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How Adrian Anthony Gill Critiqued Channel 4 Documentary on Sri Lanka

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by Hemantha Warnakulasuriya

I was informed by an agent, allegedly working for ‘Digos’, the Secret Police of Italy, that certain video clips were being prepared by the LTTE to bolster its claim that the Sri Lankan soldiers committed war crimes.

This was to be used internationally by the LTTE as proof of atrocities committed by the government of Sri Lanka. According to the informant, Prabahkaran was certain that the LTTE would be able to push back the Sri Lankan army to its pre-war position.

Then this video footage would be used to influence the International community to intervene in Sri Lanka. I gave this information to those who mattered and after the war was over the Sri Lankan Diaspora in Italy invited Major General Shavendra Fernando. He was accompanied by photographer Ramawickrama, who covered the war.

I told them of the possibility of the LTTE releasing the video footage even after the war in order to gain sympathy of the International community.

When finally Channel 4 brought out a documentary depicting the war crimes, allegedly committed by Sri Lankan solders, there was an international outcry to try the high officials of the Sri Lankan government and the war heroes, for war crimes, at the International War Crimes Tribunal at Hague. The LTTE, though badly defeated and their spirits deflated, had made a resurgence, in the international scene, with the documentary aired by the Channel 4.

The LTTE meticulously used this video footage and resources to popularise this video produced by an internationally reputed television broadcaster like the ‘Channel 4’.

The propaganda blitz that was independently carried out by the LTTE with the help of western journalists who were starved of international news that bleeds. As Gill points out, ‘news that bleeds, Leads’. LTTE was very suave to give the impression to the European Community that an independent television station had produced the video, and had taken responsibility for its contents.

‘Channel 4’ had earlier produced much video footage on the Serbian Massacre and even what Charles Taylor did in Liberia.

The ‘Channel 4’ and the ‘LTTE rump’ strived to telecast the video through the most popular TV channels in Italy. Before Channels 4 contacted them, I was able to send a dossier, prepared by the Sri Lankan Defence Ministry, countering the allegations contained in the video. I used, along with the propaganda material, submitted to me through the Defence Ministry, the article which was published in the Sunday Times of U.K. As this was a short newspaper article, published in one of the most prestigious newspaper in the world, I was able to translate it into Italian and send it to all the broadcasters and other agents who supply material to the media.

This article is reproduced below. It has been written by one of the leading journalists attached to the Sunday Times, Adrian Anthony Gill. He is the Sunday Times Restaurant Reviewer and television critic. He is considered by most Europeans as one of the shiniest stars among all critics in all fields. He tormented his victims with vituperative jabs. This piece on Channel 4 video had a devastating effect. When the LTTE were trying to establish that it was the footage shot by ‘Channel 4’ journalists, he pondered.

The conclusions were hilarious as it was assumed to be a hoax, perpetrated on Channel 4, by the LTTE, for the consumption of blinded gullible ill-informed Europeans. No one in our Embassy or the finest translator could translate the subtle nuances and the pungent rhetoric Gill displayed with consummate skill, which would have traduced the spirit of the LTTE and their agent John Snow.

This was what Gill wrote “Choosing to Die [Terry Prachett’s BBC 2 documentary on euthanasia] was billed, hyperbolically, as the first time the moment of death has been shown on television. It isn’t. Not by many, many deaths. What they meant was the first death of a white western man in a sitting room; there is death all over television all the time. Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields, Channel 4’s documentary on that country’s civil war, was made up of little else but the moment of death. Just before we get into it, I am going to pause, yet again, to have an eye-rolling weary word about John Snow’s comic ties and jocund socks. And to explain why I mind and why they matter. The ugly garish ties are worn to semaphore the fact that this is a chap who is only wearing a suit because the headmaster says he must. Inside, he is really a far more relaxed, counterculture kind of dude, not at all the establishment flunky, the two-piece single-breasted implies. It is a pathetically and worryingly childish pose in a man approaching retirement who wants what comes out of his mouth to be taken seriously. Back to the programme.

“Channel 4 has been flogging this story for more than a year, ever since it was given an unattributed but disturbing clip of footage that appeared to show Tamil Tiger prisoners being executed. It has shown it so often, to righteously harangue the Sri Lankan ambassador and various spokesmen, that now nobody will talk to it.

The channel has accumulated a large collection of samizdat amateur footage from mobile phones and video cameras – mostly unattributed and uncorroborated. It mixes this footage with comment from unnamed sources with distorted voices and shadowed faces and human rights lawyers. It was brutal, it was shocking, but it wasn’t journalism.

Not a second of this has been shot by Channel 4; none of the eyewitness accounts comes from journalists.

Snow’s commentary was intemperate and partisan, and it was all held together by assumptions. Channel 4 News has drifted from providing news broadcasts into being an outlet for nodding spokespeople and assorted NGOs and environmental pressure groups, or anyone who can provide interesting or sensational film. It follows the old American news adage, “If it bleeds, it leads”.

What was depressing about this particularly bloody special was not just that it had precious little context or considered thought, but that the people who will suffer most from it are not governments or soldiers, but the victims of this brutal war, who deserve a more measured professionalism and due diligence, and who deserve better than this compilation of gore, topped and tailed by a man in a comedy tie.

Finally, the most demeaning and prurient part of it all was the penises of the naked men, being executed, were smudged out, as if they were the shocking part. And the pubic hair of abused and murdered women was coyly pixillated so as not to be titillating. The horror of war tidied up like Japanese porn, to save us the embarrassment and distaste of having to look at the genitals of the dead.

This was a piece of politically correct sanitising that was degrading and humiliating for the viewer and the viewed, but was symbolic of this programme’s contorted news agenda. It really was the most astonishing and misjudged editorial decision from a news broadcaster that has grown into the habit of poor judgment on almost everything. Channel 4 News once had clever and astute reporters; now it boasts a revolving handful of Autocue readers with hair issues. And its arts coverage, which was by far the best of any terrestrial news, is now ill-informed, naff and embarrassing. This documentary was a low point in a continuing slump.

What both, ‘Choosing to Die’ and the Sri Lankan documentary suffered from in different ways was empathy – which is very popular in documentaries these days. What both should have had was a buttoned-up sober detachment.”

The article had a devastating effect on the reader and neither the LTTE nor their agent John Snow was able to penetrate the sanctum sanatorium of media, the Italian Media Empire, not even in provincial television channel, till I left Italy.

The same letter was given to other Ambassadors who used the script of Mr Gill to good effect to counter malicious specious propaganda unleashed through Jonathan Miller and the Channel 4

(Presidents Counsel Hemantha Warnakulasuriya served as Sri Lanka’s ambassador in Rome)

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