New Internationalist

Sssshh…

Issue 261

new internationalist
issue 261 - November 1994

Would the Gulf War have happened if Saddam Hussein had not received millions in credits from British banks? Is or isn't Mark Thatcher connected with the arms trade? Why was former Defence Secretary John Nott (pictured) interested in reporters' stories?
BRYN COLTON / CAMERA PRESS
Sssshh...
Strange things started happening when journalist David Hellier got stuck into
investigating possible British Government connivance in illegal arms sales to Iraq.

My introduction to the arms world came one morning a few months before the beginning of the 1991 Gulf War. I had arranged a meeting with the former chairman of Astra, a defence manufacturer that had run into trouble.

As a financial journalist, I wanted to know why his company had plummeted from being a high-flying stock market sensation to its then position of virtual bankruptcy. What he told me left me bewildered and intrigued. It also changed the direction of my career for the next few years as I tried to pursue some of the things he said.

He alleged that during the 1980-88 war between Iraq and Iran the British Government had actively encouraged the sale of weapons to Iraq, and possibly Iran, in spite of a declared veto on doing so; that British banks were actively supporting this effort and had highly-trained teams helping them do so; and that people close to the British Government, including possibly the former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark, were making large sums of money from the arms trade.

I decided to introduce my new contact to the defence correspondent of the newspaper on which I worked, the London-based Sunday Correspondent. Together we pursued leads, and several weeks before the Gulf War in 1991 we published stories revealing how Britain had helped arm Saddam Hussein.

‘Sensitive work’
Things seemed to be going well at that stage. The Sunday Correspondent was an exciting, independent newspaper whose editor was supportive of the work we were trying to do in uncovering Government hypocrisy in its relationship with Iraq. And our line of questioning was causing nervousness in some institutions – the Midland Bank, for example. This bank – one of the four major British banks – had many millions of financial credits to Iraq.

During a briefing session with the Midland’s press officer we asked about a certain consultant to the bank called Stephan Kock, who also happened to be a director of Astra. What role did he have? The bank’s press officer told us that he was involved in bringing mainly civilian business to the bank and that he came in on a regular basis.

We then asked whether this was the same Mr Kock who had been tried and fined for firing a shotgun at two men in a quiet road in Argyllshire. When asked in court why he had been carrying a gun, Kock is reported to have replied: ‘because of the sensitive nature of my work’. As soon as we recounted this tale, the bank’s press officer changed tack and tried to disown the man. He suggested that he rarely came to the bank any more, that he was very much a ‘part-time’ consultant.

Three years later Mr Kock appeared before a UK Parliamentary Select Committee looking into the Iraqi ‘supergun’ affair. This concerned the illegal export of military equipment from Britain to Iraq. To this day the Midland has never satisfactorily explained what sort of work Mr Kock did for the bank, nor why the bank was so supportive to Iraq during the 1980s even after Saddam Hussein’s genocidal gassing of thousands of Kurds.

Then, in the summer of 1990 the editor of the Sunday Correspondent was replaced by a new editor who showed little interest in the story. The paper had also started employing a former defence secretary, Sir John Nott, as a consultant. His job was to try to raise new funds for the paper. But he also considered it part of his duty to ask each of us what stories we were working on. I did not mention to him my interest in the arms to Iraq affair and felt there was little point in pushing the story much further.

Accidents and a death
During this period something happened to unsettle me. I was walking home one night on the pavement of a busy main road when a car slid onto the pavement and knocked me to the ground. I was shocked but not badly hurt. Though I believed this to be an accident my contacts in the defence world thought otherwise. They told me that it was also likely my phone was being tapped and that I was being followed. I had no evidence of this, but it was worrying all the same. On one occasion I spotted a photographer taking pictures of me with one of my contacts as we sat in a pub during one of his days on release from prison.

I then discovered that another journalist, who was working on the same story at the London Observer newspaper, had received a warning that something might happen if she continued her investigations. Her paper took this seriously and put her up in a hotel for a few days.

Other things happened to disturb me. One of my contacts died suddenly, days after giving me a lift to the trial of the former chief executive of Astra who was being charged with corruption. The person in question, Lionel Jones, complained on the way down to the trial about a boil on his neck. Whilst his sudden death appeared to me to be bad luck, again my contacts thought otherwise.

It soon became clear to me that I would need some sort of support from my newspaper if I were to continue working on the story. At the very least I would need somebody to talk to. This was not forthcoming at the re-styled Sunday Correspondent whose editors did not think I should be spending time on this story. I was effectively silenced. I moved on to the Independent newspaper, where I was able to work intermittently on the story whilst doing more regular financial journalism.

Then, in early summer 1992 the Parliamentary Select Committee stepped up its inquiries into the Iraqi ‘supergun’ affair. When did the Government know about the ‘supergun’? Why did it allow firms to carry on supplying it? And why, having arrested the people who did so, did customs officers then drop all charges against the accused?

For a few weeks the Independent became keen on the arms story. Alas, just as I was making progress and provoking the threat of injunctions from some fairly powerful people, the paper moved me on to another story which was considered more important. I decided to leave.

Secret links
I spent the next year making two television programmes for Channel 4 about the arms trade.

As our programmes neared completion a significant event occurred. Three executives from the firm Matrix-Churchill, charged with exporting machine tools to Iraq for military use, were cleared after documents read out in court showed how they had kept MI5 – the British Government security service – informed about their activities throughout.

At last the story caught the media’s attention. It was on every front page. The Government, worried by the prospect of a trial-by-media, set up an Inquiry under Lord Justice Scott to investigate some aspects of the scandal. At the time of writing the investigation is still under way.

Why had it all taken so long? Already, back in 1989 there were journalists on a number of leading newspapers who suspected that the Government had been playing a double game with Iraq; that it had been telling people one thing and doing something quite different. There were also journalists who realized that a number of business people who had been charged for various arms offences could never be successfully prosecuted because of what they knew about the Government’s misdemeanours.

The reasons for this delay and silence are manifold. First, there is the official secrecy that surrounds the arms trade and the difficulty in getting hold of official documentation. Second, the reluctance of the mainstream press to put adequate resources into challenging the powerful interests of the arms companies and their beneficiaries. And finally, the lack of interest shown by politicians on both the Right and the Left.

The result is this: weapons of mass destruction are sold to tyrannical regimes and the activities of banks and governments are only revealed when the main protagonists have long departed. The public, meanwhile, has the wool pulled over its eyes.

David Hellier is now a freelance journalist. He has recently worked as a consultant on a new film on the defence industry by John Pilger and David Munro.

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