|Published August 2001
IN PRAISE OF PROPAGANDA?:
THE RORY PECK AWARDS,
DAMIEN LEWIS AND 'DEATH
IN THE AIR'
'Death in the Air' was made in the course of 1999 by British
film-maker Damien Lewis. This 27-minute long programme claimed
to be an investigation of the use of chemical weapons within
southern Sudan by Government of Sudan forces. It concluded
that it had produced "compelling" evidence for its assertions.
In the documentary Lewis outlined the reason for his trip
into southern Sudan: "The...task is to take samples from the
alleged chemical weapons attack for analysis by the World's
top experts - at the UK's Chemical and Biological Defence
Agency and at VERIFIN, the equivalent agency in Finland."
The word "chemical" was used 44 times in the programme. "Gas"
is also mentioned several times, as is "poisoning" and "[c]ontaminated".
"War crime" is also mentioned. Damien Lewis asserted in his
programme that: "The results of the analysis by the UK and
Finnish chemical weapons agencies provides tantalising evidence..."
He further states: "Experts say the evidence so far is compelling"
and said that there is "[a] convincing body of evidence."
Given that in reality Lewis was demonstrably unable to produce
a shred of evidence to substantiate a single one of his claims,
'Death in the Air' is perhaps no better example of irresponsible,
sensationalist television journalism regarding Sudan (with
the possible exception of Lewis's other material on Sudan,
programmes such as his 1998 'Exporting Evil: Saddam's Hidden
Weapons' (1) ). The dozens of samples he theatrically produced
in the course of his programme were subsequently subject to
detailed, vigorous independent testing by chemical weapons
agencies of his choosing in two countries: there was not the
slightest trace of anything remotely indicative of the use
of chemical weapons.
Claims of involvement with, let alone the use of, weapons
of mass destruction such as chemical agents are amongst the
most serious that can be levelled at any individual or entity.
Extreme caution should be exercised in making such claims
- especially with regard to Sudan. It is not the first time
that false claims alleging Sudanese involvement with weapons
of mass destruction have been made. In August 1998, the United
States government launched a cruise missile attack on the
al-Shifa medicines factory in Khartoum, claiming that the
factory produced chemical weapons. The Clinton Administration
failed to produce any evidence, and blocked any subsequent
United Nations inspection of the factory. Independent tests
carried out on the factory by a distinguished American chemist
showed no traces of anything associated with chemical weapons.
(2) It is now accepted that the attack was a disastrous blunder
by the American government.(3)
We strongly urge anyone interested in media accuracy, press
sensationalism and misinformation in general, and with regard
to Sudan in particular, to read the transcript of the programme
and compare it against the results of the tests conducted
which were central to the claims made within it. The entire
transcript of the programme is available at
A Poor Track Record for Facts
It should be noted from the start that Lewis has a track record
of making almost unbelievably elementary mistakes about Sudan.
In 'Exporting Evil: Saddam's Hidden Weapons', for example,
he referred to southern Sudan as being "largely Christian".
This is a particularly odd mistake for someone such as Lewis
to have made, given that he claims to have visited and reported
from Sudan on several occasions. The Economist Intelligence
Unit's 'Sudan: Country Profile 1994-95', for example, records
that Christians account for 15 percent of the southern population.
This figure is carried in Human Rights Watch Africa's 1996
report on Sudan. (4) The definitive United States government
guide, 'Sudan A Country Study', also states: "In the early
1990s possibly no more than 10 percent of southern Sudan's
population was Christian." (5) Independent, standard references
thus state that Christians account for between 10 and 15 percent
of the population of southern Sudan. It is believed that Muslims
account for between 12-14 percent of the southern population.
By far the majority of southerners are neither Christian nor
Muslim, and are adherents of native animist religions. It
would be similar to Mr Lewis claiming in a programme about
Ireland or the United Kingdom that Northern Ireland is largely
Roman Catholic or that the Republic of Ireland was largely
Protestant. It was a mistake repeated in 'Death in the Air''s
own marketing material in 2000 - which refers to "Christian
rebels". (6) We include this as it demonstrates a scant respect
Questionable Sources and Questionable Commentators
There was no attempt or apparent desire on the part of Lewis
to offset the customary use of propaganda in war, and particular
civil war. This conflict has been fought for several decades,
most recently between the Khartoum government and the Sudan
People's Liberation Army (SPLA). The slant of the programme
was immediately apparent. Lewis's choice of interviewees and
commentators could not have been more partisan - starting
with the SPLA itself which appears to have initiated the making
of the programme. In its description of "Death in the Air",
the Rory Peck Awards themselves stated, for example, that
Lewis has "built up a working relationship" with the SPLA,
and that they asked him to investigate the use of chemical
weapons in southern Sudan.
