Letters From Belmarsh - Political Censorship by the BBCMonday 5 September 2005
Letters From Belmarsh was a Radio 4 commissioned documentary originally scheduled for transmission on 28th July. The cancellation of the programme raises grave concerns about editorial practices at the BBC.
It's the story of Rachid Ramda - an Algerian man held in Belmarsh prison as a result of an extradition request from France - and includes an account of a number of other men formerly detained in Belmarsh prison under Britain's Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. These men were released from detention on 11th March following a Law Lords ruling in their favour in December 2004. They were then placed under 'Control Orders' issued by the Home Secretary under powers contained in the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005. A number of these 'Control Order' men have now been re-detained and the Home Office is attempting to deport them.
The BBC decided at very short notice to cancel this broadcast. The programme-makers were told it would be rescheduled after some minor changes; listeners were told that the story had 'moved on'. Rachid Ramda's situation had not in fact changed for some time and has still not changed. We can't know whether the Home Office's plans for the 'Control Order' men had moved on by that date, but no such development was in the public domain.
The BBC indicated first that a slot would be made for the programme the following week but that week rolled in to the next with no information on the promised rescheduling. On 10th August the programme-makers were told that a decision had been reached not to air the programme at all. The 'Control Order' men were re-detained within 12 hours of this decision being communicated to the programme-makers. A letter received on 31 August from the Controller of BBC Radio 4, Mark Damazer, confirms that the BBC no longer has any intention of broadcasting the programme.
Letters From Belmarsh was originally commissioned into the 'Its My Story' slot. It basically told the story of a unique journey to friendship through the correspondence of Ann, a Scotswoman living in a seaside town, with men held in in Belmarsh. The central figure was Rachid Ramda, the longest serving prisoner in Britain without charge. He is shortly coming up to his tenth year of imprisonment on remand and is awaiting a Judicial Review on a request from France to extradite him.
He was originally held under allegations of association with the 1995 Paris metro bombing, with evidence gained under torture. His extradition to France was quashed in June 2002, but the French raised a reworded extradition warrant and he has languished in Belmarsh ever since.
The programme showed how Ann became more and more involved in the plight of these men. Through their letters, Ann became aware of the plight of other Muslims detained in Belmarsh and the political background to Algeria. She became friends with the families of some of the detainees and received gifts of pottery made by the men in their pottery class. She assisted Rachid with research for his Open University course on English literature and received a crash course in police vetting and the prison service.
Rachid's words from his beautifully written letters were heard for the first time in the programme. One of the men detained under control orders spoke on the programme. He has since been re-detained and is now, like many of the others, in a dire mental state. A number of the men are held in an isolation unit condemned as being unfit for human habitation a decade ago. This unit is running with cockroaches and their cell doors are so corroded with rust that they barely open. Their families cannot travel together to this prison as this unit can only facilitate one family visit at a time. All these men have been incarcerated in prisons far from London, their families, solicitors and doctors. One of them has recently been transferred to Broadmoor Hospital following the collapse of his mental health as a result of detention under these dreadful conditions.
The programme is not a hard hitting factual documentary. It was a piece of work that for the first time allowed these stereotyped men, judged already by many although none have stood trial, to speak for themselves. None of them have been charged in Britain with any terrorist offences. The men originally detained under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and now threatened with deportation have never even been interviewed by the police or security services.
The BBC say they now plan to make an entirely new programme which "will carefully describe the background and current argument about the case." They say "the fact that a man has been detained for this long without either being released or deported is startling." We don't understand why the BBC are startled. News-gathering is the BBC's business, and Rachid Ramda's circumstances have never been a secret. The 2002 ruling in his favour was reported in the Times. The story is nearly 10 years old, but the BBC have apparently yet to investigate it seriously. We think that it is mean-sprited of them, to say the least, to block a chance for Rachid Ramda's voice to be heard after a decade of missed opportunties.
We welcome any effort to make the kind of investigative programme the BBC describe, but we see no reason why Letters from Belmarsh - a quite different kind of programme - shouldn't be broadcast right away.
We believe that in a democracy where we value freedom of speech and value long established traditions like 'innocent, until proved guilty' this programme needs to be heard. Those who have heard it have been moved to tears and to questions. Is this really happening here in the UK? For the first time, the men were speaking for themselves The BBC has decided to pursue a factual investigative piece that will ask all the 'right' questions. But yet again, commentators, specialists, Human Rights activists and lawyers will be speaking for the men. If and when it is aired, where will the men be? Rachid may be safely tucked away in a Paris cell, or worse still, in a torture room in Algeria. So might the rest of the men now detained awaiting "assurances" between the Algerian and British Governments.
Just because we can't see them, doesn't mean we can't hear them. The programme was an important piece of journalism which would have informed and educated the public. It was going to be a brave moral move by the BBC to air it. And yet it decided after trailing the programme, advertising it and promoting it, to take it off. That in itself is quite unprecedented and questions need to be asked. Why did the BBC withdraw it? Who took the decision? Was the BBC pressured into this decision or was it self censorship in light of governmental policy?
Sadly, British license payers, who have paid for the production of this programme, won't hear it. Even Russia has aired a documentary on Rachid, yet we are denied that same chance even though we live in a country that boasts freedom of its media. The BBC's Charter states that programmes:
- are provided as a public service for disseminating information, education and entertainment;
- contain comprehensive, authoritative and impartial coverage of news and current affairs in the United Kingdom and throughout the world to support fair and informed debate at local, regional and national levels;
- contain programmes of an educational nature (including specialist factual, religious and social issues programmes as well as formal education
- contain programmes which reflect the lives and concerns of both local and national audiences;
At this time when programmes like the 21 August edition of Panorama can be commissioned - a highly controversial piece of work which caused outrage from the Muslim community - why can't an unusual human story on the other side of the fence be heard? Are we not supposed to be moving towards a greater understanding of the issues we are facing today?
Letters From Belmarsh is just a human side to a very human story. The BBC has decided to turn this tragic story into a political censorship farce. We urge the BBC to re-examine its decision, in light of its highly controversial and Islamophobic Panorama programme it must allow this programme to be aired or be accused of falling prey to the present anti-Muslim political climate.