Media Microscope: Polonium and Bolognium

Allon Lee

A Swiss lab’s finding of elevated levels of the radioactive element polonium-210 in samples taken from Yasser Arafat’s body suggesting he might have been poisoned – released days before the ninth anniversary of his death – proved to be media gold. It also served as a good promo for al-Jazeera, which was responsible for running with and to an extent, creating, this story.

Most reports on Nov. 8 included the Swiss lab’s quote that their findings “moderately support the proposition that the death” was caused by polonium poisoning. But editors did not let this reality stand in the way of a good headline.

This was most notable in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald‘s “Arafat’s body loaded with polonium, say scientists,” the Courier-Mail and Daily Telegraph‘s “Arafat Nuked”, and the Cairns Post‘s “Poison caused Arafat’s death”.

More restrained were the Hobart Mercury‘s “Tests point to Arafat being poisoned”, “Polonium link to Arafat” in the Herald Sun, and “Tests suggest Arafat killed by polonium” in the Canberra Times.

British forensic scientist David Barclay’s conclusion that the evidence of polonium was the “smoking gun” indicating what caused Arafat’s illness and subsequent death featured in the Australian, and the Age/Sydney Morning Herald/Canberra Times. Only the Australian noted Barclay was retained to give his opinion by al-Jazeera.

Matt Brown pointed out the Swiss lab’s caveats, including that “they didn’t have much of a sample to go by. Eight years has gone by since the remains were buried… And when it came to the personal effects, there was no real guaranteed chain of custody,” ABC Radio “AM” (Nov. 7).

Emma Alberici noted that “the work by Swiss scientists was commissioned by the al-Jazeera television network” and “other scientists have cast doubt on the results,” ABC TV “Lateline” (Nov. 7).

Some reports were scrupulously agnostic on the question of who might have poisoned Arafat.

The Australian noted that “Arafat had foes among his own people, notably within Hamas”.
Tony Walker, who wrote a biography of Arafat, was uncertain where culpability lay but noted how “suspicion has, inevitably, fallen upon Israel.”

Walker also included a quote made by Ehud Olmert in 2003 about Israeli policy toward Arafat, stating that “expulsion is certainly one of the options. Killing is also one of the options.” However, Walker erroneously described him as prime minister when it was made. Ariel Sharon was Israel’s prime minister in 2003, with Olmert his deputy.

Walker wrote that Hanan Ashrawi “gave voice to suspicions that had lingered among Palestinians at what had seemed an inexplicable deterioration in Arafat’s health.” In the online version the sentence continued, stating that the deterioration in Arafat’s health was “ascribed by Israeli propaganda at the time to a terminal condition caused by AIDS.” Strange “propaganda”, given that Arafat’s former physician, Dr. Ashraf Al-Kurdi, told al-Jazeera in 2007 that the French doctors who treated Arafat informed him that blood tests indicated the presence of the HIV virus, Australian Financial Review (Nov. 8).

Cartoonist Spooner cleverly parodied the children’s nursery “Who killed Cock Robin?” to show a long line of potential suspects, ultimately concluding with the question of “what took us so long?,” Age (Nov. 9).

British analyst Daniel Finkelstein felt the answer lies with Arafat’s cronies. Having met Arafat in early 2000, Finkelstein recounted how he was surrounded by “a large coterie of advisers… [who]…were afraid of him and of each other, but also frustrated with him. The soldiers…thought he was leading them to defeat but couldn’t get a straight answer about what to do next… Every so often one of them would end up dead, or have to go on the run. And the more it went on, the more they saw the old man, with his slippery words and his faltering health, as an obstacle,” Australian (Nov. 14).

Full-page ads spruiking al-Jazeera’s 47-minute program on its 18-month Arafat investigation appeared in the Herald Sun (Nov. 10) and then the Sydney Morning Herald, Courier Mail and Age (Nov. 11).

The program, fronted by Clayton Swisher, mostly ignored Israel but questioned the PA’s response in 2004 and subsequently. In an article he penned for the Guardian (Nov. 9), Swisher squarely pointed the finger of blame at the Palestinian Authority.

Al-Jazeera is owned by the Qatari royal family which promotes the spread of Sunni Islamism and has reportedly donated millions to prop up Hamas’ rule in Gaza. A previous al-Jazeera ‘expose’ called the Palestine Papers, made a virtue of suggesting that the compromises for peace agreed to by the Fatah-controlled PA were treasonous.