It should be noted that considerable caution ought to have
been exercised from the outset with regard to SPLA claims.
Dr Peter Nyaba, an SPLA national executive, in his book 'The
Politics of Liberation in South Sudan: An Insider's View',
has spoken candidly of what he describes as the SPLA's "sub-culture
of lies, misinformation, cheap propaganda and exhibitionism":
"Much of what filtered out of the SPLM/A propaganda machinery,
notably Radio SPLA, was about 90% disinformation or things
concerned with the military combat, mainly news about the
fighting which were always efficaciously exaggerated." (7)
A question unconsidered by Lewis is whether self-serving allegations
of the use of chemical weapons might fall into the 90 percent
of SPLA "disinformation" as described above?
Lewis also chose to feature Baroness Cox, the president of
Christian Solidarity Worldwide, as a commentator. In considering
Baroness Cox's reliability on Sudan, it is worth nothing that
even in Andrew Boyd's sympathetic biography of her, 'Baroness
Cox: A Voice for the Voiceless', Dr Christopher Besse of Medical
Emergency Relief International (Merlin), a humanitarian aid
organisation with which Cox is closely associated (Dr Besse
and Baroness Cox are both trustees of Merlin), is quoted as
"She's not the most popular person in Sudan among the humanitarian
aid people. She has her enemies, and some of them feel she
is not well-enough informed. She recognizes a bit of the picture,
but not all that's going on." (8)
Lewis cannot have been unaware of the controversy surrounding
Cox's credibility on Sudanese affairs. On issue after issue
her accuracy has been found to be wanting. Her claims about
Sudan have been contradicted by the British and American governments,
UNSCOM and human rights groups
such as African Rights, Anti-Slavery International and prominent
southern Sudanese anti-government leaders such as Bona Malwal
- all of whom hostile to the Khartoum authorities. Even 'The
Times' newspaper has described her as "ever so slightly unhinged".(9)
Baroness Cox's track record of making other unreliable claims
concerning Sudan is a clear one. On 17 February 1998, in the
British Parliament, for example, she claimed that four hundred
Scud missiles (including support vehicles well over one thousand
vehicles) had been secretly transferred to Sudan from Iraq
since the Gulf War in the face of unprecedented satellite,
electronic and physical surveillance of that
country by the UN, the United States and other concerned members
of the international community. It is a matter of record that
Reuters reported that on the same day that Baroness Cox made
this claim, the White House, no friend of Sudan's, clearly
stated: "We have no credible evidence that Iraq has exported
weapons of mass destruction technology to other countries
since the (1991) Gulf War."
The British government stated in relation to these claims
that: "We are monitoring the evidence closely, but to date
we have no evidence to substantiate these claims...Moreover,
we know that some of the claims are untrue...".(10) The British
Government Minister also cited UNSCOM, stating that: "Nor
has the United Nations Special Commission reported any evidence
of such transfers since the Gulf War conflict and the imposition
of sanctions in 1991." (11) We mention this in some detail
as Lewis allowed Baroness Cox to once again repeat much the
same sort of unfounded allegations in the programme.
Lewis also featured members of Norwegian People's Aid (NPA)
in his programme despite the fact that this organisation is
an openly partisan supporter of the SPLA rebels. It is a matter
of record that NPA immediately echoed SPLA claims about "chemical"
warfare, stating in August 1999 that NPA "have confirmed beyond
doubt earlier reports that the government of Sudan used chemical
bombs against the civilian population of the towns of Lainya
and Kaya on the 23 July 1999".(12)
The fact is that the activities of Norwegian People's Aid
has long been of concern to some of its donors. The Norwegian
government had previously commissioned an independent investigation
into NPA. The subsequent report stated that NPA "has taken
a clear side in the war. It supports the causes of SPLA/M...NPA's
solidarity approach means that in practice the activities
of NPA are closely related to the political and military strategies
of the rebel movement." (13) Amazingly, Lewis presented a
NPA nurse as "confirming" that there had been a use of "chemical"
weapons - despite the fact that the nurse is working for a
partisan support rebel solidarity group and that, in the light
of the test results, her expertise as a chemical weapons expert
is all too questionable.
