John Coates

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(journalist)
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John Coates investigating the Lockerbie bombing in Al Jazeera's "Flight into Darkness"

John Coates is an investigative journalist who appeared in a number of television documentaries including Granada TV's "World In Action" series in the 1980s, the BBC’s "Panorama" programme, Channel 4 Television and more recently Al Jazeera's "People & Power" series which investigated the 1988 Lockerbie bombing.[1]

Before creating the media and PR firm Parkshot Communications in 1994, John Coates worked for more than 20 years as a journalist with a number of UK national newspapers, including The Sunday Times and The Sunday Telegraph.[2] He also worked as a reporter, sub-editor and production journalist on local newspapers and trade/technical publications, including Construction News.[3]

Interviewing Bernt Carlsson

John Coates interviewed United Nations Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, in Granada TV’s World In Action documentary "The Case of the Disappearing Diamonds" and narrated this introduction:

"The United Nations Council for Namibia enacted in 1974 a Decree for the Protection of the Natural Resources of Namibia, under which no person or entity could search for, take or distribute any natural resources found in Namibia without the Council's permission. Any person or entity contravening the Decree could be held liable for damages by the future government of an independent Namibia. Companies like De Beers have ignored the law but now attitudes at the UN are beginning to harden."
How De Beers were illegally exploiting billions of pounds-worth of Namibia's diamond gemstones
The man responsible for Namibia under international law, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and UN Commissioner for Namibia, Bernt Carlsson, was asked about Namibia's diamonds:
"The corporation has been trying to skim the cream which means they have gone for the large diamonds at the expense of the steady pace. In this way they have really shortened the lifespan of the mines. One would expect from a worldwide corporation like De Beers and Anglo American that they would behave with an element of social and political responsibility. But their behaviour in the specific case of Namibia has been one of profit maximisation regardless of its social, economic, political and even legal responsibility. The United Nations this year [1987] in July started legal action against one such firm – the Dutch company URENCO which imports uranium."

John Coates: "Will you be taking action against other companies such as De Beers?"

Bernt Carlsson replied: "All the companies which are carrying out activities in Namibia which have not been authorised by the United Nations are being studied at present."

World In Action documentary "The Case of the Disappearing Diamonds" was broadcast by Thames Television on 28 September 1987.[4][5]

(Credits:

Camera: Howard Somers;
Sound: David Woods;
Film Editors: Oral Ottey, John Rutherford;
Dubbing Mixer: John Whitworth;
Production Assistants: Adele McLoughlin, Judith Fraser;
Investigation by: Laurie Flynn and John Coates;
Editor: Stuart Prebble;
Executive Producer: Ray Fitzwalter;
Granada Television MCMLXXXVII.)

Bernt Carlsson was the highest profile victim of the Lockerbie bombing of 21 December 1988.

Interviewing Patrick Haseldine

Laurie Flynn, investigative journalist

In April 2007, John Coates and his World In Action colleague Laurie Flynn invited former British diplomat Patrick Haseldine to a pub lunch near London's Liverpool Street station. They were keen to hear more about Haseldine's theory that UN Commissioner for Namibia Bernt Carlsson had been targeted on Pan Am Flight 103 by apartheid South Africa. Patrick Haseldine first suspected the involvement of the apartheid regime in the Lockerbie bombing when he heard South African foreign minister Pik Botha's interview with the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme on 11 January 1989. On that day Botha – along with other international representatives including UN Secretary-General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar – was in Stockholm to attend the memorial service for Bernt Carlsson. Botha told the BBC that he had been forced to make a last-minute change in his own booking on Pan Am Flight 103 because of a warning by an intelligence source that he (Botha) was being targeted by Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (see Perfect alibi for Lockerbie).

As a result of the meeting, both John Coates and Laurie Flynn undertook to examine the BBC archives to find the transcript of Pik Botha's interview by Sue MacGregor on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme in January 1989.

