claims” – was allowed to run almost unchallenged, with double-page spreads devoted to praising the proposals. The Bill’s key “presumption against prosecution” of torture and other grave crimes after five years, barring “exceptional” circumstances, went mostly unmentioned.

There were occasional and welcome exceptions. Britain’s senior military judge was reported in the Times as saying that the Bill was “ill conceived”. A former attorney-general said that the Bill “creates more problems than it fixes”. But these were isolated stories. None triggered a national debate about our values and whether we are ready to protect them.

In some ways, there is little new about us waking up late to a story of magnitude which has long been staring us in the face. Sometimes, it seems, the story is of such magnitude that it is almost impossible to conceive—or we allow ourselves to be persuaded that if others are not talking about it, maybe it’s not really such a problem, after all. If it were that serious, surely the story would be all over the front pages already?

But, as every journalist knows, stories have too often gained traction only after months of being ignored on the side-lines.

In mid-1984, ITV broadcast a documentary on a huge and devastating famine in Ethiopia.  I was working for Granada Television at that time, and remember watching Seeds of Despair. I was sure it would have dramatic impact.  It didn’t. This powerful one-hour film, which went out in a late-night slot, changed little. Only three months later did Michael Buerk’s famous BBC news report (“this place, workers here say, is the closest thing to hell on earth”) suddenly change perceptions. The world woke to the supposedly “unknown” catastrophe, with all the Bob Geldof, Band Aid and other frontpage consequences that followed.

Twenty years later. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others published detailed reports on mass killings in western Sudan, with titles like Darfur in Flames and Darfur Destroyed. Channel 4 News carried a powerful report from the region, and a handful of news stories or news-in-briefs appeared in the early months of 2004. Otherwise, silence.  I was working for Human Rights Watch at that time, having been a foreign correspondent until a couple of years earlier. I lost count of the number of conversations I had during those months with former colleagues about the ongoing slaughter, which would later be classified by the International Criminal Court as genocide. “That sounds bad!” was one news editor’s typical reaction to my description of the ongoing massacres. “Keep me posted, won’t you?”

Only after several months – and with no thanks to the British government, which was focused on a north-south political deal and remained silent as long as possible – did Darfur eventually start to dominate headlines in the UK and around the world. The delay in recognizing the scale of the nightmare defied all logic, as I described in a note to the parliamentary International Development Committee later that year.

After the small flurry of news stories that came with the second parliamentary reading of the Overseas Operations Bill on 23 September, the interest again died down. And yet, the Government’s plans for a de facto decriminalization of torture should be a wake-up call to all of us – especially in a context where the current incumbent in the White House has proudly proclaimed that torture “absolutely works”. This has implications for all of us, if we turn a blind eye.

The Government insists that the Bill provides “no barrier” to justice. That argument is difficult to sustain, when the Bill permits prosecution of torture after five years only in “exceptional” circumstances. This Bill is, as one analyst put it, “legislating by soundbite”.

The Government seems to hope that, if its inaccurate narrative is proclaimed loudly enough, that will drown out those who want to call this dangerous law out for what it is. But, in the words of one former general, “They’re not standing up for the army. The army doesn’t want this. It shows a complete lack of judgement.”

In a consultation ahead of the Bill’s publication, the Government asked whether rape and torture should perhaps be excluded from this five-year rule. Rape was duly excluded from the expiry date (which is clearly to be welcomed), perhaps influenced by the UK’s leadership of the global Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative. Torture and other grave crimes, with no explanation offered, were not.

The government has until now relied on widespread ignorance to enable this law to glide through without significant opposition. That is not sustainable.

Ethical journalism includes the understanding that some stories – by highlighting massacres in real time, or by calling out a law which opens the door to torture – can play an important role in changing practice, changing lives, and changing the world.

The government has relied on widespread ignorance to enable these impunity proposals to glide through without opposition.

It has been good to hear speakers at this week’s Conservative Party Conference speaking out against the new proposals. Accountability for torture can never be a left-right issue.  These proposals, as they stand, have dangerous implications for Britain’s role in the world, and for the global torture ban itself. If enough people understand the truth, these proposals can be stopped.

On behalf of torture survivors, and on behalf of all of us, that “if” really needs to become a “when”.

Steve Crawshaw, former chief foreign correspondent of The Independent, is policy and advocacy director at Freedom from Torture

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