The Test Results
At the heart of the programme's credibility - and that of
Lewis himself - is his claim that "[t]he results of the analysis
by the UK and Finnish chemical weapons agencies provides tantalising
evidence..." and that "[e]xperts say the evidence so far is
Even a cursory examination of what the British and Finnish
chemical weapons agencies actually said unambiguously contradicted
the claims made in 'Death in the Air'. The Finnish laboratories
stated: "Analysis of the gloves, control soil sample and one
water sample, revealed no relevant chemicals. Analysis of
all soil samples and one water sample revealed the presence
of 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene (TNT). In addition to TNT, one soil
sample contained the following degradation products of TNT:
1,8-dinitronaphtalene, 1-nitronaphtalene and 1,5-dinitronaphthalene."
That is to say, no evidence of any chemical weapons. There
was, however, evidence that a conventional bomb had gone off.
The British government's chemical and biological defence agency
at Porton Down rigorously tested seventeen samples of water,
soil and shrapnel provided by Lewis for the spectrum of known
chemical agents. In the government's response, the British
Minister of State for Defence Procurement stated that "very
careful analysis of all the available evidence" led the government
to "conclude that there is no evidence to substantiate the
allegations that chemical weapons were used in these incidents
in the Sudan." More of Lewis's samples were independently
tested in the United States. The minister also stated with
regard to these and other samples that "a separate set of
samples taken from the sites of the alleged CW attacks in
the Sudan was tested independently in the US. The results
of these tests also indicated no evidence of exposure to CW
agents. I understand that Mr Lewis also passed samples to
the Finnish institute responsible for chemical weapons verification
("VERIFIN") and I am advised that this analysis likewise found
evidence of TNT but none for CW agents." In fact, the British
government remarked on "the consistency of results from these
three independent sets of analysis". The British government
reiterated its findings in October 2000, when, specifically
referring to Lewis's claims, they once again stated that "there
was no evidence to substantiate the allegations that chemical
weapons were used in Sudan. (14)
Mr Lewis also chose not to mention that a United Nations medical
team had also travelled to the area in which it was claimed
the chemical weapons attack took place. A Spokesman for the
United Nations Secretary-General stated that this medical
"gathered medical samples (blood and urine) from 13 of the
35 people who had reported symptoms. The samples were sent
for analysis to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), an independent
laboratory in Atlanta."
The United Nations further stated that:
"The results...as reported to the United Nations, indicated
no evidence of exposure to chemicals." (15)
Yet despite all the unambiguously negative test results on
soil, water, shrapnel, blood, urine and glove samples, Mr
Lewis somehow found the courage to claim in his programme
that these tests provided "tantalising evidence...", that
"[e]xperts say the evidence so far is compelling" and that
there is "[a] convincing body of evidence." It is for the
readers of this study to draw their own conclusions about
Mr Lewis's credibility and ethics as a reporter.
It is also worth noting that Lewis spent several minutes in
the programme describing symptoms he presented as being caused
by a chemical weapons attack. The VERIFIN report stated: "The
health hazards described in literature for TNT and its degradation
products, match quite well with the symptoms described by
the victims." That is to say that Lewis was describing symptoms
consistent with the use of standard explosives. Damien Lewis,
and presumably the "independent team of US & British military
experts" that accompanied him, were apparently unable to identify
the effects of conventional explosives, let alone chemical
The 2000 Rory Peck Awards
Amazingly, 'Death in the Air' was a finalist in 2000 in the
prestigious British Rory Peck Awards for freelance film-making,
with the judges stating: "This piece shows determination and
stamina in getting the story - he has obviously built up contacts
and come out with good evidence". Lewis may well have shown
determination and stamina; and he is self-evidently a good
story-teller, but the simple fact is that the evidence by
which the programme stands or falls is simply non-existent.
It is a matter of record that Lewis added to his documentary
in July 2000 and that the deadline for entries for the 2000
award was July 2000.
Lewis would have been aware of all the negative test results
back by early June - results which comprehensively invalidated
the entire thesis of his programme. Despite having the opportunity,
Lewis did not draw the judges' attention to the fact that
all of the independent agencies that examined his "evidence"
found nothing to support his allegations.
Instead he persisted in claiming "tantalising", "compelling"
and "convincing" evidence when there was quite clearly no
such thing. If a scientist or doctor had been party to such
a shoddy, and dangerously inept piece of work - publishing,
for example, a paper claiming a great medical breakthrough
on the basis of tests which subsequently proved to show no
such thing - and seeking to claim a prize for doing so - he
or she would probably be suspended from his profession or
possibly even struck off the medical register. Amazingly enough,
in making it through to the finals of the Rory Peck award,
rather than shunning such a questionable piece of work the
British freelance film industry appears to have actually embraced
this programme. The judges for the 2000 Rory Peck Awards were
either misled or their standards in judging the award were
'Death in the Air' is not just an indictment on Lewis's professionalism,
but a disservice to British reporters and film-makers in general
and, given that the programme was actually short-listed as
a finalist in the Rory Peck awards, a particular disservice
to those awards. Given this sort of unprofessional and blatantly
propagandistic output it is perhaps little wonder that Western
journalists and film-makers are sometimes viewed with suspicion
within parts of the developing world.