Lockerbie bombing probe

On 1 July 2007, Al Jazeera TV broadcast a People & Power "Lockerbie bombing probe" looking into the findings of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which had been reviewing the conviction of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi after Pan Am Flight 103 was bombed over Scotland in 1988, killing 270 people. The SCCRC published their report on 28 June 2007. Many believe that Megrahi's conviction is unsafe and claim that there has long been a "cover-up of convenience".[6] The Lockerbie bombing probe was conducted by John Coates and was introduced by Juliana Rufus and directed by Neil Cairns and Eki Rrahmani.[7]

Flight into Darkness

"Flight into Darkness" is the title of John Coates' television documentary investigation of the Lockerbie bombing which was broadcast by Al Jazeera on 22 December 2006.[8][9] The following is a partial transcript of "Flight into Darkness":

Lockerbie today seems a world away from the hellish scenes here 18 years ago. In December 1988, just four days before Christmas, a terrorist bomb exploded on a Pan American Jumbo jet flying between London and New York. 270 people died in the attack, 11 of them residents of the town.
The world was deeply shocked by the tragedy here at Lockerbie. It soon became clear that a bomb had gone off in a suitcase in the aircraft baggage hold. The blast blew a gaping hole in the fuselage, condemning everybody on board to death.
The Lockerbie bombing became the biggest mass murder in British criminal history. But while Al-Megrahi is behind bars, many believe he was wrongly convicted.
Jim Swire: "It appears that political convenience strode into the field and demolished the search for the truth and converted it into a political charade…"
Tam Dalyell: "Libya was scapegoated and had nothing whatever to do with it."
Hans Köchler: "Megrahi is not guilty as charged and for that reason I consider that the verdicts of the trial and the appeal courts as a miscarriage of justice."
Former Scottish MP Tam Dalyell has asked countless parliamentary questions and secured no fewer than 17 debates in the British House of Commons about the Lockerbie bombing:
Q: Do you think there has been a cover up in this?
A: Yes, a huge cover up.
Q: Why do you think that?
A: Because it is too embarrassing for the Governments of the United States and Britain to allow us to get anywhere near the truth.
Dr Jim Swire is leader of a campaign which has been fighting for the truth about what really happened at Lockerbie. He heard all the evidence at the nine-month trial. He lost his eldest daughter, Flora. There was only one item of forensic material that was key to defining the device that might have triggered the bomb that blew up the plane, and that was a small piece of circuit board. The prosecution claimed this tiny fragment came from a digital timer used by the Libyans to set off the bomb. Swire and Dalyell suspect this evidence was planted, in the remains of clothing:
"The fragment was originally found in very early ’89 and it was then put in a police evidence bag, and the bag was labelled 'charred cloth'. This was in January 89 and it doesn’t seem to have been until May 89 that this bag came to the attention of the forensic guys and by the time they got it the label seemed to have been changed and it now read 'charred debris' which is a convenient way of making it appropriate for if you’re going to find something other than just cloth inside the bag when you come to opening it up. And nobody would admit to having changed the label."
Voice over (John Coates): This wasn’t the only change. The court heard how an extra page of forensic notes relating to this fragment had been inserted into a set of notes, with subsequent pages renumbered. The senior forensic officer who wrote them, Dr Thomas Hayes, was asked to explain why by defence barrister Richard Keen:
Keen: Now, when was that change in pagination carried out, Dr Hayes?
Hayes: I'm sorry, I have no idea.
Keen: Why was it carried out, Dr Hayes?
Hayes: I agree, it's a very good question. I'm sure there is a quite innocent explanation, which I have no idea of.
Tam Dalyell:
Q: How do you think that circuit board was found?
A: I think it was planted.
Q: Why do you think that? And by whom?
A: By, frankly, the American authorities. It was planted in order to support a case against Libya which was a very rickety case.
