b (perfectisafault) wrote in ontd_political,

Since it's almost time for the World Cup...

The price of truth

The World Cup starts tomorrow. A cumulative audience of 26 billion, we keep being told. The biggest sporting event on the planet. And alongside all the hoopla, South Africa will find itself subjected to scrutiny by at least a small number of the thousands of journalists covering the event.

This week, a spot of professional reminiscence. A moment when this journalist was confronted with the ethics of his profession, and a memory that asks insistently, "was there something else you could have done?".

In the weeks leading up to another FIFA World Cup, 32 years ago, I found myself, as a young BBC producer, on my first major overseas assignment. The job: to research and produce a 50-minute Panorama program about the host of the 1978 World Cup, Argentina.

Though we didn't fully realise it at the time, 1978 was right in the middle of what Argentinians still call the Dirty War. On one side was the fascist military junta that ruled Argentina, led by President Jorge Videla - a regime that finally foundered four years later in the wake of Argentina's defeat in the Falklands War. On the other, leftist urban guerrillas - or Communist terrorists, as the regime labelled them - and others who opposed the regime more peaceably: trades unionists, students, priests, teachers. Thousands of them had simply disappeared. Some had reappeared as mutilated corpses, washed up on the shores of the estuary of the River Plate, or dumped by the roadside with hoods over their faces. Many were simply never heard from again.

On the way out to Argentina I had stopped off in Madrid to speak to Argentine exiles. They were horrified that I intended to hire a fixer/translator in Argentina - the normal procedure. "Oh no!' they all said, "you'll be hiring a secret policeman who will report on your every move." So I took their advice, and asked London to send out a Spanish-speaking translator on the next flight. She arrived a few days later - even younger and less experienced than me, straight out of university in fact, but with excellent, colloquial Spanish.

We were working in a peculiar, almost surreal atmosphere. Buenos Aires was to all appearances a thriving, stylish, capital city. But its superficial chic masked a horror beneath the skin.

We knew, of course, about the kidnappings and disappearances. We had maps from Amnesty International that told us where to find the main torture centres and prison camps. But we thought that the worst of the repression was already past. The Argentine media had been silenced. Opponents of the regime were justifiably terrified. Information was very difficult to come by. Interviews with the regime's opponents were still harder to secure. The government insisted that the guerrillas had been defeated and the country was at peace.

For two weeks, the translator and I worked together. Then the crew and the reporter arrived - he was a much more experienced journalist than I, though he'd worked mostly in the UK. Gradually we put together a picture of a country that should have been healthy, and wealthy, but which was being remorselessly torn apart by the ferocity of its political divisions.

But we still had found no one who could convincingly demonstrate what everyone 'knew' to be true - that the so-called 'death squads', the mysterious vigilante groups who arrived in large black cars at 3 am to take away husbands, and sons, and daughters, most of whom were never seen again - that these mysterious groups were in fact serving members of the armed forces and the police.

Until one day, in a provincial city, thanks to a contact made for us by a brave human rights worker, we struck gold. A dignified old man told us, in a seedy café, how he, his adult son and teenage daughter had been abducted. The black cars at 3 am. The secret detention centre. The beatings. The electric shocks. The sleep-deprivation. The interrogations. The beatings again. The whole ghastly panoply of 20th century tyranny, where right and left met on the blind side of justice.

And then, after about two weeks, to his astonishment, our interlocutor was released. He still didn't know why. But they'd told him, as they dumped him on a side-street: "If you talk to anybody, you will never see your son or your daughter again".

And a couple of days later, in the main square, he saw one of his tormentors, a man who had questioned him for hours between beatings. And he was wearing the uniform of a colonel in the army, the paratroop regiment that was based just outside the town. Yes, he was sure. He could even tell us his name. He'd asked at the bar the colonel had been drinking in. He was a favoured customer, a good guy, the bartender had said.

The reporter and I looked at each other. This was gold. Speaking, frustratingly, through our young translator, the reporter asked: "And can you tell us this on camera?".

No, said the old man. His children's lives would be forfeit. Unless…

"Yes, unless?"

"Unless you can guarantee two things: first, that if I speak the truth to you, that your government will intervene to stop this savagery. And second, that you can disguise me and my voice so that no one could possibly recognise me."

I don't think I waited more than five seconds before I said to the translator: "Tell him we can't guarantee either of those things. We can film him in silhouette, and we can disguise his voice, but we can't guarantee that no one will be able to work out who he is. And we can't of course speak for the British government. But what he has to say is really important. It will make a difference."

And she translated what I said, and the old man smiled sadly, and thanked me for my frankness, and bid us goodbye, and left.

The reporter was furious. He was the senior partner in the enterprise. I had pre-empted him. And, as he said, if we'd talked to the old man some more, explored possibilities, discussed both the dangers and what was to be gained, we might have talked him round. We had lost the jewel, the crucial evidence.

Part of me recognised that what he said was true. Certainly, I'd spoken too soon. Certainly, it was his call, not mine. But another part of me felt that no manoeuvring could escape the stark reality that this man's children's lives were at stake.

Then the translator piped up. "Jonathan was right", she declared. "If you had said anything else to that old man, I would have refused to work any more with either of you!"

At which point, both of us turned on her. These were our decisions to take, we said. She was here to do a job, she was being paid to translate, not to shove her naïve opinions forward. If this vicious tyranny were to be exposed for what it was, it was up to people like us to do it - and we needed people like the old man. It was no time for an amateur's ethics.

And so it went. The program was as thorough as it could be, but it lacked that magic eye-witness testimony. Of course we didn't write down the old man's name and address, we didn't dare to, and so I never found out if he saw his children again. But I doubt it.

Most readers, I suspect, will side with the translator. Most professional journalists will side with the reporter. Lord preserve us, they will think, from producers and translators who presume too much. I still don't know what else we could have done, and yet I think of that old man as the interview that got away, the one that might, to some small degree, have made a difference.

It's a powerful memory, and one that resurfaces, every four years, as the Football World Cup opening ceremony hits the screen from some far corner of the world. The goal we didn't score, but that might have cost too much if we had scored it.

Argentina in 1978 was an evil place. Thank goodness, it's happier now. The old man is no doubt long since dead. His children, I'm afraid, have been dead for even longer.

I have a Google Alert for "Jorge Videla dead" and this just popped up. I thought it was really interesting. The 1978 World Cup was the most fucked up thing ever. Also, I apologize for forgetting the LJ cut.
Tags: argentina, sports

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