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Asbestos saga proves our feeble press watchdog has no bark and no bite

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“Getting a PCC isn’t great but all it is, is just a little apology… you get a slap on the wrist… and the PCC is run by the newspaper editors” (5m 09s) – News of the World journalist secretly filmed by ‘Starsuckers’

From Guest post at The Lay Scientist, Guardian blogs

Back in February, the Daily Mail published an article denouncing “The Great Asbestos Hysteria”, and claiming that the health risks had been grossly exaggerated by “the BBC, profiteering lawyers, and gullible politicians”.

The article was a response to a study raising concerns about the ongoing dangers of asbestos in UK schools. Those dangers were, the Daily Mail assured us, “all but non-existent”. While many older school buildings still contained asbestos, almost all of it was “relatively harmless white asbestos, encapsulated in cement or other materials, from which it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre”. The threat from such products was so “vanishingly small” that a study by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) had concluded that the danger was “insignificant”, with “arguably zero” risk of lung cancer.

Good news all round, then. No need for schools to worry about that crumbling asbestos roof. No need, we might think, for maintenance workers to wear protective clothing when renovating old school buildings. No need, it would seem, to employ specialist contractors to assess whether to leave asbestos undisturbed or get it removed. Those guys are, in any case, according to the Mail, a “commercial racket” with a “vested interest in exaggerating the dangers of products which are, in effect, harmless”.

Last week, seven months after the article was published, the Daily Mail issued a carefully worded correction:

“…The HSE assessments related to specific levels of exposure to white asbestos fibres, not white asbestos products, and found a risk from higher levels. The article said that asbestos in UK schools is almost all white. According to the HSE the more harmful brown asbestos was also frequently used in schools…”

Not such good news. What many reading the Daily Mail article won’t have known is that the author, Christopher Booker, has a long track record of downplaying the health risks of white asbestos. Though not a scientist himself, Booker has written at least 42 newspaper articles on this subject since 2002, making claims that run counter to the views of most experts, but are remarkably similar to those of the asbestos industry.

Several of the claims in the Daily Mail article – including that an HSE study once concluded the health risks of white asbestos cement were “insignificant” – have previously appeared in Booker’s Sunday Telegraph column, prompting a series of direct rebuttals from the HSE. The available evidence, as assessed by – among others – the World Health Organisation, the UK and US governments, and the European Union, is that white asbestos poses a serious risk to human health that needs to be carefully managed.

If the experts are right about asbestos and Booker is wrong, then this matters for at least two reasons. Firstly, there’s a danger that people may take unnecessary risks when handling the stuff, with potentially deadly consequences a couple of decades down the line. In 2008, a survey by the British Lung Foundation found widespread ignorance about the health risks, with under a third of tradespeople – the group most at risk of exposure – aware that it could cause cancer, and 28% “mistakenly assuming that some levels of asbestos are safe”. Further misinformation surely won’t help.

Secondly, for those affected by asbestos-related disease, ill-informed media reports belittling the health risks can be offensive and upsetting. I got the smallest glimpse of what that must be like when I saw that my blog had been linked to from a Facebook group set up by mesothelioma sufferers in response to Booker’s Daily Mail article.

Several members of the group had decided to report the Mail to the Press Complaints Commission, for breaching section 1 of the PCC’s ethical code: “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information”. I’ve been following Booker’s antics for a while – I researched his work in detail for my book Don’t Get Fooled Again, and still write about him from time to time on my blog. So I decided to support the Facebook campaigners – and test out the PCC’s claim to be “fast, free and fair” – by putting in a complaint of my own.

It wasn’t difficult to produce evidence debunking the Mail’s assertion that white asbestos was “relatively harmless”. Back in 2002, the HSE had published a summary, with references, of the peer-reviewed research linking the material to mesothelioma and lung cancer. The newspaper’s claim that an HSE study had found the dangers of white asbestos cement to be “insignificant” was also easy to disprove: Booker had made the self-same claim in the Sunday Telegraph back in 2008, and been rebutted in detail by the HSE.

