Transcript of David Leigh’s speech at the Taco Kuiper Award ceremony on April 17 2009 at the Rand Club in Johannesburg

I am very grateful to be asked here and I am impressed to be   in this astonishing building which seems to have layers of history behind it, not all of them welcome to everybody. 

It’s been said that the arms deal in South Africa poisoned the wells of the post-apartheid government. Well, I thought I would tell you that it’s poisoned the wells of British government as well.

I’ve spent quite a bit of my life recently, (in fact an astonishingly long time), investigating the British arms deal. It has curious similarities to the South African arms deal and indeed intertwines with it. 

Like yours, the British arms deal was enormous. At its heart, BAE – Britain’s biggest arms company, indeed  Europe’s biggest arms company and one of the biggest arms companies in the world – sold weapons worth €43 billion (R500 billion) to Saudi Arabia plus a lot more weapons around the world.

BAE used to be a state owned company at one point. We lived for years with rumours that the arms deals, particularly the Saudi arms deal which was called the Al Yamamah – the dove – were rife with corruption.

Al Yamamah was concluded in the days when Mrs. Thatcher was Prime Minister and her son, Mark, indeed was living in Downing Street taking money from whoever would pay him, to use his mother’s name to their benefit. So, they were quite sleazy times but none of us could ever stand up any of the swirl of rumours about this.

Then five or six years ago we started to have a bit of a breakthrough on the Guardian in London. We set out to do a series about the government arms sales unit. The British government set up something called DESO – Defence Export Services Organisation (one of those euphemisms) – which was basically a group of officials there to help British companies sell arms around the world.

We went and rooted around in the national archives which are kept in Kew outside London. The 30 year-old documents, which had been released by then, contained some amazing material about the launch of this organisation and what it was about. They all said quite bluntly, it’s for bribing people. That you don’t sell arms unless you find somebody who is in a position to buy some, and then you bribe them.

Whether the country needs the arms or not, whether the price you charge is inflated or not, they’ll buy them, and this is the way it will be done. We found these dispatches from ambassadors from South America or the Middle East saying: “Good Lord! You mean we are supposed to get involved with this dirty business and actually carry out bribes?” The officials in the ministry wrote back saying: “Yes, of course you are, get real!”

With this little treasure trove of documents we did a series about the collusion of the British government with corrupt arms sales. Writing those stories stimulated, as it often does, whistle-blowers to come forward.

We found that our phones started to ring and eventually we were able to assemble a whole picture of what had gone on with BAE, government collusion and these arms deals over the decades.

One of the more melodramatic things we discovered, was that every time Saudi officials came to Britain there was a slush fund operated by BAE and they provided trips and treats for the Saudis and their wives. They would pay for flats for the girlfriend of the head of the Saudi Air force. They would take the wife of another high official shopping, in fact they’d fly her to Los Angeles do to some shopping and when she brought the shopping there was so much that they chartered a jumbo jet to load it up and fly it back. All the bills were sent to BAE.

This was a fairly astonishing world we discovered, and we wrote about it. To our surprise, BAE, although they a big powerful litigious arms company didn’t do much or say much.

We thought, well we’re so brilliant, we must have it totally right, they don’t dare sue us. What we never realised was that they were sitting there thinking, “thank God, they don’t know the real story”. Because all we’d ever done was scratch the surface of what was going on.

The climax of the Saudi end of this came when we published a story in the Guardian saying that Prince Bandar, the son of the Defence Minister and one of the Saudi royals, had been paid no less than a billion pounds by BAE with the connivance of the British government for his part in fixing up the arms deal. They also gave him a little sweetener, a little personal present, which was a brand new BAE airbus, which he had painted in the blue and silver colours of the Dallas Cowboys, apparently his favourite team.

That shed a certain amount of light on what had been going on but in the course of it, other whistle-blowers came forward and they revealed to us bits and bobs of a jig-saw, which when put together showed that BAE had not just been bribing the Saudis. They had an entire worldwide system through which literally billions of pounds had been distributed through off-shore companies.

They had a mysterious company called Red Diamond Trading and practically every arms deal they had ever done had involved secret payments. Whether it was in Chile, Romania, Tanzania, the Czech Republic and most strikingly South Africa; and that’s what led me to start having a look at the South African arms deal, which I am sure by now you all know more about than me.

It was an eye opener to me when we looked at that. One of the first things that became clear was that the much vaunted off-sets which had justified the British end of the deal were all smoke and mirrors and were never really going to happen.

The second thing that we discovered to our astonishment was that the British component of that deal, the Hawk airplanes, in fact were twice the price and no better than the Italian rival’s; and that the whole deal had been manipulated so that the British would be given the contract and the Italians weren’t – it was pretty stunning stuff.

