In November I sat for an hour and a half in a film studio at the Barbican in London, watching, mesmerised, a film that traced the 21-year battle by the Sunday Times in the 1970s to get compensation for the victims of Thalidomide, and find out why such a terrible drug was ever sold. Pitted against the lawyers of a wealthy multi-million pound organisation determined to defen d its commercial property, it showed reporters and editors painstakingly following clues, testing evidence, turning into scientists to understand how drugs work, becoming lawyers so that they could challenge their opponents, befriending the families whose children had been born horribly damaged because of a drug that had first been tried out in the death camps of Nazi Germany. It was an exercise in investigation which few if any newspaper would contemplate taking on today.
Its hero was my old editor, Harry Evans, who was there at the showing, a bit bent at the age of 87, a bit less steady on his feet, but still eloquent on the subject of his campaign, and still angry at the monstrous injustice of a company that had used all its resources to prevent the truth coming out. Even now, 40 years after those events, he was still overcome with emotion at the cruelty of it all.
I learnt investigative journalism at Evans’s feet, but also from great Sunday Times reporters like Bruce Page, Phil Knightley, Godfrey Hogson, Murray Sayle and John Barry. They viewed it as an art, a science, and a discipline which required constant challenge. There were certain rules that had to be learnt. Never rely on evidence from a single source; never jump to conclusions; two facts, however firm, do not necessarily link up as final proof; always question the motives of a witness who is telling you things; set out with a theory, but be prepared to abandon it for a better one if the facts don’t stack up; remember, most stories come down to two simple propositions: 'we name the guilty man’ or 'arrow points to defective part'.
When, therefore, I first became interested in the Lockerbie story, this was my starting point. Because, another rule from those days was: if everyone seems to agree about a theory, it is probably worth challenging. Harry Evans did exactly that when he began a campaign on the Northern Echo to prove the innocence of Timothy Evans, who had been hanged for the murders at Ten Rillington Place; he succeeded by finally amassing the incontrovertible evidence that pointed to the wife-murderer, John Christie, and won Evans a posthumous pardon.
The consensus I wanted to question was, ironically, the reverse of that – to suggest a correct verdict rather than an unsafe one. Over the past 20 years or so, a long campaign has been waged by a variety of reporters, lawyers, and relatives, to demonstrate that the Scottish courts which convicted the Libyan, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, for his role in the Lockerbie bombing, were guilty of a miscarriage of justice; that Libya was never involved; that judges, counsel, police and intelligence agencies deliberately turned a blind eye to faulty or planted evidence; that the outcome of the biggest investigation ever handled in Scotland was a legal travesty that stands to this day as a stain on the reputation of the nation’s judicial system.
And most people seemed to agree. In the course of a session at the Edinburgh International Book Festival some years ago, one panel member, who argued the case, was asked whether it was his view that every judge and lawyer who had presided over the Lockerbie trial had knowingly participated in a miscarriage of justice. He said: yes it was; and the audience applauded.
At that stage a basic Sunday Times rule kicked in; if everyone agreed, then there was a strong possibility that they were wrong. At the very least it was worth a challenge. It was, after all, a pretty sensational accusation, and, if true, did indeed undermine one’s faith in Scottish justice. So, reluctantly, I began the task of tracking back the roots of the allegation. Reluctantly, because, although I had lived with the Lockerbie story for 25 years, there were an awful lot of false trails to follow, tedious in detail, murky in evidence, full of innuendo but lacking hard facts.
I did think, however, that it was worth going back to basics, researching the original court documents, reading the investigation carried out by the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission (SCCRC) and talking to lawyers who had been involved in the case. It made a decent starting point. If they were all involved in a massive cover-up, it would at the very least be worth looking them in the eye and seeing if I could detect the guilt.
All of this landed me with the unflattering description – 'the Crown Office’s chief media cheerleader' – given to me recently by John Ashton, who revived his case for the claimants in the Scottish Review. It reminded me of another Sunday Times rule: 'if they go for you, you’re probably on the right lines'.
What puzzled me was why, if the Libya connection was so patently false, no firm evidence had emerged in the course of the 27 years since the atrocity, to blow the Crown case out of the water – no witnesses coming out of the woodwork to nail the evidence, no deathbed confessions, above all, nothing that would convince a serious lawyer to re-open the case. There was no lack of allegation and conjecture, of course, but nothing that would stand up in court. Without a Sunday Times insight team to spend a decade sifting the real evidence, all we were left with was an angry set of accusations.
Then, earlier this year, a piece of serious investigation did emerge, in the shape of a three-part TV documentary by Ken Dornstein, whose brother had died in the Lockerbie disaster. He had spent some 15 years patiently following leads, travelling to Libya, tracking down shadowy witnesses, interviewing agents. He looked carefully into the various conspiracy theories, but found nothing to lure him away from Libya. What he did discover was something that even the prosecution case had overlooked – clear evidence pointing to the identity of a dark-skinned Libyan bomb-maker, Abu Agila Mas’ud, a former intelligence officer, who had been in Malta with Megrahi in the weeks leading up to the Lockerbie bombing, and who was there to greet him on his return to Libya after being released from a Scottish prison.
Dornstein traced him through a contact in Berlin, a former convicted terrorist, who identified Mas’ud as one of those involved in an attack on the La Belle nightclub in Berlin in April 1986. Dornstein showed his contact a picture of Mas’ud in a Libyan court-room, and then as a shadowy figure, seen in news footage, welcoming Megrahi, the only man convicted of the bombing, on his return to Tripoli in 2009. Dornstein’s contact was as certain as he could be that it was Abu Agila Mas’ud. And there was one other telling piece of evidence: the number of the passport Mas’ud had used in Berlin was the same as the one he had used two years later in Malta.
