Of The Guardian, corrections and clarifications, and Geoffrey Robertson Qc – Lockerbie expert

Earlier in the week I ploughed through the Guardian website reading articles on Lockerbie. As well as reporting various comments for contempt of court related reasons I stumbled across a fascinating piece by a Geoffrey Robertson QC.

You might have heard Geoffrey Robertson QC on the radio or seen him on TV during the past week. The highly distinguished English human rights lawyer has transmogrified into a Lockerbie expert, his views sought by the London based media because they can’t be bothered to find the names of good Scottish advocates of his vast and extensive expertise in the Scottish legal system..


Mr Robertson has made a point of approving the original Megrahi decision and condemning the action of Kenny MacAskill in releasing Mr Megrahi. His argument, and Lockerbie expertise, are so persuasive that he won over some commenters to The Guardian website. Clearly a man with such expertise and QC after his name must know what he’s talking about.

So let us examine his extensive knowledge of the Lockerbie case

"I have read the judgment of the Lockerbie court and the two appeal judgments upholding it and al-Megrahi’s guilt seems plain beyond reasonable doubt. "

Well, that seems quite persuasive. An English lawyer – indeed a senior and very well-respected English lawyer has taken the time to read the Lockerbie judgment and the two appeal judgments and is convinced that Megrahi is guilty. My regular reader will know that I have no firm views on megrahi’s guilt. I think there was enough revealed in the judgment to construct a case of guilt, but not being there and hearing the evidence it’s hard to know. But Mr Robertson has read the original court judgment and two appeals and is convinced of Megrahi’s guilt.

Sadly for the learned gentleman there is one problem.

Now, here is where you find the Lockerbie judgment (the court chaired by Lord Sutherland).

And here is where you find the appeal judgment (a five judge bench chaired by the Lord Justice General)

if you’re interested in the background to the Megrahi case read both. They’re very informative.

But where is the second appeal judgment referred to by the learned mr Robertson?

Do you know?

Have you guessed yet? I’ll leave it a few lines for you to think about it.

So, have you worked it out yet? Where does this second appeal judgment exist? Well, my loyal reader, it exists in mr Robertson QC’s head – because there was no second appeal. There have been procedural hearings in the now dropped second appeal – and Professor Black has covered those in his blog. But as for anything that can persuade or dissuade of guilt, well I’m afraid it doesn’t exist.

So, Mr Robertson QC’s Lockerbie expertise is slightly misleading. Now this isn’t to criticise his arguments on international human rights law. That is a far away legal area of which I know little. But surely getting such a fundamental fact relating to the case wrong is something that ought to be drawn to reader attention to allow proper consideration of a piece by a well-regarded and persuasive individual.

Given that the Guardian has a proud record in correcting factual errors I wrote to their readers editor seeking correction. My hugely inflammatory correspondence read as follows:

"In Geoffrey Robertson Qc’s article on Saturday about the release of Mr megrahi by Kenny MacAskill at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/aug/22/lockerbie-bomber-megrahi-release-debate?commentpage=3 he wrongly states that

"I have read the judgment of the Lockerbie court and the two appeal judgments upholding it and al-Megrahi’s guilt seems plain beyond reasonable doubt."
There was one judgment – delivered by a panel of three judges chaired by Lord Sutherland in the court in camp Zeist following the trial. There was only one appeal judgment delivered by a panel of five judges.
Both judgments are on the Scottish courts website
I would be astonished if Mr Robertson QC had managed to read "two appeal judgments" given that only one appeal exists, and a second appeal – based on a recommendation from the Scottish Criminal cases Review Commission – was dropped with the agreement of the High Court of the Justiciary on appeal only days before mr MacAskill’s decision to release Mr Megrahi.
I write to you initially as this is a factual inaccuracy, but if you feel that this covers an editorial point would be grateful if you could advise and I will write to the editor."

I received the standard automatic reply (from a do not reply e-mail address) and waited.

It will perhaps surprise you to know that The Guardian have not – on the webpage or in the newspaper – corrected the error. Perhaps it’s too trivial. or is it too embarrassing to point out to a senior English QC that he didn’t know what he was writing about, in commenting on the legal proceedings in a faraway court system of which he (apparently) knows little.

Anyway, I have written again.

"Dear Sirs

I advised you of the error in Mr Robertson QC’s article the other day. My e-mail is appended.  I note the error has been referred to already by a senior scottish QC, Jonathan Mitchell; and a senior Scottish legal academic Professor Hector MacQueen in web articles or comments on the Megrahi release. I can provide links to both if you require.
As there seems little doubt that Mr Megrahi was subject to one substantive appeal judgment I wonder if you can confirm that Mr Robertson, distinguished QC though he is, is in error on this factual matter." [the links are in my last Lockerbie post – follow the tag below]

Funnily enough there’s been no reply and no correction.

So, why do you think the Guardian won’t correct Geoffrey Robertson QC’s error?

I’d be grateful for any suggestions.


