Tim Usborne, “Secret Science: Chemical and Biological Weapons” (2016)
In 2016, the year of its centenary, Britain’s major defence science and technology park, popularly known as Porton Down, received a visit from BBC TV science and medical commentator Dr Michael Mosley and film crew. Mosley and Company prowl around a small part of the facilities – which look just how viewers might imagine they would look, if they’d been told that the area contained a mixture of office buildings dating as far back as 1916 and open-space test sites – and are suitably awed by the labs with all their equipment and machines, the secret chambers, the furnaces where old and outlawed substances are destroyed, and the labyrinths of corridors connecting the various rooms. Much of the documentary is structured around the history of Porton Down, the reasons for its establishment during World War I, the substances its scientists researched or developed (including mustard gas, sarin and VX nerve gas) and the controversial experiments performed on animals and humans alike. The story of Ronald Maddison, a young RAF serviceman who died in 1953 during a sarin liquid experiment (for which he had volunteered after being told the experiment was a test for flu vaccine), followed by 50 years of British government secrecy until a second inquest into his death in 2004 brought it into the public domain, is mentioned as an example of such notorious experimentation and the efforts expended by the government to quash public knowledge of it.
As might be expected of the BBC, the documentary treats Porton Down as a beneficent institution whose staff can be regarded as heroes and heroines working for the defence of the British nation against sinister chemical and biological warfare weapons that enemies around the world might unleash. The program acknowledges that animals were experimented upon, and many of these creatures died painful deaths, but their suffering and deaths are to be seen as necessary in the context of major conflicts such as the two World Wars and the Cold War, and subsequent new wars in which various parties including terrorist groups do not care about the Geneva Convention on the prohibition of the use of chemical and biological warfare weapons. So nothing is said about the notorious 2-year experiment over 2012 – 2014 in which over 220 guinea pigs died after exposure to chemical warfare weapons. The program descends into outright propaganda and lies when it asserts that in 1988, the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish villagers in Halabja with sarin gas (and not a mixture of mustard gas and various unidentified nerve gas agents as should have seen stated); and that in 2013, the Syrian government (called “regime”, as if the Syrian public had never accepted it) under President Bashar al Assad also unleashed sarin gas in east Ghouta, a suburban / exurban area to the east of Damascus.
While peering around some of the laboratories – Mosley and the film crew were not allowed to roam freely for security reasons – and seeing elaborate testing, including the testing of sarin on spider-web gossamer wound around an implement, can be fun and exciting, we are reminded of Porton Down’s role as a front-line crusading against dastardly secret new weapons technologies exploiting the strengths of chemical and biological agents. For obvious reasons, the possibility that Porton Down might willingly and knowingly supply such dangerous agents to terrorist organisations to wage war on governments that the US and the UK desire to overthrow is lost on Mosley and the BBC.
A more informative documentary on the history of Porton Down and its current role and value to UK military defence and UK science generally, and which does not skirt around the laboratory complex’s willingness to use animal and non-consenting human subjects (including communities secretly sprayed with chemical aerosols) or Porton Down’s links to regime change, war and terrorism, would be welcome.