Neither was it hard to show that the Mail had got it wrong in claiming that “it is virtually impossible to extract even a single dangerous fibre” from white asbestos cement. An HSE lab report from 2007 notes that “the claim that respirable airborne chrysotile fibres are not able to be released from asbestos cement products was refuted by the individual airborne fibres sampled during the breaking of the test sample with a hammer”.

In theory, this should have been the end of the matter. According to the PCC’s code, “a significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion once recognised must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence”. What happened instead, in my view, speaks volumes both about the character of the Daily Mail, and the credibility of the newspaper industry’s self-regulatory body.

After a delay of several weeks, the PCC forwarded me a dismissive response from the Daily Mail’s executive managing editor, Robin Esser. While acknowledging some minor errors, Esser insisted that the disputed HSE study did indeed back up Booker’s views on asbestos. The fact that the HSE had put out a statement explicitly rebutting this merely proved that “those responsible for HSE press releases are similarly unable to grasp the significance of findings published by their own statisticians”. For good measure, Esser accused me (falsely, just in case you’re wondering) of being “allied to a well-organised and well-funded commercial lobby”, who “stand to benefit financially” from the “anti-asbestos campaign”.

Rather than take ownership of the process, assess the various bits of evidence and come to a judgement, the PCC instead asked me to go through this new set of claims and produce a further response. Here I began to see why so many people have given up on the PCC. If a newspaper digs in its heels and simply denies all the evidence that’s been presented, there doesn’t seem to be much that the PCC can do except bat the issue back to the complainant.

It was at this stage that I learned that the asbestos campaigner Michael Lees had also submitted a detailed complaint. Michael, who has been working to highlight the dangers of asbestos in schools since losing his wife Gina, a teacher, to mesothelioma, had been singled out by name – the third time that Booker had done this. Michael took particular exception to the dismissive terms in which the article had referred to his wife’s death, adding to the offence of a previous piece in which Booker had dubbed the case “bizarre”. He was also concerned that – aside from Booker’s views on white asbestos – the article sidestepped the fact that many schools still contain large amounts of brown asbestos, whose dangers are beyond dispute.

More time-consuming exchanges followed, with long gaps in between, while we awaited a response from the Daily Mail. In the end we won, sort of. The newspaper agreed to make some amendments to the text of the article, publish a short correction, and write a private apology to Michael Lees over Booker’s comments about his wife. But to get even this far has taken seven months, and a substantial time investment, while the Daily Mail seems to have been able to drag the process out with impunity. “Free”, perhaps – but hardly “fast”, or “fair”.

Richard Wilson is the author of Don’t Get Fooled Again – The Skeptic’s Guide to Life.

Written by Richard Wilson

September 30, 2010 at 6:42 am

Secret UN briefing on 1994 Rwanda atrocities – full text of the “Gersony Report”

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Extracted from this PDF file. Background from Human Rights Watch here.


11 October 1994

Dear Mrs. Molina-Abram,

We refer to UNHCR’s briefing to the Commission of Experts on Monday, 11 October 1994.

As requested by the Commission, we are forwarding herewith a written summary of Mr. Gersony’s oral presentation and copies of some field reports sent to UNHCR Headquarters by UNHCR Field Offices.

We are confident that, as agreed by the President of the Commission of Experts, these documents will be treated as confidential and only be made available to the members of the Commission.

Yours sincerely,

Franois Fouinat

Chef de Cabinet

Mrs. B. Molina-Abram Secretary to the Commission
of Experts on Rwanda Room 141.1 1 Palais des Nations



10 OCTOBER 1994


Between April and August 1994, over one million Rwandans fled their country to refuge in Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire. Some 100,000 reached Burundi and Tanzania in July and August alone.

