In a world where Putin and Trump have successfully branded journalists as traffickers in fake news, while promoting the spread of actual fake news, a new book shows the tools that are used to deceive us and explains why they work. In Truthteller investigative reporter STEPHEN DAVIS reveals how governments and corporations have covered-up mass murder, corruption and catastrophe. In this edited extract, Davis points to the tyranny of distance as a key factor employed by those in power to cover up the truth. Investigating the death of an Australian scientist at the South Pole, he discovered a culture far removed from the pristine image of life on the ice…
At 90° South, flags are as ubiquitous as snow and ice. At sunset once each year, 13 national flags are raffled off amongst the general population and the three flags at the main entrance – of the United States, the National Science Foundation and the US Antarctic Program – awarded to deserving workers. In 2014, the three entrance flags were accidentally left outdoors.
Darkness gradually descended, with plummeting temperatures and howling storms. The flags needed replacing. A couple of the workers knew just what to do when one of the new flags could not be attached. They found a replacement. It was six months before the sun’s ascension revealed the pirate flag flying over the South Pole. The pirate symbol was apt. Antarctica is a wild place where dozens of countries have laid claim to parts of the ice but none rules. The continent is governed by a treaty that does not stop any country claiming sovereignty but it doesn’t support such claims either. There is no overall body in charge of the continent, no ice-wide police force. Who, for instance, would be responsible for investigating a possible murder?
South Pole Station – Amundsen-Scott Station to give it its correct name – is a US base, the only base at the pole. It sits on a plateau some 3,000 metres above sea level and has six months of 24-hour-a-day sunshine followed by six months of total darkness. It sits on three kilometres of ice and below that there is water. The ice is moving all the time beneath the station – that movement means the South Pole itself moves 10 metres each year. In winter, the temperatures can drop to –73 °C. It houses about 200 people in the summer months and those wintering over usually number around 50. Most of the science work is astronomy – the low temperatures and dryness of the air make it a perfect setting for experiments.
Rodney David Marks, an Australian astrophysicist, was working on such experiments when he died at the station on May 12, 2000. Victorian-born Marks had been to the Pole before and had returned to work on a research project for the University of Chicago, the Antarctic Submillimeter Telescope and Remote Observatory. He was in a relationship with a maintenance worker who was wintering over with him.
On May 11 Marks became unwell while walking between the remote observatory and the base. He became increasingly sick over a 36-hour period, during which he made three visits to the base doctor.
His condition could not be diagnosed and he died a day later. He was only 32 years old but people at the base nevertheless assumed he had died of natural causes. Because it was winter, his body could not be removed so it was kept at the base for six months until flights resumed with the arrival of spring, when it was flown to Christchurch, New Zealand, the air gateway to the Antarctic.
The post mortem result was unexpected. Marks had not died of natural causes. The coroner found significant levels of methanol in his body but was unable to establish how the poison got there. Marks had died at an American base but his body was now in New Zealand. A New Zealand police investigation got underway, led by then Detective Senior Sergeant Grant Wormald, an experienced investigator who later rose to become deputy director of the organised and financial crime agency. Christchurch was seven hours’ flying time the ice, about 4,000 kilometres. South Pole Station was a further 1,360 kilometres south. The distance was already a huge issue for the investigators and their problems were compounded by a lack of co-operation.
Police focused on three possibilities: that he was murdered, was the victim of a prank gone wrong or of an act of criminal negligence such as mislabelling chemicals. Detectives began by trying to obtain a list of all those working at the station the day Marks died. It seemed a simple task but US authorities refused to help. At one stage, police were reduced to searching on the internet for clues as to who had been down there. When they did finally find a staff list they had to painstakingly negotiate the details of a questionnaire to be sent to these staff who were potential witnesses to a murder or other criminal act. The questionnaire was finally agreed with the questions approved by the National Science Foundation. In no other police inquiry would potential witnesses be given the questions in advance. In any event, only 13 out of 49 people bothered to reply. Police were told US authorities had investigated but they were refused access to the results. “It is impossible to say how far that investigation went or to what end,” Wormald told the inquest.
Marks’s family were in despair at the lack of co-operation. His father Paul complained, “For heaven’s sake, a man has died in your care. Why wouldn’t you help the police?” Marks was known to be a heavy drinker and he suffered from Tourette’s syndrome; colleagues alleged that he drank to mask the symptoms. But that was not unusual in a community of serious drinkers. He was not known for angry outbursts nor did he get into fights. He was very popular with his fellow scientists. A colleague described him to one journalist as a brilliant and witty man who drank to excess “on occasion”.