Jim Swire "I did not believe that any circuit board would survive in any recognisable shape whatever from being that close to that charge of Semtex exploding and yet, here we had a fragment which was alleged to have done so and which conveniently retained sufficient characteristics to identify what kind of commercial timer it had been derived from. Furthermore, during the court hearings it was established that nobody had done the basic forensic tests for explosive residues in relation to that fragment, absolutely extraordinary because the fragment was the only thing that pointed to the nature of the timer, so the court never knew whether in fact the fragment it was being shown had actually been anywhere near an explosive because it had never been tested. And these sort of things congregate only round this fragment. There are other things that are deeply worrying about the associated clothing and so on and the suitcase. But this, I think, is the key item that really swung me round to thinking: God, this has been fabricated, this thing’s a set-up."
Voice over (John Coates): For the first 18 months of the Lockerbie investigation, the authorities considered the bombing to be a joint operation between the Syrian-backed Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC), and its paymasters for the attack, the Iranian government. The bomb was allegedly hidden inside a Toshiba radio cassette recorder, a means of concealment known to have been adopted by this terrorist group before. Just two months before the bombing, in a security operation called "Autumn Leaves", West German police had arrested one of its cells with a bomb concealed inside a similar Toshiba model. This bomb had a pressure-sensitive barometric trigger for use in an aircraft attack. Remarkably, some members of this cell were quickly released, including the bomb maker. The American State Department later reported that early intelligence had indicated the PFLP-GC and elements of the Iranian government had planned to attack a US target in retaliation for the accidental shooting down of an Iranian Airbus by a US warship on 3 July 1988. 290 people died in this incident, the Iranians had promised revenge and the Lockerbie bombing came five months later.
Tam Dalyell: "It was vengeance for the shooting down of that Iranian airliner by the USS Vincennes in the Gulf. The airliner that was carrying pilgrims to Mecca and no apology was given."
Voice over (John Coates): The recent Holywood film "Syriana" is based on a book by former CIA officer Robert Baer, much of it about his exploits in the Middle East. He worked on the early stages of his agency’s investigation into Lockerbie.
Robert Baer: "Western intelligence had indisputable evidence that the Iranians were planning to attack aircraft in July 1988. We were aware of an Iranian from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps went to a camp outside Beirut, a Palestinian camp, where he met Dalkamoni, a Palestinian who later became in charge of an operation called "Autumn Leaves" which was to shoot down five airplanes. This Iranian from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps went to Dalkamoni, the Palestinian, and said we are going to pay you money and give you support to blow up five aircraft in revenge for the Americans shooting down the Airbus":
Q: How good was that intelligence?
A: It was Grade A intelligence. It doesn’t get any better. Two days after Lockerbie, there was a transfer payment from Paris to Hungary, which went to the PFLP-GC.
Q: How much money ?
A: It was an 11 million dollar transfer.
Q: So how come the Libyans were suddenly identified as the culprits?
A: Well look at Iran’s population. Look at the threat they posed to the Gulf, to oil. Look at their ability to take reprisals all over the world. It was politically not convenient to go after Iran. Not just inconvenient but impossible.
Robert Baer: "The Libyans were identified as the culprits because they were indictable. They were somebody you could bring to justice. Additionally, they had fragments of evidence, forensics in this chip that was found at Lockerbie, which pointed to the Libyans. It was enough evidence to implicate to a trial. But what happened was neither the prosecution nor the defence was given this exculpatory information about Iran and the Palestinians.
Voice over (John Coates): There are also many who speculate that there were pressing political reasons as well - the build-up to and aftermath of the first Gulf War.
Jim Swire: "This tragedy for our families was set in the context of pretty extreme international political pressures and if we talk about 1990, when suddenly the criminal investigation seemed to switch to accusing Libya, that was a time when America needed to prepare to fight the first Gulf War and in order to do that she needed Syria to be neutral."
It was alleged that the two Libyans had conspired together to plant the Lockerbie bomb at the main airport in Malta. Somehow they had managed to plant a suitcase containing the bomb on an Air Malta fight to Frankfurt, using a false baggage tag. At Frankfurt airport the unaccompanied suitcase had been transferred to a feeder flight to London, as the baggage records appeared to show. And once here at London’s Heathrow airport, the suitcase was then loaded on to Pan Am 103, which took off for New York. Thirty eight minutes later the bomb exploded over Lockerbie.