On July 27, the High Commissioner appointed an Emergency Repatriation Team to conduct a thorough, systematic and comprehensive field assessment of the prospects for repatriation and to devise mechanisms which could accelerate the safe return to Rwanda of the refugee population. In conducting its assignment, the team received information which suggested that conditions were not yet conducive for such return, its findings are briefly summarized in this document.

Assessment Procedures

During a five-week period in August/early September, the team visited 41 (28%) of Rwanda’s 145 communes, and collected detailed information about ten additional communes. In nine UNHCR refugee camps in Burundi, Tanzania, and Zaire, and in 91 locations inside Rwanda, the team conducted more than 200 individual, private interviews of about one hour each with local residents, former displaced persons, spontaneous refugee returnees and current refugees.

More than 100 additional persons were interviewed in small groups in a less private manner. Their first-hand eyewitness accounts — which comprise the main basis of this report – were detailed and credible, and they responded spontaneously to many follow-up questions, clearly describing events which they had seen. The most important elements and patterns of the Information they provided, particularly for the south/south-eastern regions, were corroborated independently by the team’s interviewees in several countries outside Rwanda and by those in different locations inside Rwanda. [These reports are also mutually corroborative with information gathered independently by UNHCR offices in neighboring countries and through contacts established in Rwanda. According to the more recent of these reports, the types of activities described later herein in the south/south-eastern region have continued during the first half of September.] These accounts, if accurate, compel certain unavoidable findings which are set forth later herein.

The Government of Rwanda permitted the team full, independent freedom of movement, without accompaniment and control, through the issuance at the outset of the mission of an official letter of authorization which, with few exceptions, was honored throughout the country.

Genocide of Tutsis

The Government of Rwanda, the UNHCR and the international community have placed considerable emphasis on the early return of all refugees, and particularly those who fled Rwanda during the past year. Of these, the refugees currently remaining in neighboring countries are in the main Hutu people. It was not within the team’s mandate, nor was it able to conduct a systematic inquiry into the killing in April 1994 of hundreds of thousands of Tutsi people and many Hutu people by soldiers, militia and surrogate forces of the former Government of Rwanda. The killings of the Tutsi people have been described” by the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights in his June 28, 1994 report, as genocidal in nature.

Due to the nature of its mission, the team’s findings concern principally the conduct of the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA), the military forces of the current Government, with respect to the Hutu residents of Rwanda. [Previously known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), this force has since been redesignated as the Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) and is referred to throughout this document as such.] However grave the team’s findings with respect to RPA conduct, they do not mitigate, nor should they be permitted to obscure, the genocidal violence unleashed against the Tutsi people in April 1994 by forces of and associated with the previous Government.

Principal Findings

Based on information gathered through the procedures described earlier, following are the principal findings of the Emergency Repatriation Team which affect the prospects for an early large-scale repatriation of Hutu refugees currently residing in neighboring countries:


1. Significant areas of Butare Prefecture, Kibungo Prefecture, and the . southern and eastern areas of Kigali Prefecture have been — and in some cases were reported to remain as of early September – the scene of systematic and sustained killing and persecution of the civilian Hutu populations by the RPA.

These activities are reported to have begun, depending on location, between April and July 1994, immediately following the expulsion from each area of former Government military, militia and surrogate forces. These RPA actions were consistently reported to be conducted in areas where opposition forces of any kind – armed or unarmed – or resistance of any kind – other than attempts by the victims of these actions lo escape — were absent. Large-scale indiscriminate killings of men, women, children, including the sick and the elderly, were consistently reported. The reported violence includes:

— Mass killings at meetings. Local residents, including entire families, were called to community meetings, invited to receive information about “peace,” “security” or “food distribution” issues. Once a crowd had assembled, it was assaulted through sudden sustained gunfire; or locked in buildings into which hand-grenades were thrown; systematically killed with manual instruments; or killed in large numbers by other means. Large-scale killings which did not involve such “meetings” were also reported.

