Evaluating the “Churnalism” from Channel 4 and the Moon Panel

Padraig Colman

EXTRACTS from a long review by an Irishman who now lives in Sri Lanka and has engaged in high journalese in the West. He is relatively non-partisan and his fuller version is well worth careful perusal. See  http://pcolman.wordpress.com/2011/08/12/channel-4-news-and-sri-lankan-war-crimes/    Michael Roberts.

Pic of so-called UN “experts”

The main charges covered in the programme are:

  • The Sri Lanka army and air force targeted hospitals and civilians in the NFZs (no-fire zones) leading to 40,000 civilian deaths (there is a great deal of ambiguity about figures but 40,000 is frequently quoted).
  • Withholding of food and medical supplies from the north
  • Summary execution of prisoners
  • Rape of female combatants and civilians
  • Imprisoning of Tamil civilians in concentration camps.

…. BBC journalist Waseem Zakir coined the neologism ‘churnalism’. …  In his book, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies, the award-winning Guardian reporter who has a distinguished record in investigative journalism and has recently been the scourge of Murdoch, presented an overwhelming weight of evidence that the British press lies, distorts facts and breaks the law. His research revealed that 60 per cent of stories consisted wholly or mainly of wire copy and/or PR material; a further 20 per cent contained clear wire-PR elements with little added on; and eight per cent could not be sourced. In only 12 per cent was the material generated entirely by the reporters themselves. In The Times, 69 per cent of news stories were wholly or mainly wire copy and/or PR and in 70 per cent, a claimed fact passed into print without any corroboration at all. Only 12 per cent of these stories offered any evidence that the central statement had been thoroughly checked. It  is interesting to note that Britain only has 47,800 PR people to 45,000 journalists.

In Lakbima News June 26 2011, Namini Wijedasa interviewed Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions. … 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.The Channel 4 programme Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields also uses the churnalism technique of cumulative unsubstantiated allegations. Jon Snow introduces the programme by saying that at the war’s end “as many as 40,000, and possibly far more, civilians were killed”. As English goes, as logic goes that is meaningless. How can one say “as many as” and “possibly far more” in the same sentence? Figures are presented, not in the interest of enlightenment, but to make a shock effect…….

Evidence: ….  The main evidence in the Channel 4 programme comes from mobile phone footage which the producers claim was shot by Sri Lanka Army soldiers. Further revelations are coming from Channel 4. Someone who is said to be a Sri Lankan soldier called “Fernando” says: “They shot people at random. Stabbed people. Raped them. Cut out their tongues, cut women’s breasts off. I saw people soaked in blood”. Even though I began watching the Channel 4 programme as a sceptic, the power of the images and the way they were assembled had a powerful effect. How could one not be moved to tears at the sight of bloodied, mangled children?

Semiotics: I watched  the Channel 4 programme ready  to engage in critical analysis of language. The title, Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, is a distortion from the start. There is no comparison between Pol Pot’s ambition to sendCambodia to Year Zero and the efforts of a democratically elected government’s efforts to deal with terrorism within its own sovereign borders. I also found an opportunity to study semiotics, to see how emotions can be manipulated by images and music, as well as voice-over commentary. I found 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?

Authenticity of Channel Four Footage:I am not in a position to judge the provenance of the footage used by Channel 4. ….. UN Rapporteur  Philip Alston said three independent experts (Peter Diaczuk, an “expert in firearms evidence”, Daniel Spitz, a “forensic pathologist”, and Jeff Spivack, an “expert in forensic video analysis”) believe it is  authentic. Alston conceded that there were “a small number of 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.”

Whatever about the technicalities of video recording that is a very strange statement in relation to the English language. There is a lot of fudging there! 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: Who are these experts? Daniel Spitz is the current Medical Examiner forMacomb County,Michigan. Spitz was appointed Medical Examiner by his father who was the county medical examiner before him. He achieved notoriety by ruling an execution-style death as suicide while failing to notice a  bullet hole in the victim’s neck and the bullet lodged in his jaw.

Grant Fredericks has a bachelor’s degree in Communications fromGonzagaUniversity, a Catholic Jesuit university inSpokane,Washingtonand has had no training in photogrammetry and no more expertise in the science of making measurements by use of photographs than the average layperson. A Commission found fault with his methodology in a particular case: “In the absence of such expertise, his opinion deserves no greater weight than the opinion of any other careful observer.” He was caught lying on the stand about his company’s ties to Taser, and was obviously trying to support a police cover-up.

