The Fog of War – Channel 4 and the Fog of Words

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the Sunday Island on August 27, 2011


“You are hearing it through the crackling radio and it’s the fog of war stuff and it is difficult to make crystal-clear perfect decisions all the time.”



The Lambeth Borough Police Commander, Nick Ephgrave, said he “bitterly regretted” not containing the Brixton riot. The same words were used to excuse the slaying of Jean Charles de Menezes, an innocent Brazilian gunned down by police at Stockwell tube station, also in Lambeth.



Reports are coming in of British soldiers mutilating Taliban corpses and sexually abusing under-age Iraqi boys.


The fog of war?



Factoids and Churnalism



In Lakbima News June 26 2011, Namini Wijedasa interviewed Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. She said the Channel 4 programme called on viewers to make many inferences.



Heyns’s response: “I think the video has to be seen in the context of all the available evidence, which includes what has been investigated and published by NGOs and the panel of the Secretary General. The cumulative effect of the available evidence makes a coherent case that there is reason for serious concern about what both sides did during the war, and in particular what happened in the final stages, when the government gained the upper hand, and that there were no outside witnesses”.



Heyns says “there were no outside witnesses” but is confident “the available evidence makes a coherent case that there is reason for serious concern”. This evidence includes allegations made in the report of the Moon advisory panel. Most of the panel’s material came from the NGOs that Heyns also mentions. Heyns is making a case which  seems to be strengthened by the fact that allegations are being made by Channel 4, several NGOs and Moon’s advisory panel. In actuality, they are all drawing on the same unreliable source material and churning it up.



Jon Snow introduces the Channel 4 programme by saying that at the war’s end “as many as 40,000, and possibly far more, civilians were killed”. That is meaningless. How can one say “as many as” and “possibly far more” in the same sentence?






The government produced experts who attested the original video was a fake but these experts were not expert enough for the critics.  UN Rapporteur  Philip Alston said his experts (Peter Diaczuk, an “expert in firearms evidence”, Daniel Spitz, a “forensic pathologist”, and Jeff Spivack, an “expert in forensic video analysis”) prove its authenticity . Alston conceded that there were some “characteristics of the video which the experts were unable to explain”  but asserted that “each of these characteristics can, however, be explained in a manner entirely consistent with the conclusion that the videotape appears to be authentic.”



That is a very strange statement in relation to the English language. The unexplainable characteristics can be explained in a manner consistent with the  conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Alston is not saying the “experts” have said the video is authentic. The unexplainable can be explained to fit a conclusion that the video appears to be authentic. Even if they came out and said directly that the video was genuine and had not been tampered with, this is not proof that it shows Sri Lankan soldiers killing Tamils.



The Experts



Experts have a great deal of influence. Forensic experts put the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four in jail for 15 years for crimes they did not commit.



Who are these experts who convinced Philip Alston and Stephen Sacker?



  • Spitz  was appointed Medical Examiner for Macomb County, Michigan by his father who had the job before him. He achieved notoriety by ruling an execution-style death as suicide missing the   bullet hole in the neck and the bullet in the jaw.



  • Fredericks  is not trained in photogrammetry and has no more expertise than a layperson. He lied in court about his company’s ties to Taser, and supported a police cover-up.



  • Spivack is a not very successful self-employed private investigator (he filed bankruptcy in 2003),with little verifiable work experience, and flaky credentials.



Unreliable Witnesses



The Channel 4 commentary does not make it clear who Damilvany Gnanakumar is. She was a Tamil Tiger who was ordered to work in Mullivaykkal hospital by Castro. In London, she was women’s co-ordinator for the Tamil Youth Organisation an LTTE front. In Kilinochchi she was assigned to work with foreign media and was described by a former colleague called Prabakaran as a “news correspondent”. He said she had been trained to use firearms and wore a cyanide capsule around her neck. As long ago as September 2009, Gnanakumar was discredited. Why is Channel 4 still treating her as an independent witness?






Rape is a terrible crime. Rape as a systematic policy and weapon of war is even more appalling.



The Darusman Report says on Page 152:



“Rape and sexual violence against Tamil women during the final stages of the conflict and in the immediate aftermath are greatly under-reported. Cultural sensitivities and associated stigma prevented victims from reporting such crimes even to their relatives”.



What does under-reported actually mean? It can only mean that some rapes were unreported because of stigma. One might ask how the panel can be confident that such crimes occurred  if they were unreported. One might say that rape is bound to happen in war but such assumptions cannot be offered as “evidence”. The report continues: “There are many indirect accounts reported by women of sexual violence and rape by members of Government Forces”. There is a double distancing here which makes it difficult to understand what actually happened or what is being alleged. What does indirect accounts mean? Can it mean anything other than hearsay? It seems to be saying women who had not been raped themselves heard stories from other people who also had not been raped that some other women had said someone had been raped.



Credibility and Truthiness



Heyns’s phrase: “In the context of all the available evidence” seems to mean that if enough dodgy allegations are gathered together their critical mass bestows credibility. If a rumour appears on a lot of websites or blogs, the mere accumulation is seen as proof.



The word “credible” is used often in the Darusman Report but there is no substance behind the currency. The report uses a lot of fudging words like “if proven” and reiterates many charges that have been presented without substantiation for over two years. Allegations become “credible allegations” and morph into “credible evidence”.



Channel 4 deploys a great number of factoids (a term coined by Norman Mailer and defined by the OED as “an item of unreliable information that is repeated so often that it becomes accepted as fact” –  something that looks like a fact, could be a fact, but, in fact,  is not a fact.  Stephen Colbert calls it Veritasiness –  “truthiness”, common sense, received wisdom, truths that are self-evident in the gut, regardless of reality. “We’re not talking about truth, we’re talking about something that seems like truth – the truth we want to exist”. Stephen Sacker was full of truthiness in his  Hard Talk haranguing of Rajiva Wijesinha. Everybody knows the SLA was shelling hospitals so why are you denying it? Experts have deemed the Channel 4 footage genuine, so who are you to deny it?



There is no room for truth in the world of soundbites.