House-to-house killings, and attacks on villages and displaced populations. — Pursuit of hidden populations. In response to the above actions, significant segments of the peculation flee into hiding in swamps, bush areas, banana plantations and other areas of difficult access to RPA soldiers. In many cases, they remain in hiding for extended periods of time. RPA soldiers’, in a few more recent cases accompanied by civilian Tutsi surrogates armed with spears and other manual weapons, were reported to actively pursue the hidden population through:

–Sudden, apparently well-coordinated attacks with gunfire;

–Silent attacks in which hidden groups are killed with manual weapons;

–Burning of swamp areas to prompt movement by civilians who are then killed;

–Periods in which operations are suspended, followed by invitations to the hidden families to return home in peace. Shortly thereafter the villages are attacked and returnees are killed.

– Killing of asylum seekers. Asylum seekers – particularly those fleeing from Rwanda in a southerly direction towards Burundi are reportedly systematically intercepted, ambushed and killed in significant numbers. These actions are reported with particular frequency in the commonly-used routes via road and through the countryside which pass through Matongo and Musenyi in southern Birenga Commune, and in areas close to the river which defines the Rwanda/Burundi border.

– Killing of returnees. Hundreds of Rwandan refugees in Burundi have heard Government of Rwanda radio broadcasts inviting and calling on the refugees to return home, and some of the refugees tried to do so. Some attempted to return to Rwanda with their entire families; others sent one or two individuals as “advance scouts” to confirm that conditions are peaceful. Still others traveled to their home areas to find and/or bring their relatives back to Burundi, or to harvest food to bring back to Burundi for their own consumption or for sale. Regardless of the motivation for their return, those who attempted to return and who were able to flee back to Burundi report consistently eye-witnessing killings and seeing the relatively fresh bodies of their Hutu neighbors and relatives.

–Killing of sick and elderly. Some individuals who are too old or too sick to flee to a neighboring country or to hide in the swamps, remain at their homes. Reports indicate that at least some of these are killed by RPA soldiers.

The foregoing activities have not been reported to be carried out throughout the geographical areas described above, nor carried out simultaneously in the areas which are affected. Nonetheless, an unmistakable pattern of systematic RPA conduct of such actions is the unavoidable conclusion of the team’s interviews.

More than 80% of the interviewees in this region — both inside Rwanda and in six refugee camps in neighboring countries provided detailed, credible reports of the conduct summarized above.

As the team traveled extensively within Rwanda through some areas close to the borders with Burundi and Tanzania, no RPA military personnel or checkpoints reported or alerted me team to security danger in these areas which it might encounter, or made reference to the fact or possibility of armed conflict between the RPA and former Government soldiers or militia conducting incursions into these areas. During its journey, the team often took care to check with RPA military personnel and was always assured that it faced no security problems in the conduct of its travels.

[Two incidents of the killing of Tutsi returnees by Hutu men armed with machetes were reported by Tutsi interviewees in two locations. The interviewees characterized the events as isolated incidents. One incident involved the killing of a Tutsi returnee from Burundi who appropriated the house of the Hutu owner who was still hiding in a nearby area. The second incident involved the killing of a Tutsi family by six Hutu men armed with manual weapons said to have returned to their home area from Burundi.]

2. Manner of killings. According to the interviewee reports, a common manner of effecting these killings is through the use of hoes to the skulls of the victims, or of machete blows to their heads and necks. The burning of victims in rural houses which have thatch roofs was widely reported. Gunfire is reportedly used in large-scale massacres and attacks. Otherwise, according to the interviewee reports, it seems to be used judiciously, and principally against fleeing males, who appear to be the priority — but by no means exclusive -targets of these actions.

