Prisoners of Bad Conscience

BBC 4 failed to deal impartially with Amnesty International’s shameful loss of impartiality

Nick Cohen

A few weeks ago what was once the most highly regarded human rights organisation in the world felt obliged to sign off a press release with the following statement: “Amnesty International wishes to stress that we condemn all attacks on civilians no matter what the circumstances.” In the past, its declaration would have provoked bafflement. Its admirers already knew that Amnesty’s purpose was to allow civilians to enjoy freedom of conscience without fear of imprisonment or murder.

Now they are not so sure. Amnesty has to remind us that it opposes murder because it indulges men who are all in favour of it. The declaration was prompted by Amnesty’s decision to host an Islamist who had gurgled that he would dance with joy in Trafalgar Square when Iranian rockets rained down on Jewish civilians. 

The deeper cause of the sickness the press release revealed, however, was the Sahgal affair, the greatest scandal in the organisation’s 50-year history. Until February 2010, Gita Sahgal was the head of Amnesty’s gender unit, where she had been a formidable opponent of dowry murders, misogynist religion, domestic violence, forced marriage and the use of rape in warfare. She had watched as Amnesty went far beyond defending the rights of the inmates of Guantánamo Bay, and turned itself into a fan club for former inmate Moazzam Begg and his campaign group Cageprisoners. Amnesty took Begg to Downing Street to meet the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and paraded him in front of the uninformed as a champion of human rights. It did not bother Amnesty that Begg had praised the fantastically misogynist Taliban while it was subjugating women and denying education to girls. But, naturally, it bothered Sahgal a great deal and after first raising her concerns with Amnesty she complained to the press.

The organisation which purports to be a voice of conscience responded by punishing the conscientious voice from its own ranks. The organisation that criticises authoritarian states and corporations behaved as they would have behaved when confronted by a dissident voice: Amnesty fired Sahgal and in the process showed that its commitment to universal rights was as provisional in the case of women as it was in the case of Jews.

Newspapers around the world covered the story, for it not only revealed Amnesty’s hypocrisy but also taught a lesson in how hard it is to live with strict liberal principles. Peter Benenson insisted on a minimal morality when he founded Amnesty in 1961. His organisation would defend only peaceful prisoners of conscience — Amnesty dropped its support for Nelson Mandela in 1964 because he had advocated violence. All the other good causes that might stir the hearts of Amnesty volunteers were other people’s business. Amnesty would do one thing well instead of a dozen things badly. With equal firmness, Amnesty insisted that its volunteers must help political prisoners while ignoring their politics. A volunteer may have joined Amnesty because he hated the Soviet subjugation of Eastern Europe. No matter. He must confront the oppression by America’s friends as well as its enemies. An activist may have been moved by a passionate and comradely commitment to the left-wing victims of Pinochet’s Chile. She must learn to confront the crimes of the Left, too. Impartiality was as essential a virtue for Amnesty as it was for the judiciary, the BBC and the civil service. Its ability to refute the attacks of the states it criticised depended on its willingness to live its values. 

Yet Amnesty came to believe that the values that sustained it were intolerable, almost inhuman, and I can see why it succumbed to temptation. The organisation was asking volunteers to campaign for the release of people whose political views they abhorred. The universal commitment to upholding freedom of expression can feel like a kind of treason in these circumstances:  a heartless instruction to avert your eyes and divert your energy from the causes and people that stirred your heart, and aid your opponents instead. Why not let Amnesty’s workers go where their fancies took them?

The difficulty of sticking to the emotionally unsatisfying demands of classical liberalism explains why the most intelligent journalists, and in some respects the most admirable journalists, that the BBC hires are the least suited to work for the corporation, why campaigning lawyers rarely make good judges and why Amnesty has disgraced itself.  

Its history is a history of sliding away from its original self-denying ordinances. Freedom of expression is now merely one concern among many, as Amnesty indulges itself by campaigning against the arms trade, environmental degradation, torture, “prisoners of poverty”, the Iraq war, Guantánamo Bay and a hotchpotch of other causes which appeal more to its supporters than freedom of expression. Its flight from the demands of rigid impartiality explains why Amnesty has ended up in the grotesque position of embracing racists and misogynists. It lacked the breadth of intellect to condemn the crimes of the Bush administration while also condemning the crimes of its totalitarian enemies. Amnesty had abandoned the old principles that might have helped it to stay true to its mission too long ago.

There is no doubt that millions of supporters approve of Amnesty’s decision to turn itself from a specialist campaign group into a hypermarket for liberal causes. There is no doubt either that Amnesty retains the services of good and honourable people. It is hard to criticise these people, but journalists must report on the tensions that are threatening Amnesty’s once irreproachable status if they are to deliver honest reports. 

By this measure, BBC 4’s Storyville documentary on Amnesty’s 50th anniversary was not honest journalism. It glossed over how far Amnesty has strayed from its original purpose and could not spare the time to interview Gita Sahgal or ask how an organisation that was once the pride of the liberal world has ended up preferring Islamists to feminists. You cannot blame suppressio veri or indeed suggestio falsi on BBC bias. BBC Radio 4 produced a documentary on Amnesty’s 50th anniversary which reported even-handedly on the dangers of mission creep, and contrasted its indulgent treatment of Cageprisoners with its dismissal of Sahgal.    

I suspect that like many Amnesty members and officials, the documentary makers found the demands of impartiality too heavy for their weak frames to bear. They wanted to praise the men and women who had secured the release of thousands of political prisoners — and who could blame them for that? With the best of intentions and the worst of journalistic instincts they therefore decided that impartial reporting of serious criticisms would be a kind of treason. And so BBC television gave Amnesty a birthday gift that, to its shame, it needs more than any other: a work of propaganda.

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