Channel 4 – Once Again!
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
A version of this article appeared in Ceylon Today on Wednesday October 29 2014.
Last week, I wrote an article commenting on the news that Channel 4 had been nominated for an Emmy award for its documentary about alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka. Callum Macrae, who directed the programme, read the article and made contact.
Before I address Mr Macrae’s specific points, let me summarise my general position. I am a foreigner who has lived permanently in Sri Lanka for twelve years. I have tried, in a small way, to contribute to the welfare of the country by becoming involved in my local community in Uva province. In spite of what the rabid trolls on Colombo Telegraph might say, I do not have any connections with the government. Because I am a foreigner, I have no emotional attachment to SLFP or UNP (or Fianna Fail or Fine Gael or Sin Fein).
When I first came to Sri Lanka, there was a cease-fire and people had a taste of peace. I thought it was safe to live here. I was dismayed when Mahinda Rajapakse was elected president because he had a reputation as a hardliner. I was further dismayed when the government decided to go for the military option against the LTTE. Dismayed because I knew that it meant civilians would be killed; dismayed because I did not think the SLA could win. My compatriots Martin McGuinness and John Hume advised against the military option and I bought the received wisdom that such conflicts could only be ended by negotiation.
I now know that I was wrong. The LTTE was firmly against negotiation and used cease-fires to regroup. They had to be defeated. They were defeated and Sri Lanka is a far better place today than it was when I first arrived.
Mr Macrae’s Objections
- The Emmy nomination is for a programme made in 2013 not for the first Killing Fields programme broadcast in 2011.
- “He [Padraig Colman] also seems to have taken a fair amount of his information from the book Corrupted Journalism – the anonymously funded and written book which was so carelessly written and which has been so completely discredited.”
- “Mr Colman claims over and over again that we failed to criticise the LTTE “.
- “Why doesn’t Padriac (sic) Colman actually address the evidence around the death of the child Balachandran Prabhakaran? “
- “He is also silent on the fact that even since then further photographic evidence has emerged again showing prisoners (including Isaipriya) alive in the custody of identifiable SLA soldiers.”
- “Because Mr Colman appears to be defending a government which claimed throughout the last few months of the war, not just that they had a policy of Zero Civilian Casualties – but that in practice not a single casualty had died as a result of government action! Now Mr Colman is arguing about whether the fact that the UN said during the war that at least 7000 had died (which they did) and that in the light of more information they revised that figure upward considerably. But how does he explain the government’s claim of zero civilian casualties. There is not a word on that”.
Let me now deal with Mr Macrae’s points:
- I thank him for the clarification. Channel 4 are still using the title The Killing Fields, thereby making a ludicrous link with what happened in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. There have been previous awards and nominations for these Channel 4 programmes, including one for the Nobel Peace Prize (previous winners of that include Kissinger, the EU and Obama; previous nominees include Hitler, Stalin and Theodore Roosevelt). My critique was aimed at the Channel 4 project as a whole. I do not think it is contributing to peace in Sri Lanka.
- I published criticisms of Channel 4 before Corrupted Journalism was published. The authors cite me several times in their endnotes but I also detected my influence in the sections on churnalism and factoids. In Channel 4’s immediate response, Ben de Pear flippantly called the book a heavy tome even though it is merely a 222-page paperback. Mr Macrae has pointed me in the direction of a more serious response to the book. This also refers to the book as “hefty”.
- “Mr Colman claims over and over again that we failed to criticise the LTTE”. I have read and reread various drafts and versions of my article. I do not say even once that Channel 4 failed to criticise the LTTE. That said, I think that viewers who do not know the historical background will come away from these programmes with the impression that it was SLA committing all the atrocities. Mr Macrae needs to make a programme with vivid visual images of children massacred by the LTTE. Perhaps he could make a programme calling for Adele Balasingham to be tried for war crimes. She gave cyanide to 13 year old girls and is, I understand, now living comfortably in New Malden.
- Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” Wittgenstein. The idea of a 12 year old boy being executed is indeed distressing. I was silent on the subject because I had nothing useful to say, no special knowledge to add. I would certainly not defend it. People who have not remained silent on the topic have reminded us of the young Buddhist monks executed by the LTTE at Anuradhapura or the 147 Muslim boys and men slaughtered while at prayer at Katankudy mosque. Perhaps Mr Macrae could make a film about those incidents. Did the government not provide Prabhakaran’s parents with pensions and medical care? Did the government not airlift Daya Master to hospital for heart surgery and then give him transport back to the war? The widow of Colonel Soosai, leader of the Sea Tigers, was captured along with her children, by the Sri Lankan Navy in May 2009. She said: “The Sri Lanka armed forces have treated us very well and afforded us all the facilities we never had before that. Today we are living happily with my children who are continuing their education well. My parents are also living with me. The story about certain LTTE leaders coming to surrender raising white flags is a fairy tale.”
- I am silent also about the circumstances surrounding the death of Isaipriya because I have no special knowledge on the subject. I do know that she was not a civilian non-combatant.
- Mr Macrae seems a little muddled about what I have written about civilian casualties. I have not been silent about the numbers of civilian casualties. I have written many articles on this, some of them lengthy with extensive footnotes. In these articles, I have said quite clearly that I think the idea of zero civilian casualties is ridiculous. Mr Macrae misleads himself by mistaking me for a defender of the government.
Panel of Experts –Completely Discredited
In The Uncorrupted Truth, Mr Macrae states: “But our findings have also been separately confirmed by the UN Panel of Experts on Sri Lanka appointed by Ban Ki Moon. The Panel found credible allegations associated with the final stages of the war. Between September 2008 and 19 May 2009, the Sri Lanka Army advanced its military campaign into the Vanni using large-scale and widespread shelling, causing large numbers of civilian deaths”.
The Marga Institute described the report as “tendentious”. Credible allegations are not the same as established facts. “On the basis of reasonable assumptions, the Panel could have built on the UN estimate of 7,721. They reject this estimate saying ‘it is likely to be too low’ and ‘many casualties may not have been observed’. The Panel opts for a much higher estimate of 40,000 without indicating the basis for this estimate…There is a strong impression left that the Panel is not satisfied with a low estimate as that would call into question its interpretation of government strategy”.
I have read Mr Macrae’s detailed rebuttal of Corrupted Journalism. I do not intend to deal with it in detail myself, partly because I do not have the time, space or expertise, but mainly because, just as it is not my job to defend the government, it is not my job to defend Engage Sri Lanka. When I read about the book in the Sri Lankan press, I groaned at the naivety of setting such great store by the views of AA Gill. I read the book carefully and, like many others with whom I have discussed it, I found it fairly substantial. I understand why Mr Macrae does not agree.
I urge my readers to examine Mr Macrae’s case at:
Mr Macrae is highly offended that Engage Sri Lanka should accuse him of corruption. However, he dismisses any criticism of the Channel 4 programmes as sinister and portrays himself as the underdog, despite the fact that his work has received much publicity all over the world. Everyone but Callum Macrae has ulterior motives. He knows nothing about me (and misspells my name) but calls me a “defender of the government”. He suggests I am being petty for questioning the number of civilian casualties bandied about. I have written many times about GOSL’s PR ineptitude. Sometimes they just cannot win He asserts that Engage Sri Lanka are dubious because they are anonymous and mysteriously funded. He swats away other critics because they write for “pro-government” publications. Don’t take points made in Lies Agreed Upon seriously because it is a Sri Lankan government propaganda film. SLA’s attempts to clear its name can be discounted because, well, they would say that wouldn’t they?
After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
TS Eliot Gerontion
Mr Macrae has fashioned a good career from covering the Sri Lankan tragedy. There is no mileage in him making a film about how things have improved here. I do not have Channel 4’s resources and have no chance of making a good career from arguing with Mr Macrae. I urge my readers to watch all his Channel 4 programmes and to read The Uncorrupted Truth. I will now move on and devote my time to writing poetry and erudite articles about philosophy and nature and posting pictures of cute puppies and kittens on Facebook.
Before retiring from the fray, I would like to pose the question: what is the purpose of these Channel 4 programmes? Is this regular drip-feeding of horror stories likely to make the lot of any individual Sri Lankan, Sinhalese or Tamil, any better? What would satisfy Mr Macrae? If the government punished individual soldiers for specific crimes, would that suffice? I doubt it. Does he want Gotabhaya Rajapaksa or Sarath Fonseka to stand trial? Would he be satisfied only if President Rajapaksa were put in the dock? As this is not likely to happen, are we to look forward to programmes on The Killing Fields in perpetuity?