3. Disposal of bodies. When local residents remain in an area where such killings have taken place, particularly when they know the victims and the number of bodies is manageable for them, and after RPA forces withdraw from the area, the remaining local residents themselves undertake some burial or covering of bodies. Eyewitness reports indicated that RPA forces sometimes burn or otherwise dispose of large numbers of bodies of those killed in public buildings. Large numbers of bodies are reported to remain above the ground, where some are partially consumed by dogs. Some formerly displaced persons and others have reportedly been ordered or obliged by RPA forces to bury some of the remaining bodies.

4. Culpability of victims. It appeared that the vast majority of men, women and children killed in these actions were targeted through the pure chance of being caught by RPA. No vetting process or attempt to establish the complicity of the victims in the April 1994 massacres of the Tutsis was reported.

5. Number of deaths. It is estimated that from late April/May through July, more than 5,000, and perhaps as many as 10,000 persons per month may have been killed in the manner described above. During August, while some 60,000 new refugees were arriving in Burundi and Tanzania, the number killed may have been somewhat less than in previous months, but probably at least 5,000. By that time, the people in many cases no longer responded to calls to attend RPA meetings and fled their homes when RPA soldiers approached. Also by then, many were dead or in exile in Burundi and Tanzania.

Through extensive travel on secondary and tertiary roads, the team observed that significant geographical areas of southern Kibungo and southern and eastern Butare prefectures were virtually deserted, while others were partially populated with varying degrees of apparent stability and security. In order to not compromise the security of the interviewees, the team declined the frequent offers of local residents to visit locations which they asserted were within walking distance to observe what they described as the relatively fresh bodies of Hutu people killed in the incidents which they had reported. Nonetheless, the team directly observed 150 bodies which appeared to have been dead for about 7 -10 days and which included men, women and children. The strong smell of deteriorating bodies was often present in the areas visited by the team.

During the last few days of August and the first days of September, new refugee arrivals to Tanzania diminished somewhat, but remained substantial. The lower arrival rates could be attributable to the factors described in the preceding paragraph. The systematic interdiction and killing of asylum seekers, described earlier, may be discouraging those who feel compelled to flee from attempting to do so. The communal origins of the latest arrivals suggest that reported RPA actions may, at that time, have been concentrated in areas more distant from the border, for example inTeastern Kigali Prefecture. It could also be that such actions were, at that time, at least temporarily diminished. With the exception of the returnee cases reported within paragraph one, above, no significant return to Rwanda of Hutu people from Burundi or Tanzania was reported or observed during this period.


6. Ruhengeri Prefecture.- In striking contrast to the southern and southeastern regions described above, refugee returnees from Zaire (of whom there were more than 100,000) and local residents in parts of western Ruhengeri visited by the team (including many who had been temporarily internally displaced in July and had since returned to their homes) reported overwhelmingly that conditions in their area were secure, stable and peaceful at the time of the team’s visit in early August. A liberal border-crossing policy by local authorities permitted families to walk home for brief exploratory visits, confirm for themselves the security situation, and return to Zaire to bring back their families.

7. Killing of returnee group. Based on credible reports gathered by the UNHCR office in Zaire from two seriously wounded survivors, it appears that on August 3 a group of up to 150 refugee returnees, including entire families of men, women and children who were walking from Zaire to northern Ruhengeri, were intercepted, questioned and killed by RPA soldiers just at the Zaire/Rwanda border north of Kinigi. To date it appears that, if the report is accurate, this mayihavo, been an isolated incident in this prefecture.


8. Unclear situation. In several Gisenyi communes visited by the team, less than 10% of the normal population appeared to be present. The proportion of population present in other communes was considerably higher, though in general lower than Ruhengeri Prefecture at that time.

Consistent reports in Gisenyi Prefecture described a systematic pattern of arbitrary arrests and disappearances of adult males, all of whom were alleged to be suspected of being militia elements associated with the former Government. Of an estimated 400 or more arrests, it appeared that half may have been refugee-returnees from Zaire, some of whom were intercepted as they attempted to cross the first checkpoints in the prefecture. In some cases, an informal (though unevenly administered) vetting process to determine if those arrested were, in fact, militia or had participated in the April 1994 massacres, was reported. The execution of at least dozens of those arrested was credibly reported.