Voice over (John Coates): Eight years went by before the two Libyans were handed over and put on trial at a specially arranged Scottish court convened in Holland, with three senior judges but no jury. The prosecution struggled to convince the judges that the Libyans were guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Most of the evidence against them was circumstantial. Despite this, after a trial lasting 9 months they convicted Al-Megrahi of murder, a verdict later upheld by an Appeal Court. His co-accused, Fhimah, however was found not guilty. These verdicts surprised many following the trial, including the United Nations special observer Dr Hans Koechler.
Hans Köchler: The verdict was basically inconsistent and the formulation of the verdict, the opinion of the court which has been issued after the trial and after the appeal, according to my own evaluation, was not logically consistent and was not convincing. I mean the splitting in the sense of declaring one person guilty and the other one not guilty was not logical. No one with reason, will believe that a lone person would have been able to organise such a terrorist attack.
Voice over (John Coates): Serious doubts have remained about many other discrepancies that emerged during the trial. Particularly the evidence of a Maltese shopkeeper, Tony Gauci. He allegedly sold Megrahi clothes found at Lockerbie and linked to the bomb. Gauci described the customer as six feet tall and about 50 years old. Megrahi is 5 foot 8 and was 36 at the time.
Tam Dalyell: "He got Megrahi’s height completely wrong, which is odd for a man who was a tailor and then there was this whole business as to the date on which it supposedly happened."
Voice over (John Coates): Gauci said it was definitely raining when the clothes were bought, because he sold the man an umbrella as well. His shop assistant was also away watching football that day. This left two possible dates. November 23rd, 1988 when Al-Megrahi could prove he was not in Malta. The other, two weeks later on December 7th, when he was there. A weather expert gave evidence there was a 90% chance that it was not raining on this December date and if it was, not enough to wet the ground. Despite this, the trial judges concluded he had bought the clothes, on the December date.
Jim Swire:
Q: What did you make of that?
A: Well it gave the impression that everything had to fit with a preconceived outcome I’m afraid and that is a concept that seems to run through all the events between the disaster and the start of the trial. There seem to have been a concept that had to be fitted.
Voice over (John Coates): Dennis Phipps is an aviation security expert and a former head of security at British Airways. In 1990, in a separate civil court case, he was hired by Air Malta to examine evidence and witness statements relating to the Lockerbie bombing, at Malta, Frankfurt and London’s Heathrow Airport.
Dennis Phipps:
Q: How tight was security generally at Malta’s Luqa airport when you investigated the situation there?
A: It was good in accordance with the standards of the time.
Q: Now you checked the paperwork and you interviewed baggage loaders from Air Malta. What did you find?
A: I felt quite satisfied that they had carried out a physical count, they knew exactly the number of bags they had put onto an aircraft. Furthermore, there is no record that any passenger who travelled on that flight reported that their hold baggage had not out-turned, which would, to my mind, preclude the possibility of a bag being substituted for a bag checked in by a passenger. There was no direct evidence of an unaccompanied bag on the flight.
Robert Baer: "Look, I used to teach explosives. The last thing you want to do is put a bomb in place like Malta and have two stops on the way, especially with a barometric switch. You couldn’t count on airplanes being on time. This was around Christmas time and airplanes are always delayed. Baggage is always lost. Planes turn around. You couldn’t count on this thing hitting its target.
Voice over (John Coates): The prosecution asserted that a Frankfurt Airport baggage worker’s hand-written work sheet proved that an unaccompanied bag had, in fact, arrived or out-turned from an Air Malta flight.
Dennis Phipps:
Q: How reliable is this worksheet that was produced by the prosecution?
A: There is one obvious error referring to bags coming from a particular Lufthansa flight which we know did not happen. There is no accounting for individual bags and the bags that came in during the period that the worksheet covers, could come from various flights including odd individual bags from all round the airport.
Q: What about London’s Heathrow airport? What scope was there for the bomb to have been planted there?