'Death in the Air' was ultimately a huge non-story. But it
nonetheless succeeded as a piece of sensationalist propaganda.
The media has a responsibility to the truth. This was certainly
not evident in 'Death in the Air'. Nor was it seemingly present
in the 2000 Rory Peck Awards.
The Report of the Finnish Institute for Verification of the
Chemical Weapons Convention (16)
"Analysis of Samples from Sudan
Helsinki 20 June 2000.
On 1 November 1999, VERIFIN received eight samples delivered
by Mr. Damien Lewis, an independent journalist. Based on information
provided by him to VERIFIN, the samples were collected on
17 August 1999 near the town Lainya in South Sudan. The village
had been bombarded and local people assumed that chemicals,
e.g. riot control agents, had been spread over the village.
Health hazards experienced by the local people were described
on a video. Photographs from the site were also shown.
According to information given to VERIFIN, chain-of-custody
procedures were followed from sample taking to their transportation
for analysis. The samples consisted of 4 soil samples, 2 water
samples, gloves used for packing of the samples, and a control
soil sample. The samples were coded in the presence of a courier.
The samples were prepared and analysed by following the Recommended
Operating Procedures used by VERIFIN in the OPCW Proficiency
Tests. In addition to detecting the chemicals included in
the Schedules of the Chemical Weapons Convention, due to the
reported symptoms of the victims, special emphasis was given
to detecting arsenic-containing and other chemicals known
to have been used as riot control agents or a method of warfare.
Screening of the samples was performed using gas chromatography
with nitrogen-phosphorous sensitive detector (GC/NPD), gas
chromatography-electron impact/mass spectrometry (GC-EI/MS)
and liquid chromatography-atmospheric pressure chemical ionization
mass spectrometry (LC-APCI/MS).
Identification of the chemicals was obtained with two different
spectrometry techniques, gas chromatography-electron impact/mass
spectrometry (GC-EI/MS) and liquid chromatography-atmospheric
pressure chemical ionization/tandem mass spectrometry (LC-APCI/MSMS).
The estimated concentrations of the chemicals in the samples
were based on analysis using GC/EI/MS. Specific laboratory
tests were performed to seek clarification to the different
colours found in the samples.
Analysis of the gloves, control soil sample and one water
sample, revealed no relevant chemicals. Analysis of all soil
samples and one water sample revealed the presence of 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene
addition to TNT, one soil sample contained the following degradation
products of TNT: 1,8-dinitronaphtalene, 1-nitronaphtalene
The estimated concentration of the TNT in the samples varied
from 6 mg/kg to 450 000 mg/kg. The health hazards described
in literature for TNT and its degradation products, match
quite well with the symptoms
described by the victims.
Director of VERIFIN
Research Director of VERIFIN"
The text of the British Government's Letter to Baroness Cox
Regarding the testing of Damien Lewis's samples at the Chemical
and Biological Defence Agency, Porton Down
Ministry of Defence, Whitehall, London SW1A 2HB
From Baroness Symons
Minister of State for Defence Procurement
5 June 2000
You wrote to me on 6 October about allegations that chemical
weapons had been used by Sudanese Government forces against
its internal opponents. I know that you have subsequently
pursued the matter in the House of Lords and that Baroness
Scotland has responded to a number of your points. I am sorry
that it has taken so long to reply but, as I am sure you appreciate,
on a question of such sensitivity we needed to carry out very
careful analysis of all the available evidence.
First of all, I would like to assure you that the Government
treats very seriously all allegations that chemical weapons
have been used. As you know, the limited information available
from the reports of the incidents in Sudan last July suggested
that if chemical agents had been used, then they were likely
to have been arsenical "riot control agents", ie chemicals
that produce sensory irritation or short-lived disabling physical
effects. The initial analysis carried out at CBD Porton of
the samples provided by Damien Lewis was therefore undertaken
on the assumption that such agents may have been involved.
