Kenny MacAskill: I encountered fake news long before Trump

Trump did not create fake news, I was pilloried over a Libyan celebration that didn't happen, writes Kenny MacAskill.

Freed Lockerbie bomber Megrahis welcoming crowd appeared large only because Libyan TV spliced it with another event, says Kenny.
Freed Lockerbie bomber Megrahis welcoming crowd appeared large only because Libyan TV spliced it with another event, says Kenny.

Fake news is a phrase that has recently entered the political lexicon. It’s compounded by half-truths and disinformation that distorts the reality of what really happened.

For many people these can appear as facts, as they’re reported as truths and sometimes even the evidence before them seems to confirm that. But, they’re false. Much of this is considered to be a recent invention and even an American import. However, its happened oft times before and in the UK as well.
I know, as I have seen it when I was Justice Secretary. I’m not talking about a simple distortion in reporting which happened from time to time. Once, I recall a newspaper noted for its fulminating about law and order running a story under banner headlines that read, “MacAskill to give anonymity to gays”. It said that I was going to allow the LGBT community to be given anonymity, if giving evidence in court.

When I saw the piece, I was staggered and investigated, as I knew nothing about it.

The reality was a criminal justice bill had a section that would allow for anonymity for witnesses in certain situations. The scenario being legislated for was in fact for police officers who go undercover and infiltrate drug gangs and other criminal enterprises. For their own and their family’s protection such provisions may be necessary on occasion. I’ve met such officers and know the work they do. It’s a tough task and a dangerous role. They deserve our protection. No other scenario was ever anticipated or was being provided for. The newspaper story was simply their prejudice against a section of our community.

But there was far worse and much more sinister in actions that related to my decision to release Al Megrahi. It is supported by some and disagreed with by others, as their right and entitlement. It’s a decision I stand by now, as then. However, there are things that only came to light after I demitted office and began to research for my book on Lockerbie. They disclosed some information that had been suppressed and other facts that had been distorted, by both the British and American governments.

Other than the decision to release Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds, the loudest criticism was reserved for the so-called hero’s welcome he received on his return to Libya. As with others, I saw it unfold on television when the plane carrying him landed at Tripoli Airport. It was immediately clear there would be a problem because of what was being shown with jubilant crowds celebrating. Assurances had been sought and given by the Libyans that no such triumphalism would be shown, out of respect to the victim’s families. It appeared that had been breached and huge criticism followed including from both UK and US Governments.

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, and even President Obama, expressed outrage.

I had to accept it had occurred and that our requests had been ignored, although I was somewhat perplexed by a former UK Ambassador to Libya who had supported the release and who had argued that the reception was relatively low key. However, I had seen the TV footage myself, and the camera doesn’t lie.

But, it had. A book published by a State Department official who served in Libya during that period, and subsequent WikiLeaks documents, showed the reality.

The reception at the airport was relatively low key and adhered to assurances given, as reports from Americans on the ground back to Washington disclosed. However, Libyan TV had spliced the footage with an entirely separate event on-going in a central square in Tripoli that had nothing to do with the release of Megrahi, and where people were oblivious to it.

However, conjoining the two events made it look as if there was rejoicing in the streets, which there wasn’t. It was not just the Scottish Government that had made request that there be no triumphalism, but the US authorities had also threatened reprisals if there were. The WikiLeaks documents confirmed that the Libyans had adhered. That didn’t stop the British and American Governments from fulminating about the supposed celebrations, when they knew differently.

Similarly, there have always been accusations about a deal for oil. And there was more than one, but none that the Scottish Government was involved in. At the time of the row over a prisoner transfer agreement (PTA) being entered into between the UK and Libya, the British Justice Secretary made it clear to me the importance of the agreement to BP. They were in competition with the American company Halliburton for a major contract and it was clear that this was part of it. That, however, was denied by the UK Government.

As it was, the Scottish Government opposed the PTA and I refused the application. I did though grant compassionate release as Al Megrahi met the criteria and I believe that it’s the humane thing to do.

However, later investigations showed that another deal for oil preceded all those events.

They showed that in 2004, Tony Blair embraced Colonel Gadhafi in the Libyan desert. The following day Shell petroleum got a commercial deal with the Libyans worth £550 million. But there was something in it for the Libyans too. Days after that, MI6 handed over a Libyan dissident to the Americans, who in turn returned him to Gadhafi for torture and imprisonment. It was to be the start of many such renditions to the despot.

It didn’t stop there, though, as both military equipment and even training by the Police Service of Northern Ireland was provided to the Libyan regime. All of that came to light in reports and leaks.

But the British and Americans condemned me and the Scottish Government for our actions, yet had been not just dealing but arming and returning dissidents for torture.

So, aye, there’s facts and even things that you can see with your own eyes but they can be distorted. It’s not just Donald Trump who has been up to it.