So here was a known bomb-maker, taking the trouble to go to the airport to greet a man who was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing. Circumstantial? You bet. But then, the circumstantial evidence against Megrahi is so telling that it is almost impossible to unpick. Mas’ud is now in a Libyan jail, convicted of (unrelated) bombing offences.
And here is a curious thing. In his SR article, Ashton writes: 'We have always known that on the morning of the bombing Masud [sic] was on the same flight as Megrahi from Malta to Tripoli and that they had been on other flights together in the previous weeks'.
We have always known? I have checked back on three of Ashton’s books. In the first ('Megrahi – You are my Jury') there is one reference to an Abougela Masoud, who was said by a prosecution witness to have been on a Malta flight with Megrahi; but Ashton says the evidence was unreliable, because the witness 'was lying in his teeth'. In the other two there is no reference to him at all. So, we may have always known, but we have not always been told. This is known in the lawyer’s trade as suppressio veri – omit any evidence that might undermine your story; in the Sunday Times rule-book that was a firing offence.
I liked Dornstein’s approach to the investigation, and, to be fair, so did both Ashton, and the veteran campaigner Dr Jim Swire, though they disagree with his conclusions. Dornstein, in turn, respects Dr Swire, and got on well with him – Dornstein’s father too was a doctor. He is modest in his claims, describing his investigation as merely 'a foot in the door' in the search for truth. He never criticises those who take a different view, and indeed, sits down with Dr Swire and takes him through the evidence step by step. What, he asks Dr Swire, does he make of the fact that Megrahi was in Malta in the days leading up the bombing, in the company of a known bomb-maker? It is clear that Dr Swire is disconcerted. So would anyone be.
But the reason that Dornstein has, in my view, come closer to the truth than any other investigator, is because he has followed the evidence, tested it fairly, and never jumped to conclusions. He has tracked down real people and spoken to them. He has been to Libya and talked to witnesses. He has never overplayed his hand.
He says that, as the cast-list of activists was assembled and identified, he began to get a grasp that these were real people rather than just names. By the time he was in a position to make his three-part documentary (which was aired in Britain on the PBS channel) he believed he could name the organiser of the plot, the bomb-maker, and the man who first ordered the bombing.
'You start to get a more visceral sense of who did what,' he says. 'When you put them in the picture you start to understand where Megrahi really fits in. It starts to seem as if you are looking at them through a keyhole, then you widen the aperture and the whole story starts to make a lot more sense.'
By contrast, Ashton and his supporters are still clinging to stories that have been tested and found wanting, thus breaking that Sunday Times rule about abandoning a theory when it doesn’t stand up. The connection to Palestinian rather than Libyan terrorists, which Ashton prefers, was examined in great detail by the SCCRC, which was looking specifically at possible grounds for appeal; it found that the evidence which was said to link them broke down at crucial points; suggestions that Heathrow Airport was where the bomb was loaded again have no concrete evidence to back them; an entire book has been written on the Heathrow connection, but nothing has emerged to give it the kind of validity which would stand up in court.
And then there is the theory of the fake, or possibly planted timer fragment. This suggests that the fragment of bomb timer, found on the site, was different in critical respects from the one that pointed the forensic finger at Libya. It must therefore have been planted, tampered with, or substituted at some stage, possibly by the CIA. Ashton is convinced it is suspect evidence, but is reluctant to say who might have been responsible for introducing it. Dornstein, in his patient way, takes Edwin Bollier, the Swiss manufacturer, who supplied the timer to the Libyans, through his evidence, but finds he has told so many contradictory stories over time that nothing he says can be trusted.
The best analysis has been done by the SCCRC, which found nothing to undermine the clear link between the timer and the Libyans. Ashton and others say that the commission did an inadequate job. But in my view the quality of its research was outstanding. It dissected most of the conspiracy theories and found them wanting. And it was even-handed, producing six grounds for possible appeal, including the questionable evidence provided by Tony Gauci, the man who owned the Maltese shop where the bomb clothes were bought. Whether those grounds would have been enough to reverse the original verdict is, at best, doubtful.
For me, I like the famous Sherlock Holmes quote: 'Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth'. It was quite a favourite of the Sunday Times team too. Here is Megrahi, in the company of a known Libyan bomb-maker, travelling to Malta in the days leading up to the bombing. Here is Megrahi, leaving immediately after the bomb is said to have been loaded, to return to Tripoli. Here are clothes, purchased in Malta, found wrapping the bomb fragments. Here is the same bomb-maker, welcoming Megrahi back to Libya on his release. And if, indeed, someone swapped that timer fragment in order to implicate Libya, how did that person know in advance that Megrahi would be in the right place at the right time to cop the charge?
Would the Sunday Times Insight team have agreed? I wish I knew. It would probably have dug deeper, gone further, questioned the evidence, searched for the last telling detail. But my feeling is that in the long run it would have backed Dornstein rather than Ashton, preferring hard evidence to speculation. Of course we need more proof, and of course there are still mysteries to uncover. Lockerbie is unfinished business, and there are grieving families, desperate to know what lay behind it. With terrorism once again staining the civilised world, the search must go on for those who planned and carried out the attack.
But I think we can be confident that Scottish prosecutors got the right man.