Given the lapse of time between the alleged incident and the
collection of the samples, CBD assessed that no intact trace
of such agents would remain. Accordingly, tests were carried
out only to determine the presence of elemental arsenic. This
was found to be present but only in concentrations well below
normal background levels. Mr Lewis was then informed of these
results by CBD.
Although there was no clear evidence indicating the use of
chemical weapons, I concluded that, given the seriousness
of the allegations, further analysis should be carried out
to screen for chemical agents, their environmental degradation
products, and riot-control agents. This has now been completed.
The methods used involved gas and liquid chromatography, combined
with mass spectrometry for chemical agents and riot control
agents, and atomic absorption spectrometry for arsenic. These
techniques are also used in carrying out analysis of samples
to meet the requirements adopted by the Organisation for the
Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). A total of 17 samples
of water, soil, and shrapnel collected from three sites in
the Sudan were analysed for the presence of known chemical
agents, ie the classical nerve agents, mustard, and other
recognised agents, for their environmental degradation products,
and for riot-control agents. They were also screened for the
presence of arsenic.
No intact CW agents, their associated environmental degradation
products, or riot-control agents were identified in any of
the samples. Low levels of arsenic were detected in 15 of
the samples, but, again, only at levels well below expected
natural limits for environmental samples. Conventional TNT
explosive was present in eight of the samples, mainly those
collected from near to the alleged bomb craters or from presumed
bomb fragments. CBD concluded from its analysis that these
samples bore no evidence of the CW agents for which they had
been tested. I enclose a copy of the CBD report.
You may be aware that a separate set of samples taken from
the sites of the alleged CW attacks in the Sudan was tested
independently in the US. The results of these tests also indicated
no evidence of exposure to CW agents. I understand that Mr
Lewis also passed samples to the Finnish institute responsible
for chemical weapons verification ("VERIFIN") and I am advised
that this analysis likewise found evidence of TNT but none
for CW agents. Given the consistency of results from these
three independent sets of analysis, I believe we must conclude
that there is no evidence to substantiate the allegations
that chemical weapons were used in these incidents in the
The Government is informing OPCW and the Sudanese Government
of the results of the CBD analysis. I am also arranging for
a copy of my letter and the results of the CBD's analysis
to be passed on to Mr Lewis.
I am copying this letter to Baroness Scotland, Lord McNair,
Viscount Brentford and Lord Ahmed who took part in the debate
on the Sudan in the House of Lords on 13 October.
1 See, for example, 'Damien Lewis and Sudan: Questionable
Journalism on "Chemical Weapons"', published by MSANEWS, 30
July 2001 at 17:14:57.
2 See, 'U.S. Evidence of Terror Links to Blitzed Medicine
Factory Was "Totally Wrong"', Andrew Marshall, 'The Independent',
London, 15 February 1999; 'No Trace of Nerve Gas Precursor
Found at Bombed Sudan Plant', 'Chemical & Engineering
News', 15 February 1999.
3 'Clinton Bombed Civilians on Purpose.
American Tests Showed No Trace of Nerve Gas at "Deadly"
Sudan Plant. The President Ordered the Attack Anyway', 'The
Observer', London, 23 August 1998. Front-page.
4 'Behind the Red Line: Political Repression in Sudan',
published by Human Rights Watch/Africa, New York, 1996,
5 See 'Sudan - A Country Study', available at the Library
of Congress web-site: see particularly, section on regionalism
6 'Sudan - Death in the Air', Phoenix Television, web-posted
7 Peter Nyaba, 'The Politics of Liberation in South Sudan:
An Insider's View', Fountain Publishers, Kampala, 1997,
8 Andrew Boyd, 'Baroness Cox: A Voice for the Voiceless',
Lion Publishing, Oxford, 1998, p.324.
9 'The Times', (London), 30 January 2001, p.27.
10 House of Lords 'Official Report', 19 March 1998, cols.
11 House of Lords 'Official Report', 19 March 1998, cols.
12 Norwegian People's Aid, 'Confirmed Chemical Bombing in
Southern Sudan', 2 August 1999, posted on Relief Wet,
13 'Evaluation of Norwegian Humanitarian Assistance to the
Sudan', a report submitted to the Royal Norwegian Ministry
of Foreign Affairs, COWI, Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs,
Oslo, November 1997, p.27.
14 House of Lords 'Official Report', 31 October 2000, col.
15 'Note for the Spokesman of the Secretary-General on Sudan',
Note delivered by the United Nations Resident Coordinator,
Mr Philippe Borel, to the Sudanese Foreign Ministry, 17
16 As published in 'The ASA Newsletter', Issue No. 79, 2000,
Applied Science and Analysis Inc, available at