About loveandgarbage

I watch the telly and read when not doing law stuff and plugging my decade and a half old unwatched Edinburgh fringe show.
This entry was posted in geoffrey robertson qc, law, lockerbie, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Of The Guardian, corrections and clarifications, and Geoffrey Robertson Qc – Lockerbie expert

  1. Anonymous says:

    Geoffreey Roberston QC
    To be fair – Geoffrey Robertson QC has enjoyed a long and distinguished career and doesn’t make many errors. This one is slightly bizarre and I really don’t quite understand how he could have made it. Is it possible that a trick of memory of cases and issues has somehow crossed recollection?
    As you fairly and rightly note – you are not alone in noticing the error. Two other distinguished Scots lawyers – Jonathan Mitchell QC and Professor MacQueen have picked up on the issue.
    Surely, Robertson himself would wish this error to be corrected? We all make errors of memory – it would be a fairly straightforward mattter for him to correct it? Has anyone written to Geoffrey Robertson.? I understand that he is a very approachable and open minded man.

    • Re: Geoffreey Roberston QC
      My issue is mainly with The Guardian (and London media) (although I accept that the tone of my piece is a little too sarcastic).
      I am bemused why no Scottish lawyer has been approached by the London media studios. hearing yet another interview by Geoffrey Robertson earlier in the week on the legality of this case when I am not sure if he would be familiar with the procedural or legislative backdrop to the decision facing macAskill left me a tad bemused. personally I would be loath to comment on the niceties of English law and administrative procedure in the areas where I know Scots law well. As for interviewees Jonathan Mitchell would have been good value, or the correspondent on your blog advoc_8.
      (This problem – the assumption by the London offices of media organisations that Scots and english law is the same – occurs frequently in relation to Scottish legal matters – I recall the same thing with the Sheridan case (and note there that a perceptive English reporter could have pointed out that there would have been in victory before an English libel jury given the size of the majority in Sheridan’s case, which would surely have put an interesting spin on any UK wide media reporting of the case)).
      I wrote to The Guardian at the start of the week – I would have thought a week after the article would have seen the correction (even if only on the website). Are they too scared to approach Mr Robertson? And as you point out I can’t imagine he wouldn’t want the error to be corrected.
      I’ve held of posting until now, but as that’s a week since the article and nearly a week since I wrote to The Guardian thought a blog worthwhile.
      Why did Mr Robertson make the error? I suspect the reason lies in the nature of the process in the case. The original judgment is a decision of 3 judges – because under the terms of the Camp Zeist agreement there was no jury (but 3 judges and a reserve). It reads in parts like a standard appellate judgment – albeit with huge emphasis on the facts rather than the law. Reading this and the 5 judge decision (and not being within the system) one could easily mistake them for 2 appeals.
      Best wishes

  2. Anonymous says:

    I am astonished that London papers have not taken trouble to contact Scots practitioners and academics. I mean… how difficult can it be..? It is not as if you are all invisible…. and there are an increasing number of Scots lawyer bloggers.
    I re-read GR QC’s polemic…sorry… piece in the Guardian.
    He does seem very certain that the original verdict was ‘right’. I suspect there may be others who are not so sure…
    I cannot believe the Scots Judiciary would be troubled by an appeal and a different finding? Surely that is the prupose of Appeal – to get to the reality and do justice as best as any appeal process can?
    I am a fan of Lord denning – but I was not happy with his remarks about the death penalty and the appeal process. different times.
    Fortunately, I do not have to be a judge in any matter – but I am encouraged that the judges on our side of the legal border are far more prepared, than once was the case, to hold government to account and our new Supreme Court may be of great value going forward – albeit, on criminal matters, having no jurisdiction over Scots cases.
    GR QC may have been just a bit too sound byte on the Guardian piece?

    • Anonymous says:

      “I am astonished that London papers have not taken trouble to contact Scots practitioners and academics. I mean… how difficult can it be..?”
      Sorry. Not astonished. This is simply a case of the ‘southern’ media (BBC news is virtually never ‘national’) concentrating on what it knows. Show me a story splashed on the BBC website about education, health, or legal that has the differences of all the nation states’ included and I’ll eat my own head.
      The London newspapers are just the same; they know their own contacts and use them, but stories from ‘up north’ (read west/over to NI etc etc) and they’re simply out of their depth, apparently.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I am an admirer of Geoffrey Robertson but this is an error worth correcting and I’m sure he himself would want it corrected. The Guardian do him a dis-service in failing to respond.
    Unlike Mr Robertson, I have not read the Lockerbie judgement, but I’d like to make two small points about it –
    Firstly, because serious crimes in Scotland are tried by a judge and jury, the most senior judges have very little or no actual experience of ‘deciding the facts’ in a criminal case – ‘the facts’ normally being the exclusive preserve of the jury. Wise and learned in the law the judges may have been, but they were not experts in the particular exacting task set for them by the trial of Megrahi (and his co-accused).
    Secondly, and I do not claim any expertise or insider knowledge here (this is mere gossip), I understand that the Scottish Criminal Case Review Commission were taken aback by the number and nature of errors, inconsistencies and misunderstandings, to say nothing of flawed reasoning,in the trial judgement. Sadly this is not now going to be explored to a conclusion as the appeal process has come to an end. It is interesting, however, that Mr Robertson should have found so compelling the very document that was apparently so heavily criticised by the Review team.

    • At the time I wondered if a panel of sheriffs would be preferable (including one G Gordon).
      On the second point your understanding is shared by a senior member of the bar I spoke to last week.

  4. Pingback: Are you a celebrity? Have you a secret? Consider your choice of lawyer carefully. | Love and Garbage – some commonplace musings

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