Revealed: How British diplomats pressured BBC’s Jeremy Paxman over massacres in Zimbabwe

Jeremy Paxman

British diplomats pressured Jeremy Paxman to change his “perspective” for a BBC investigation into massacres in Zimbabwe during the early 1980s as part of a campaign by Margaret Thatcher’s government to downplay the atrocities, according to previously unseen documents.

As many as 20,000 people, many of them civilians, are believed to have been killed during the bloody repression in 1983 of dissidents in the newly-independent Zimbabwe under the government of Robert Mugabe. Dozens of eyewitness reports were gathered of atrocities in Matabeleland against the Ndebele people committed by the Fifth Brigade, a North Korean-trained division of the Zimbabwean armed forces which was also staffed by officers who had been trained by Britain’s Ministry of Defence. ‘

You have to hand it to the British, they know how to behave in this situation’ Robert Mugabe, commenting on the British response to the Gukurahundi crack down in 1983 British influence Research by the University of St Andrews into a cache of British government documents has produced claims that senior diplomats and ministers were “wilfully blind” to evidence of the campaign – known as “Gukurahundi” – and consistently sought to minimise the magnitude of the killings to maintain British influence in the former colony.

The apparent strategy to downplay the violence, justified by the Mugabe regime as a counter-insurgency campaign against rebels aligned to the opposition ZAPU party, even extended to lobbying of Mr Paxman when he arrived in the country to make a BBC Panorama documentary on the killings. Files released by the Foreign Office under freedom of information rules recount how David McMillan, a senior official at the British High Commission in Harare, invited the broadcaster to dinner after he had returned from 10 days of filming in Matabeleland, a region in western Zimbabwe.

‘Unreservedly gloomy’ Reporting the encounter back to London, Mr McMillan said that Paxman had taken “an unreservedly gloomy and sensational view of recent events in Matabeleland” and that the situation he had witnessed was the worst he had seen while reporting for the BBC.

The diplomat continued: “I tried to get Paxman to see events in Matabeleland in their true perspective and put it to him that it was difficult to believe he had seen nothing worse… I would expect next Monday’s Panorama to be hard-hitting and likely to displease the Zimbabweans.”

Dr Hazel Cameron, the academic who uncovered the documents, said the incident appeared to be part of a wider British strategy to maintain good relations with the Mugabe administration and protect London’s interests, which included substantial investments, an agreement for the British Army to train Zimbabwean military forces and a desire to keep the country out of the Soviet sphere of influence at the height of the Cold War.

She said: “It is quite clear from these documents that one of the major concerns for the British at the time was the reputation of their own army and British public opinion as opposed to the ongoing atrocities and human violations in Matabeleland.

“That the British government chose to adopt a policy of wilful blindness towards the atrocities undoubtedly constituted naked realpolitik. Mugabe himself was said to view the British response favourably, saying ‘you have to hand it to the British, they know how to behave in this situation’.”

Robert Mugabe, who has governed Zimbabwe since 1980, has been accused of personally ordering the Matabeleland operation in 1983. (Photo: Getty) Influence In a memo back to the Foreign Office in March 1983, the UK High Commissioner Robin Byatt, underlined the importance of not adopting a muscular posture with the Mugabe government. He wrote: “I am sure that our best tactic is to continue to try to proffer sympathetic and constructive, rather than simply critical, advice if we wish to influence Zimbabwean decisions.”

Dr Cameron said the British attitude contrasted with that of other western countries, including the United States, which expressed concern when Mr Byatt failed to attend a meeting of ambassadors in Zimbabwe to discuss a co-ordinated response. The US Department of State noted: “The UK High Commission has always, since independence, cared more about the UK’s bilateral relations with the Government of Zimbabwe and has not been inclined to participate in demarches that might cause them damage.”

Academics and campaigners have long suggested that the Gukurahundi campaign – named after the local word for a rain that washes the chaff away – was personally ordered by Mr Mugabe to eliminate opposition among the Ndebele minority, which had previously been an ally in the struggle to end colonial rule. Amnesty It is estimated that between 10,000 and 20,000 were killed in nine months of raids by soldiers from 5 Brigade, who according to one account were given orders to “kill anything that was human”.

A peace deal later granted amnesty to all those involved in the campaign. In a statement, the Foreign Office said: “The UK Government condemns the brutal suppression in Matabeleland in the early 1980s and supports the process of truth and reconciliation envisaged under the 2013 [Zimbabwean] constitution. The British Government has a strong record of supporting human rights and the rule of law in Zimbabwe.” – The Essential Briefing

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