Letter: Lewis has no 'murky' past

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IN HER column last Sunday, Geraldine Bedell tortuously refers to a 'murky incident' in my past at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. There is absolutely nothing murky about it - both sides of the argument were well aired then in the Times. And there is nothing to support Miss Bedell's shameful inference that my purpose in identifying an Afghan athlete, Sediq Zargar, as wishing to defect was to justify a story.

It was clear then that the Western media were the dissident thinkers most powerful allies in their fight for survival. The then editor of ITN, Sir David Nicholas, wrote at the time: 'If Sakharov and Solzhenitsyn had not received such publicity in the West, would their resistance have been so successful?'

The answer to this rhetorical question has become even clearer since the end of the Cold War now that more details of what was really happening behind the scenes have become available. Many dissidents have made it plain they regarded 'exposure' in the West as crucial to their cause.

If Miss Bedell is going to pass comment on my journalistic morals, she ought to look at the facts:

First, Zargar had expressed repeatedly to myself and my crew a strong wish to be identified. Second, other international news sources had already revealed that 'some' members of the Afghan team wished to defect. Third, it was clear from repeated observation of Zargar by myself and others that he was under threat from the KGB, and that his freedom - and probably his survival - were in jeopardy. Identifying him publicly seemed to me then to be his only hope, and I remain convinced that it was the right course.

I hope that I at least extended his life - but repeated efforts to track him down have been unsuccessful, not least because of the chaos of Afghanistan during the long years of Soviet occupation. I am still trying.

The journalist Christopher Booker, who covered the Moscow Olympics and discussed the issue with me at the time, last week described a similar attack on my integrity (which triggered Miss Bedell's) as an example of a 'negative, superficial and malicious type of journalism'. And he went on: 'the clever dick tendency never did understand much about the realities of life in 'the evil empire'.'

Reporting in the Soviet Union in those days was difficult and complex. Armchair criticism 14 years later is all too easy.

Martyn Lewis

BBC Television Centre

London W12