The UN Special Rapporteur describes Mr Spivack as  “formerly a Forensic Multimedia Analyst with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (LVMPD), and a calibration laboratory specialist for the US Air Force. He is a member of the AmericanCollegeof Forensic Examiners Institute, is a Certified Forensic Consultant, and has been qualified as an expert witness on forensic video analysis in courts throughout the US.”  Spivack only worked with LVMPD for just eight months during 2008-2009. The ACFE  has a membership of 20,000 and anyone can become a member by simply paying a membership fee. Spivack appears to be a not very successful self-employed  private investigator (he filed bankruptcy in 2003),with little verifiable work experience, and flaky credentials.

….  Unreliable Witnesses: One of the prominent interviewees in the Channel 4 programme was a young woman with a London Asian accent. …  In the Channel 4  programme, Gnanakumar [Damilvany] described how she worked with Dr Shanmugarajah – “a great person”-  at Mullivaykkal hospital while it was being shelled by the Sri Lankan Army. She describes helping Dr Shanmugarajah to amputate, without anaesthetic, an arm and a leg of a six-year-old boy, using what appeared to be a kitchen knife.

This was shocking. However, Dr Shanmugarajah has been interviewed[i] and he says he never performed a single amputation, or indeed any surgical procedure, without anaesthetic. He also said that the government kept the hospital well supplied with drugs and food. He said his hospital was never shelled by the Sri Lankan army.

Gnanakumar was not a humanitarian trying to do her bit in a hospital. She was ordered to work in the hospital by the senior LTTE officer known as Castro. InLondon, she was women’s co-ordinator for the Tamil Youth Organisation an LTTE front. In Killinochchi 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 the cyanide capsule obligatory for LTTE cadres around her neck. Gnanakumar was fully-fledged Tamil Tiger. As long ago as September 2009, Gnanakumar was discredited. Why is Channel 4 still treating her as an independent witness?

Another of Channel 4’s main witnesses is Gordon Weiss, an Australian who used to work for the UN inColombo. He confidently states the hospital doctors requested the ICRC to stop using GPS because the government forces were using it to target the hospitals in the shelling attacks. Weiss says he has reliable information that there were 65 attacks on the hospitals. Dr Shanmugarajah says this is “an absurd lie”. Dr Varatharajah of Mullaithivu hospital also says Weiss is mistaken.

….   IDP Camps: The Channel 4 programme includes a solemn sequence about the brutality of life in the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps. The emotions are manipulated by sinister soundtrack music. B Lynn Pascoe, Under Secretary of the United Nations for Political Affairs, visited the IDP camps in September 2009 and said “You have a better story than is getting out today.” Mr. Pascoe stated that he was “impressed by the work done by the Army, the demining teams, the UN staff and the civil society” and that the team also witnessed the rehabilitation work that was underway. He also stated that in Jaffna, they were able to feel that the people were looking forward to getting more opportunities and that there was a feeling that a “whole era was waiting for them”. Things have greatly improved since then. Even then there were banks with ATMs, shops and schools with children studying for and passing exams. [i]

Rape: Channel 4  interviews a couple of women in the IDP camps who claimed to have been raped by soldiers. They are filmed in darkness and their names are not given. The Adaderana TV film includes numerous interviews with women in IDP camps who say that they are shamed by allegations of rape and vehemently deny that they have heard about anyone being raped. Even former LTTE female combatants praise theSLA for always behaving like gentlemen.

Rape is a terrible crime. Rape as a systematic policy and weapon of war is even more appalling. The Darusman report cites pictures of naked LTTE female cadres as evidence that they “may have been raped or sexually assaulted”. Hillary Clinton made a similar charge against the Sri Lankan armed forces some time ago but withdrew it. If rapes did take place they should be investigated and the culprits severely punished. Neither the Channel 4 programme nor the Darusman report supplies evidence of individual crimes and certainly no evidence that rape was government policy. The language used in the report is strangely vague.

Para 152 of the Darusman report says: “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”. 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”.

Darusman Report: … Channel 4 conveys the idea of this being a war without witnesses. There were a great many people in the Wanni even though they were not white. They have given testimony. If there were no international observers in the LTTE-held areas after February 10 2009, where did the Darusman panel get the information on which they based their allegations? It seems that they got their “credible allegations” from some NGOs, but mainly LTTE organisations in the west. The report uses information provided by unnamed sources which are not sourced in the footnotes. The word “credible” is used often 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. These are more like internet rumours than hard fact. Allegations  become “credible allegations” and morph into “credible evidence”.

