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John Pilger argues the "Lockerbie bomber" Megrahi was framed

The trial of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was worse than a farce; we must recognise the disgrace.

The hysteria over the release of the so-called Lockerbie bomber reveals much about the political and media class on both sides of the Atlantic, especially Britain. From Gordon Brown's "repulsion" to Barack Obama's "outrage", the theatre of lies and hypocrisy is dutifully attended by those who call themselves journalists. "But what if Megrahi lives longer than three months?" whined a BBC reporter to the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond. "What will you say to your constituents, then?"

Horror of horrors that a dying man should live longer than prescribed before he "pays" for his "heinous crime": the description of the Scottish justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, whose "compassion" allowed Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al-Megrahi to go home to Libya to "face justice from a higher power". Amen.

The American satirist Larry David once addressed a voluble crony as "a babbling brook of bullshit". Such eloquence summarises the circus of Megrahi's release.

No one in authority has had the guts to state the truth about the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 above the Scottish village of Lockerbie on 21 December 1988, in which 270 people were killed. The governments in England and Scotland in effect blackmailed Megrahi into dropping his appeal as a condition of his immediate release. Of course there were oil and arms deals under way with Libya; but had Megrahi proceeded with his appeal, some 600 pages of new and deliberately suppressed evidence would have set the seal on his innocence and given us more than a glimpse of how and why he was stitched up for the benefit of "strategic interests".

“The endgame came down to damage limitation," said the former CIA officer Robert Baer, who took part in the original investigation, "because the evidence amassed by [Megrahi's] appeal is explosive and extremely damning to the system of justice." New witnesses would show that it was impossible for Megrahi to have bought clothes that were found in the wreckage of the Pan Am aircraft - he was convicted on the word of a Maltese shopowner who claimed to have sold him the clothes, then gave a false description of him in 19 separate statements and even failed to recognise him in the courtroom.

The new evidence would have shown that a fragment of a circuit board and bomb timer, "discovered" in the Scottish countryside and said to have been in Megrahi's suitcase, was probably a plant. A forensic scientist found no trace of an explosion on it. The new evidence would demonstrate the impossibility of the bomb beginning its journey in Malta before it was "transferred" through two airports undetected to Flight 103.

A "key secret witness" at the original trial, who claimed to have seen Megrahi and his co-accused, al-Alim Khalifa Fahimah (who was acquitted), loading the bomb on to the plane at Frankfurt, was bribed by the US authorities holding him as a "protected witness". The defence exposed him as a CIA informer who stood to collect, on the Libyans' conviction, up to $4m as a reward.

Megrahi was convicted by three Scottish judges sitting in a courtroom in "neutral" Holland. There was no jury. One of the few reporters to sit through the long and often farcical proceedings was the late Paul Foot, whose landmark investigation in Private Eye exposed it as a cacophony of blunders, deceptions and lies: a whitewash. The Scottish judges, while admitting a "mass of conflicting evidence" and rejecting the fantasies of the CIA informer, found Megrahi guilty on hearsay and unproven circumstance. Their 90-page "opinion", wrote Foot, "is a remarkable document that claims an honoured place in the history of British miscarriages of justice". (His report, Lockerbie - the Flight from Justice, can be downloaded from for £5.)

Foot reported that most of the staff of the US embassy in Moscow who had reserved seats on Pan Am flights from Frankfurt cancelled their bookings when they were alerted by US intelligence that a terrorist attack was planned. He named Margaret Thatcher the "architect" of the cover-up after revealing that she killed the independent inquiry her transport secretary Cecil Parkinson had promised the Lockerbie families; and in a phone call to President George Bush Sr on 11 January 1990, she agreed to "low-key" the disaster after their intelligence services had reported "beyond doubt" that the Lockerbie bomb had been placed by a Palestinian group, contracted by Tehran, as a reprisal for the shooting down of an Iranian airliner by a US warship in Iranian territorial waters. Among the 290 dead were 66 children. In 1990, the ship's captain was awarded the Legion of Merit by Bush Sr "for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding service as commanding officer".

Perversely, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1991, Bush needed Iran's support as he built a "coalition" to expel his wayward client from an American oil colony. The only country that defied Bush and backed Iraq was Libya. "Like lazy and overfed fish," wrote Foot, "the British media jumped to the bait. In almost unanimous chorus, they engaged in furious vilification and open warmongering against Libya." The framing of Libya for the Lockerbie crime was inevitable. Since then, a US defence intelligence agency report, obtained under Freedom of Information, has confirmed these truths and identified the likely bomber; it was to be the centrepiece of Megrahi's defence.

In 2007, the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission referred Megrahi's case for appeal. "The commission is of the view," said its chairman, Graham Forbes, "based upon our lengthy investigations, the new evidence we have found and other evidence which was not before the trial court, that the applicant may have suffered a miscarriage of justice."

The words "miscarriage of justice" are entirely missing from the current furore, with Kenny MacAskill reassuring the baying mob that the scapegoat will soon face justice from that "higher power". What a disgrace.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.