The post mortem showed he had needle marks on his arms but there were no illegal drugs in his body. Police were sceptical over one suggestion that he distilled his own booze and accidentally poisoned himself. Alcohol was freely available on base although some still preferred to brew their own. In any case, Marks was the sort of person who would have known the dangers of making your own spirits. Suicide seemed the least likely reason, as he appeared happy; he was in a close relationship and was active in his work and social life.
His experiments were going well and he was working towards publication of a significant piece of academic work. He had no financial worries. Detective Senior Sergeant Wormald discovered that an NSF doctor had recommended an investigation in the immediate aftermath of the death: “When an individual aged 32 years dies unexpectedly, the matter warrants a homicide investigation.” But instead of evidence being gathered, South Pole staff were allowed to clean Marks’s room, disposing as rubbish any potential evidence. Staff at the station could have been made available for interviews after they left the base because they all had to land back in Christchurch before dispersing around the world, but that was not done. The 49 people leaving Antarctica disappeared across the world without being interviewed after landing in New Zealand. The Americans were exerting diplomatic pressure behind the scenes. At one stage the US State Department contacted the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Wellington to try to find out why the Kiwi detective was being so persistent in his inquiries.
The Marks file remains open. Suicide has been ruled out – there has been no evidence of murder, either. The responses to the death has some of the hallmarks of a cover-up and predictably has led to conspiracy theories. But there is a simpler explanation: the US authorities did not want the death examined too closely for fear of what it might reveal about life in Antarctica.
Antarctica is the driest, coldest continent – a truly beautiful place. Stand in front of, say, the Barnes Glacier and you are looking at one of the great wonders of the world. Stand there too long, even in the summer, and eventually your body will begin to shut down and you will freeze to death. Staff are scientists and technicians, firefighters and cooks, drivers and doctors. They may live in beauty but also in great isolation and that can lead to mental health problems. To stay sane, some of them drink to excess.
In between the actual work, there are wild parties and sexual hook-ups in strange places as privacy is an issue when everyone lives in such close proximity. Couples end up in cupboards or anywhere they can find to be alone, anywhere but outside. People drink huge quantities of beer, wine and spirits and even home brews. At one stage, people at the South Pole were drinking a home brew made in the lab using any rotting fruit that came to hand.
One man was found collapsed on the stairs, unconscious. Another vomited all over his workstation. A party at Scott Base, where the New Zealanders are, resulted in an American manager from nearby McMurdo being sent home for sexual misconduct. Sometimes there are bizarre ceremonies such as a testicular measuring competition and examples of surprising incompetence like the complete breakdown of the water supply at a base.
Fights are regular and sometimes end up as bloody punch-ups involving several people. Such behaviour is mostly hidden from the outside world. Most news stories are justifiably about the amazing work that goes on there and, of course, there is much more of that than there are drunken orgies and brawls. However, only rarely does a hint of the human cost of living in such an environment reach the public.
US officials even looked at whether breathalysers should be used on staff, finding that drinking had led to “unpredictable behaviour that has led to fights, indecent exposure and employees arriving to work under the influence”.
In the Marks case, some witnesses testified that cannabis was grown and that a stash of marijuana was found at one of the base’s large telescopes. The death could have shone a spotlight on drugs, binge drinking, fights and rampant sex – but this is not the pristine image of life on the ice that they want to project. So the authorities prevented a proper murder inquiry to stop too many awkward questions being asked. They would have not been able to do so if the incidents had happened in a more accessible place.
But here, the classic truth-prevention tool of distance was used to keep police, journalists and family members at bay. The obstruction and secrecy has denied the Marks family answers they are entitled to. They do not believe they will ever know how their son was poisoned. The array of flags at South Pole Station now includes one that does not represent just a nation but also a man – Rodney David Marks, the only man ever to die at the station. Unlike the others, the Australian flag stays out all winter as a tribute to him. Each year, as the ice moves, the flag gets further and further away from the base. Eventually it will disappear.
The best reporting comes from being at the scene of a newsworthy event. But cutbacks in newsroom budgets mean that trips to remote areas, jungle or ice or rainforests, are now rare. Reporters doing four stories a day for print or TV as well as online often can’t even get out of the office, never mind contemplating travelling for days or weeks to a remote area to cover a story. In many cases, the reporting is second-hand, written at a desk far away and has to rely on official sources that may be just as interested in disguising things as disclosing them. Distance still counts.
Truthteller – An Investigative Reporter’s Journey Through the World of Truth Prevention, Fake News and Conspiracy Theories by Stephen Davis, RRP$29.99 is available from www.exislepublishing.com and wherever good books are sold
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Stephen Davis has been on the frontlines of journalism for three decades as an investigative reporter in TV, magazines and newspapers. He has reported from the rainforests of Brazil to the icy wastes of Antarctica, from London to Los Angeles, from the Middle East to Russia.
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