UN Role: The UN left the Wanni at the end of September 2008, but continued to send food convoys deep into LTTE territory, returning to base at Vavuniya after each trip. On January 21 2009, a convoy delivering food to Puthukudiruppu (PTK) returned to Vavuniya after being stuck for four days because of fighting. Two UN staffers stayed back and set up an unauthorised “UN hub” in Susantirapuram. This was in direct contravention of UN General Assembly Resolution A/RES/46/182 of 1991. The UN hub was deliberately located between two hostile military forces and the two UN personnel did not follow basic UN rules for humanitarian workers in conflict zones. The panel report says that a heavy assault on Puthukudiruppu was clearly imminent. The LTTE was firing on the army from the vicinity of the UN hub, thereby inviting the army to fire back. Civilians were encouraged to move into the danger zone by the presence of the UN handing out food. If it had not been for the UN presence the civilians could have been dispersed out of harm’s way. UN members cannot ignore the fact that two junior UN officials took it upon themselves to set up a UN hub in the middle of a war zone, with no authorization from the government.

In the final stages in 2009 they did similar things. The US State Department first started getting reports of PTK hospital being shelled when the army was 30 kilometres away from it and in no position to shell. An unspecified number of civilians were said to have been killed at PTK hospital on January 2 2009. On January 12, two patients were said to have been killed in further shelling. On January 29 at least 21 people were said to have been killed in heavy shelling. PTK was not a large hospital and would be unlikely to remain standing after such sustained heavy shelling. In fact, US observers were surprised to find that satellite pictures taken on 28 January showed that the hospital “did not show visible signs of damage and was still functioning”.

On January 29, the ICRC and the UN evacuated the PTK hospital taking 226 civilian patients and family members in an ambulance and bus convoy to Vavuniya. The hospital should then have been closed. The SL Army was on the verge of taking PTK town. However, wounded LTTE cadres remained in the hospital and  PTK became, in effect, an LTTE hospital from January 29. This is confirmed on Page 26 of the panel’s report.

According to a US State Department report, on February 1, the LTTE fired on the army from near the hospital.

On February 4, the remaining LTTE patients and captive staff went to Puthumathalan, on the coast in another no fire zone. The ICRC evacuated 14,000 civilian patients by ship between February 10 and May 18. The panel’s report does not mention any backlog of civilians left behind . The report says the three hospitals were shelled but does not give any proof. The report does concede that the LTTE positioned artillery among civilians. Retaliatory fire is permitted in such situations under Protocol II of the Geneva conventions.  

There is no space here to examine all the claims made by the panel. The purpose of the above is to show that all the information in the report about shelling of hospitals and civilians has been drawn from tainted LTTE sources.

…  Why is Sri Lanka such a Villain to the West?…. Namini Wijedasa: :”The call for a credible investigation would be infinitely more effective if the global human rights industry were to show some fairness in its campaign -something it consistently fails to do. If the argument is that the vanquished are dead, leaving only the victors to be hounded, this is not so. Representatives of the LTTE are still active abroad and could be prosecuted.” … The incidents do not seem to fit the Nuremberg criteria. They do not compare in magnitude to the war crimes perpetrated by the USA and UK over the decades and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. …

… Writing on Groundviews,[iii] Harendra Alwis says …  “Sinhalese and Tamils of Sri Lanka do not have the luxury of being able to pass judgement on each other and prosecute each other because their destinies are tightly intertwined.” In this context Channel 4’s intervention seems mischievous and malicious. Alwis is worried that “any threat of international investigations could actually be a catalyst for reigniting the fires of violence in a population whose majority is already feeling insecure and under attack … Though well-meaning proponents of such an investigation may seek to achieve justice and reconciliation, it would achieve exactly the opposite with dreadful consequences for the people of Sri Lanka.”


 [i] http://agonist.org/padraig_colman/20090808/sri_lanka_s_displaced_people_part_1

 [iii] http://groundviews.org/2011/07/10/sri-lankas-war-burden-two-years-on”.


Filed under australian media, citizen journalism, historical interpretation, IDP camps, life stories, LTTE, news fabrication, Rajapaksa regime, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, Tamil civilians, terrorism, welfare & philanthophy, world events & processes

25 responses to “Evaluating the “Churnalism” from Channel 4 and the Moon Panel

  1. “This is undoubtedly the best article I have read on the inconsistencies in the Channel 4 video documentary and the campaign built on its basis. Thanks for sharing it. If you can kindly convey my sentiments to the author.” — A COMMENT BY MURALI REDDY who was the Frontline and Hindu Correspondent in Lanka for many years right through to the last stages of Eelam war IV [see http://www.flickr.com/photos/thuppahi/sets/72157626797805167/ AND http://www.flickr.com/photos/thuppahi/sets/72157626797848747/ ]

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  3. Terrific work! This is the kind of information that are supposed to be shared across the net. Disgrace on Google for not positioning this publish upper! Come on over and visit my website . Thanks =)

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  6. Asanka W

    Daniel Spitz Integrity in Question over two murder cases (Rob Simpson) . Enjoy the so called UN experts opinion

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