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Panorama Tuesday, 10 July, 2001, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Panorama searches for truth
Fergal Keane
Panorama searches for truth

By Fergal Keane and Mike Robinson - This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 10 July 2001

For nearly 50 years BBC Panorama has been investigating the use and abuse of power around the world. It is a mission which upholds the best traditions of public service broadcasting. Our film The Accused was a proud example of what Panorama does best.

So why then were we the target for such a piece of angry propaganda in the advertisement carried by this newspaper (July 4)? We investigated the massacre of the more than 800 men, women and children who died in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla and asked whether there is a case for war-crimes indictments. The man who ultimately ordered the Phalange into the camps is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Our method was to examine the facts reported by Israel's Kahan Commission in the light of developments in war-crime legislation.

We would like our programme to be viewed on the facts and arguments of the case. But instead we have been attacked with false accusations about the methods employed to make the film, accusations that cannot be allowed to pass without correction.

We did not misquote the eminent war-crimes prosecutor Judge Richard Goldstone. He is happy with the way his contribution to the film was used and stands by everything he said. If Goldstone denies ever saying that Sharon is indictable as a war criminal, that is for the hardly unsurprising reason that Goldstone is not quoted in the programme as having said any such thing in the first place.

When asked if an inquiry like the Kahan Commission could be said to have satisfied the requirements of justice, Goldstone said: "The Kahan Commission found that very serious crimes had been committed and I have no doubt that any decent person would regret the fact that not a single criminal prosecution followed."

It is claimed that there were no legal experts to balance the views of Professor Richard Falk, the contributor who did argue that Sharon is indictable. But the film featured Sharon's lawyer, who made an emphatic rebuttal of the appropriateness and possibility of indictment, as well as Sharon's spokesman Dr Ra'anan Gissin and archive footage of Sharon rejecting responsibility.

As for the attack on Falk, it is deeply unfair. He is a widely respected legal expert who is professor of international law at Princeton University and who has worked on UN-appointed commissions.

We did not mislead Israeli interviewees into appearing on the film by saying we were making "just an historical documentary." It was made quite clear that this was a film which examined the Sabra and Shatilla massacre with respect to international humanitarian law.

The advertisement says we misrepresented the Kahan Commission in that: "It supported the prevailing impression that the Kahan Commission found Sharon indirectly guilty of the massacre. In fact Sharon was found innocent of the massacre but the commission concluded that he should have foreseen the possibility of its occurrence." But the Kahan Commission does make it clear that Sharon had indirect responsibility for the massacre.

This is what the programme reported. The commission's conclusion goes on to say Sharon "bears personal responsibility."

Sharon's successful libel trial against Time magazine is not mentioned in the programme because the contested accusation was very specific; that he had incited the Phalange to avenge the murder of their leader Bashir Gemayel. At no stage in our film did we make such an accusation and so the libel trial was irrelevant. We kept to the facts as reported by the Kahan Commission.

The BBC is attacked for even making such a film when peace negotiations are finely poised. But like politicians in democratic states everywhere, Sharon will know that, in running for the most powerful office in the land, his past will come under examination. There should be no area of the world where this is regarded as wrong.

Our film is not an attack on the prime minister of Israel or the State of Israel. It is an investigation into a massacre and war crimes. The Accused is not a film just about Sharon. Notably, the notorious Phalange leader Elie Hobeika was confronted by the programme.

There is no anti-Israel bias in the BBC. The Accused is in the mould of rigorous and balanced BBC journalism, another example of which is a recent documentary which investigated allegations that Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat has presided over torture, corruption, and abuse of free speech in the Palestinian territories.

The film we made examined important issues. Our wish is that the facts we placed before the public be debated and the issues of legal responsibility for Sabra and Shatilla considered. The purpose of truth is not served by smears and untruths which serve only to divert attention from the central issues.

BBC Panorama has a tradition of investigative journalism which holds that no political leader is above scrutiny, however powerful. It is a tradition which no amount of pressure will stop the programme from upholding in the future.

Links to more Panorama stories are at the foot of the page.

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