Blinkered media preserve redundant myths from Kennedy to Lockerbie

Steven Raeburn

“What if Hitler had won the war?” posited Peter Preston in the opening to his column in The Guardian in December. “Or Lee Harvey Oswald had missed?"

History is full of "What if questions…" he added, disregarding the established narrative, far less the imaginary one with laissez faire casualness at once breathtaking and disturbing in equal measure.

The casual statement betrays an iceberg of insidious brainwashing that Preston is apparently both subject to and guilty of perpetrating, symptomatic of a growing collective cultural disdain for the unfashionable virtues that newspapers used to specialise in, truth, clarity, inquiry and the accumulation of knowledge.

The throwaway remark about the as yet unsolved murder of John F Kennedy -let us not forget that no one was ever tried or found guilty- undermines years of journalistic analysis and judicial inquiry, shoring up the dead logic that presumes a government as historically criminal as the US is honest, benign and benevolent in its actions and its information.

There is real danger underlying the blind and faithless acceptance of the propaganda myth of Oswald’s guilt, and the ease with which it is perpetuated so casually. Would the Guardian allow a casual reference to the flatness of the Earth to pass so easily into print?

Without attempting to solve the Kennedy mystery in a single burst of prose, a look at only two facts about the events of November 22 1963 - facts that are immediately evident without recourse to research or reliance on questionable evidence or testimony- together with one piece of chance, should be enough to demonstrate the innocence of Oswald, an issue of only marginal significance in 2010.

The casual act of chance centres around Abraham Zapruder, and is the most significant and useful element of that day in Dallas almost 50 years ago. Those who planned the killing -and there can be no doubt that it was well planned, no matter what you believe about how it was accomplished - would not have considered it likely that the killing would be filmed.

Nowadays, as Silvio Berlosconi’s recent brush with ornamenture proves, a President can’t walk a step in public without a battery of digital recorders documenting every moment.

But back in analogue 1963, 20 years before VHS ubiquity and a lifetime away from the internet and rolling news, the likelihood of anyone having a film camera pointed at Kennedy at the crucial moment was a risk too minimal to factor into the equation. But not only was Zapruder whirring away in Super 8mm colour, he was doing so from a vantage point so perfect, Oliver Stone could have placed him there himself.

As a result, we possess undeniable fact number one. Kennedy was shot at least once from a position more or less directly ahead, the bullet throwing pieces of him across the back of the car for Jackie to reflexively and pitifully chase. That single fact alone makes any further discussion about Oswald’s guilt irrelevant.

His movements throughout that day are remarkably (and conveniently) still a little hazy and up for question, despite the unrelenting scrutiny of the entire legal, governmental and judicial machinery of the United States and all its resources, whose motivations and role in that investigation must necessarily be viewed with scepticism because of fact number two, which we’ll get to in a moment.

But whatever his movements, by all accounts somewhere within the Texas School Book Depository at the key moments, he was resolutely not up ahead of the Presidential procession. So Peter, not only did Lee Harvey Oswald “miss”, he probably wasn’t even shooting.

Other cinefilm nuts on the other side of the famed Dealey Plaza caught the stunned crowd rushing to their feet a few moments later and surging towards the infamous grassy knoll in the hope of catching the shooter. Why anyone still clings to the Oswald myth when this evidence alone squashes the case against him is beyond all logic. But then, we live in a world where creationists are given equal airtime against Richard Dawkins, so I guess we threw out knowledge a long time ago.

The second unavoidable fact is also the most uncomfortable and disturbing, which is probably why it is so often ignored. And it is this. The US Government concluded in 1964 that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone, and then changed its mind in 1979 to concede that Kennedy had “probably” been killed as a result of a conspired plan involving others, in which shots were fired at Kennedy from ahead.

“The committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy,” it said.

“The committee was unable to identify the other gunmen or the extent of the conspiracy.” This remains their official position, and was reached after a relentless onslaught of logic and inquiry as the Zapruder film became more widely circulated, and the questions kept coming and coming, and failed to be met with satisfactory answers.

Anyone who can empathise with the instinct of self-preservation should be able to understand that the US Government had something to hide and had tried its best to do so. Even its grudging conclusion of 1979 constituted only the barest minimum admission that it could get away with.

More than 30 years later, the received wisdom expressed in the casual remarks of our most prodigious columnists disregards this and turns the clock back to 1964. How the hell did that happen? This is dangerous territory. The truth is never going to be established if journalists and editors decided to stop working and finding things out back in 1964, and accept the flawed conclusion of the hastily convened Warren Commission, whose cover up of convenience was later retracted.

Such journalistic malaise, which so hastily dismisses alternative viewpoints arrived at through the persistent, thorough analysis and scrutiny of fellow professionals, is proof of either indignant laziness or a willingness to allow the nefarious actions of governments to go unchecked.

Inquiring journalism in the UK is not entirely dead, otherwise the deceit behind the Iraq invasion would not lie so brutally exposed, but will the columnists of the future write so casually about the “fact” of Iraq’s deadly arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, self-evidently non-existent today but conjured up as retroactive reality in the copy of tomorrow?

A disturbing parallel has been playing out across the news pages at high volume since August, when Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi was returned to Libya. Most people know him by his honorary title, “The Lockerbie Bomber,” despite the uncomfortable fact that in 2007 the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission concluded that a miscarriage of justice may have befallen an innocent man, and it was the court’s probing into this miscarriage that was required to be so conveniently dropped before he was allowed to be returned home.

There is a legitimate task of inquiry to be carried out into these events, and that duty falls upon the press whilst the Scottish and UK Governments are as presently unwilling as that of the US during its 1964-1979 interregnum.

Casual, lazy or dismissive journalism becomes dangerously irresponsible in circumstances where the facts are allowed to remain obscured, and redundant myths perpetuated in their place. It allows those who have something to hide in the events surrounding Kennedy and Megrahi to be able to continue to do so. The question to be asked is not “What if Oswald missed", but rather, Why have we swallowed the lies?

*Steve Raeburn is editor of the online journal The Firm.