Both arrests and physical abuse of local residents were credibly reported in some areas of Gisenyi prefecture to which refugees had returned from Zaire and in some sectors from which the population had never fled. Local residents stated that they were considering fleeing to Zaire. In fact, a small trickle of refugees was noted to have arrived in Zaire from southern Gisenyi during the team’s visit to the Goma area during the following days. Finally, the liberal border-crossing policy which permitted refugees to visit their homes to assess the situation and then return for their families was tightened up. An attitude of impatience with the fefugees who had thus far failed to return to Gisenyi was manifested by some local civilian surrogates of the RPA. Such attitudes had been entirely absent in Ruhengeri during the team’s visit.


9. Reason for flight. Contrary to early working assumptions, Rwandan refugees interviewed in Zaire did not refer to calls by Radio Mille Collines for their departure from Rwanda as determining factors in their decisions to flee. Roughly half of the interviewees in Zaire indicated that they had been urged to flee by former Government civilian and military officials in their home areas, or that on their own volition they had decided to flee with or immediately ahead of former army soldiers because of a general fear of the RPA not necessarily linked to direct negative experience. Many simply cited panic as their motivation. Those reporting these motivations tended to come from western Ruhengeri Prefecture and from parts of Gisenyi Prefecture.

However, half of the interviewees in Zaire reported eyewitnessing at the time’of their flight or in earlier contact with the RPA acts of violence by the RPA against Hutu civilians which were similar in type — though far less in frequency — to those reported in Kibungo, Butare and southern and eastern Kigali Prefectures. They included meetings which evolved into massacres and attacks on civilian villages. Those reporting such violence tended to-come from eastern Ruhengeri and some parts of Byumba Prefecture.


10. Reason for return. Returnees to Ruhengeri Prefecture from Zaire cited their perception of its relative security, and the messages they had received from [illegible] effect, as their principal motivations for return. A survey on one day [illegible] August of eighty returnee families who were walking along the Gissnyi/Ruhengeri road bound for different destinationsln Rwanda revealed that in these families, one out of five of the Immediate family members with whom they had arrived In Zaire had died there. The mortality rate reported by the families still living In the refugee camps In Zaire was reported by them to- be significantly less. This appeared to substantiate assertions by refugees still in Zaire that those who were In the worst physical condition and who had the least food were a high proportion of those who had overcome their fear and decided to return to Rwanda.

The confiscation by force from refugee families In Zaire by soldiers and militia of the former Government of the food, blankets and plastic sheeting provided (In some cases by airlift) by the intemational community through UNHCR and Its implementing partners was reported as a widespread problem which was affecting the relief operations. The deprivation caused by such actions appeared to be contributing to the hunger and sickness which seemed to be driving at least some of the refugees to return home at that time.

Other observations

11. The overwhelming majority of refugees in Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire expressed a wish to return as quickly as possible to their homes. If they were in good physical condition, most could probably return home by foot in a journey of a day or so. They stated that their main –.and in most cases their only constraint to doing so was the fear of being killed in their home areas, either upon their return or at a later time. Many asked that the United Nations intercede with the current Government of Rwanda (and particularly with the RPA) to cease the killing so that they could return home promptly.

12. In order for both spontaneous and organized repatriation to proceed, the Government of Rwanda must create conditions conducive for the return in safety of the refugees. Progress will have to be closely monitored by the UN system both in towns along the main road and through deployment in a permanent and sustained manner particularly in off-the-road rural areas (such as specific commune capitals) to insure that the actions reported herein are promptly and durably stopped.

UNHCR Emergency Repatriation Team

Written by Richard Wilson

September 14, 2010 at 10:28 am

Posted in Don't Get Fooled Again

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