A: At the time the general aviation security standards did not provide for everybody, including pass-holders going air-side, being searched, for every item being taken air-side to be searched, and for every vehicle going air-side to be searched. So it is possible that a suitcase containing a device could have been taken into Heathrow at the time of the Lockerbie incident.
Robert Baer:
Q: So you think it’s unlikely it was planted in Malta ?
A: I'm someone who’s been involved in this, involved in investigating "terrorism" for 30 years, Malta would not have been my first choice. It would have been London. If I was determined to bring down an airplane I would have put it on in London.
Jim Swire: "What the prosecution were asking the court to believe was that a Libyan in Malta had used a digital timer which he could have set to run for any number of hours that he wanted, he happened to set it, according to the prosecution, in such a way that it exploded exactly in the middle of the time window that would have been occupied by one of these PFLP-GC Syrian-based devices had one of those been used. That is a very, very difficult co-incidence to explain away!"
Voice over (John Coates): There have long been doubts about much of the evidence used to convict Al-Megrahi. But the question remains: why would the Libyan government agree to pay $2.7 billion in compensation to the families of the Lockerbie victims if Libya had no role in the bombing?
Former Libyan Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem: "We thought that it was easier for us to buy peace. And this is why we agreed on compensation. Therefore, we said let us buy peace, let us put the whole case behind us and let us look forward."
Voice over (John Coates): There are others, meanwhile, who still want some answers. Bill Cadman was another victim of the Lockerbie bombing. His parents, Martin and Rita Cadman, are also members of the UK victims’ families group. For the last 18 years, they’ve fought for an independent inquiry into what happened.
Martin Cadman: "We saw Tony Blair a couple of years ago now – we got a report on it. When I read the report on it, I wasn’t sure that we were at the same meeting even, because he seemed to have reneged on pretty well everything that we thought we might be getting, so it was a very unsatisfactory outcome. It’s the second time we had a meeting with Blair.
Q: And what did he say?
A: Well, we haven’t had an inquiry. We don’t want an inquiry for its own sake. We only want an inquiry if it leads to the truth and the truth is what we want. The truth is much more important than the detail.
Tam Dalyell:
Q: The relatives also got an undertaking from the Labour opposition that there would be an inquiry if the Labour party got into power, but no such inquiry has happened. Why is that?
A: I think because the Americans took Tony Blair aside and said don’t pursue this and he does what Washington asks - in this and many other matters.
Jim Swire: "What we’ve always looked for from the start is the truth. We want to know why our loved ones’ lives were not protected and there were warnings that were ignored and all this kind of thing. But also we want to know who actually murdered them."
Tam Dalyell:
Q: Do you think you’ll ever get the truth behind the Lockerbie bombing?
A: I am hopeful. There may be a death-bed repentance of somebody, or it may gradually come out. If the Scottish Criminal Review Body puts it back into the Court, there is going to be such huge pressure that I think somehow or another the truth will eek out.
Professor Robert Black, Professor of Law at Edinburgh University:
1. I was astonished at the verdict. The evidence in the case was wholly circumstantial and it was capable of entirely innocent and neutral interpretations. At the time before the verdict was in, but after all the evidence had been heard, I expressed the view rashly that for there to be a conviction then the situation would have to be such that the judges were adopting the posture of the 'White Queen' in 'Alice Through the Looking Glass' – namely 'why sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast'. That's precisely what the judges did in convicting Megrahi.
2. The appeal court rejected his appeal because … Under Scottish criminal procedure an appeal court can only address questions that the appellant chooses to lay before it. Megrahi's then legal team asked the court the wrong questions and it's not surprising therefore that the court gave the wrong answers.
3. In my view that is virtually inevitable. The result reached in the original trial which was not overturned on appeal because of defects and the way the appeal was presented is such that the conviction is simply contrary to the weight of the evidence. And I think it is quite clear that if the correct questions are asked – namely, on this evidence, 'Could any reasonable tribunal find Mr Megrahi guilty?' The answer has to be no. And I would be amazed if the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission reached any other conclusion.

See also

References