As you will know the amount of information about what’s gone on with the South African arms deal has since multiplied exponentially. At that time we wrote lots of stories in the newspapers, I looked them up, we wrote 127 stories – we bored our own news desks silly. We’d come around and say we found a breakthrough in Romania and they’d say: “Who wants to know?”

That is one of the problems with investigative journalism; it can be very tedious and unintelligible to everyone except those obsessed about it. In the end we could go no further, we took a couple of decisions which had quite important ramifications. One was that we decided to share our work with other journalists because this involved countries across the world. We developed relationships with journalists in Swede
n, in Romania, in South Africa and I met some fine journalists in South Africa as a result.

The second thing we did, and this was a little bit controversial in the journalistic context, was that we decided to turn over our evidence to the authorities. To in Britain the Serious Fraud Office, which was the body in charge of investigating corruption because they could do things we couldn’t. They could go to banks and force them to disgorge their records; they could go to the company and force them to disgorge records of their deals with agents, and so they did.

A great mass of information came to light as a result, not least because of the activities of journalists here in South Africa. I remember a key moment was that the British submitted a mutual legal assistance request to South Africa, laying out in great detail their discoveries so far made about payments of millions and millions of rand to various mysterious off-shore companies and individuals in South Africa. No sooner had they submitted this confidential request to South African authorities then it appeared word for word in South African newspapers. Which I thought was very enterprising and told us a few things that we didn’t know, and so everything played back and forth, and we managed by sharing this information and helping the police to get this information out to find out a lot.

In the end we in Britain found that a lot about the disgraceful nature of BAE’s arms deals and you in South Africa found out a lot and are still finding out a lot about the arms deal here. Then, as many of you may know, we were suppressed.

The then British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, moved to bully the supposedly independent prosecutors into closing down their investigation because it was annoying British politicians and upsetting the Saudis. An ugly charade was gone through in which it was said that British national security was threatened because if the Saudis got upset, they would withdraw intelligence cooperation and then terrorists would blow up people on the streets of Britain. A most disgraceful charade, really I was ashamed of that. It wasn’t really what it was about. What it was about was that there was another arms deal in the offing and Britain wanted the contract.

So, all our work went for nothing. The investigation was closed down. The Serious Fraud Office – the then head of it Robert Wardle is gone now, the case controller in charge of the BAE investigation Helen Garlick, resigned in despair and is now in private practice.

Wardle, I remember said to me ruefully laughing, that the main thing I’d achieved by the BAE investigation was the destruction of the Serious Fraud Office. So, I thought I would tell you all these stories because I wondered if it might remind you of anything…

That’s the point I am here to make but there’s a second point.

People have asked me, they’ve said: “Weren’t you upset about the way your investigations were frustrated, the way that nobody’s been brought to justice?”

I’ve always said in response to that; No, from a journalistic point of view it was good, it was a triumph.

Journalists all over the world, in South Africa, in Britain and a lot in South Africa I should say; we’ve all toiled with our spades and we’ve dug this stuff up and we’ve told people what’s going on and that is our job. And in so far as we’ve done that it’s a journalistic triumph.

I’ve watched what’s been written about in South Africa and I think it’s been a triumph here of bold and vigorous journalism. Both countries are free enough societies that it has been possible to publish the fruits of investigative journalism. And that isn’t true of most countries in the world.

So, I think the story of the arms deal in both countries has been a testament to the rottenness of parts of our political system but has also been a testament to the successful practice of investigative journalism, which has told citizens what’s going on in their own countries.  There’s nothing that’s more important than that, and it’s something that is the soul of investigative journalism.   

These are times when the kind of stuff I do is under threat, and it may well be under threat here too because structural changes in the media industry – the growth of the internet coupled with the global economic crash – have resulted in a situation where in the United States, in London and I fear perhaps here too – investigative journalism is being regarded as an optional extra; something that newspapers desperate to keep afloat and alive can dispense with and do without. 

One of the things that’s been heartening is that in response to that crisis in three continents, I’ve seen philanthropists come forward – donors. In the United States there’s now a series of websites springing up, ProPublica is the most well known, which are supported by philanthropic organisations or wealthy individuals. A little bit of the same thing is happening in Britain as well, where there are wealthy families who will put up money to support investigative journalism.

Here this prize, the Taco Kuiper prize, is a tremendous demonstration of what can be done when somebody is willing to put up quite large sums of money. ( I am impressed by the substantial nature of them), in order to encourage people and fund them to do the kind of work which I think is so important.

Although it’s grim out there, I think what’s happening here today is a sign of something rather marvellous and I am proud to be part of it. Thank you.

Taco Kuiper Awards 2008 – read more about the Taco Kuiper Awards 2008, read the Mail & Guardian‘s winning stories on the South African arms deal and see the winning entries by joint runners up City Press and Carte Blanche