Thursday, April 10, 2008


Tremendous news today that the High Court has ruled that the Serious Fraud Office acted unlawfully in halting a corruption investigation into BAE Systems' arms deals with Saudi Arabia. The judgement is categorical and tough in condemning the SFO and the government for caving in to alleged threats from the Saudi regime that they would halt security cooperation if the probe and the threat of criminal proceedings went ahead. The judges described the SFO director's action on 14 December 2006 as a "successful attempt by a foreign government to pervert the course of justice in the United Kingdom". You can't get much stronger than that.

The judicial review was brought by Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and The Corner House - to whom great credit is due for persistence in the face of massive corporate and international interests. Development agencies and the Christian network SPEAK have also been involved in work on BAE and arms trade issues. No doubt the government will, overtly or covertly, seek to resist calls for the re-opening of the SFO investigation, so the struggle goes on. But it is a landmark judgement, and attempts at an appeal look perilous.

Symon Hill of CAAT gave a good interview with Radio 4 this evening, but the BBC has not covered itself in glory with its initial reporting. Earlier this morning, before the verdict was handed down, it allowed defence industry apologist Francis Tusa (who happens to be son of John Tusa, managing director of BBC World Service from 1986-92) free rein to rubbish the idea that anything was at stake in the case. Extraordinarily, given what has been revealed in court, he auto-suggested that the SFO had to drop the case for lack of evidence and mocked the idea that BAE's reputation could be harmed because "business is booming" in the USA.

This didn't sound like proper journalism or 'analysis', as it was touted, but a pre-emptive PR effort towards damage limitation, blatantly taking advantage of the fact that the legal protocol barred CAAT or Corner House from doing interviews themselves before the judgment. After the High Court pronounced, both BAE and the SFO refused to comment, and Symon finally got his word. Tusa was also replaced by another commentator. The BBC has covered the case under the 'business' rubric and its online report provided a link to BAE and the Ministry of Defence, but not CAAT. A link to Corner House, which supports democratic and community movements for environmental and social justice, was subsequently provided, but its site was struggling to cope with the traffic by mid-evening. The Beeb's news website has also relegated the story, regarding a domestic interest rate cut as more newsworthy than the government capitulating to a foreign power over military and security issues.

I should declare an interest of my own here. Though I've had nothing to do with the BAE case (other than reporting it), I served on the Campaign Against Arms Trade national steering committee from 1978-1987 and was a volunteer in the late '70s, following on from research and writing on arms trade and development issues for a variety of outlets, including Middle East Magazine and the Latin America Bureau. I also attended several official military export exhibitions as a journalist in the 1980s, uncovering details of the British government's military collusion with regimes involved in major human rights abuses - including Iraq. CAAT does a great job, usually with little publicity. It is testimony to the importance and effectiveness of civic action in calling companies and governments to proper account.


Pejar said...

What astonished me was that opinion was split on BBC's Have Your Say: (sorted by recommended).

Usually the commentators on HYS will take any opportunity to bash the Government, especially Blair. But about half of the comments are against re-opening the probe because it may cost British business!

I just think that when it comes to commercial interests, the people with influence have basically no scruples. It will be a cold day in hell before mere ethical concerns get in the way of our apparent love-in with the Saudis.

Simon Barrow said...

I fear that news forums attract the kind of people who contribute to news forums ;) That said, a majority of people don't give a stuff - which is difficult for those of us that do, for sure. Your pal Nick Clegg (who I interviewed recently - decent guy) has done a good job on this. The Brown-Cameron conspiracy to do down corporate investigations when they are inconvenient to the government or to corporate benefit (oops, sorry, "the public interest") is very depressing. But predictable. La lutta continua.