Tragedy turned Carol Grayson into a campaigner for the truth, on the NHS tainted blood scandal and the Iraq war
Perched in front of the TV at her Tyneside flat, a nurse from Hartlepool will toast her other, very different role: as executive producer of a whistle-blowing production, based on an incident first made public by the WikiLeaks website, which has attracted plaudits around the world.
Carol Grayson’s advice and part-financing for the story of collateral killings in Iraq, their cover-up and aftermath, is the latest part of a remarkable modern pilgrim’s progress. Driven by personal tragedy to investigate the infected blood scandal of the 1970s and 80s – described by Lord Winston as “the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS” – her internet hounding of officialdom, worldwide, over two decades, led to her Hollywood role.
Incident has already won the short documentary title at the Tribeca film festival in New York with its story of muddle and deceit, and the testimony of a US soldier at the scene, Ethan McCord, whose views of the war were completely changed by the experience.
His ordeal chimed with Grayson’s in her long struggle over tainted blood, in a way that led them, and a group of other global activists including WikiLeaks, to make common cause. “Ordinary” and very much still true to her roots, Grayson was brought up to trust authority: a good-natured cast of mind that changed as her haemophiliac husband, Peter Longstaff, and his brother Stephen died of Aids and hepatitis caused by infected plasma.
During “a time of what seemed to be permanent grief”, when her attending more than 150 funerals of blood victims coincided with ignorant abuse about the brothers – Stephen’s home was daubed with “Aids – get out of here” on his death in 1986 aged 20 – she resolved to unearth the truth.
“We are still not there, in terms of a full admission of fault from the government and an apology, but we know what happened,” she says.
When an official internal inquiry failed, her MA thesis at Sunderland University on the global blood trade traced a trail to infected donors from Arkansas prisons. She beat Oxbridge PhD rivals to the 2009 Michael Young Award, UK social science’s own Oscar from the Economic and Social Research Council.
That detective work underpinned the subsequent, privately funded, inquiry by Lord Archer of Sandwell, that shredded the official explanation of an “unavoidable accident”.
Its report did not allocate blame, for reasons that rest at the heart of everything Grayson does. Archer lamented the government’s withholding of documents and refusal to give public evidence: “It is hard to say what we could have found out [had the inquiry been able to see them].”
Now 52, and a widow since Longstaff’s death at 47 in 2005, Grayson says: “My experience of cover-ups led to everything that has happened since, including now, to my amazement, the Oscars. As soon as I started asking questions, I was told that blood records were missing, lost or incomplete, and they were always the ones you wanted.
“I came to realise how often, in all sorts of scandals, this was the case. But I also discovered online just how many people, in every kind of campaign you can think of, are working to get just this kind of hidden information out.”
When WikiLeaks burst on to the scene in 2010, she was already in touch with activists including the Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir, and Americans radicalised by their own work on US prison blood donations.
The avalanche of once-suppressed data included the shocking footage, released by WikiLeaks and used in the documentary, of a US Army Apache helicopter killing eight men, including two Reuters journalists, and seriously wounding two children in 2007. Reuters had tried in vain to secure the footage under the US Freedom of Information Act. “That was how I came across Ethan, whom you can see on the film running to help one of the injured boys. Birgitta was involved too and the internet just took over,” says Grayson.
Web contacts forged a path to James Spione, producer and director of Incident in New Baghdad. His appeal for money to make a film coincided with an ex gratia compensation payment of £25,000 from the government to Grayson for her long drawn-out ordeal over the blood scandal. Already involved with research for the £7,000 production, she donated £3,000 that allowed it to go ahead. “There’s a satisfaction in knowing that the British government has inadvertently helped fund a film that is anti-war and made possible through WikiLeaks,” she says.
But her main aim is to change the future rather than dwell on the past. An optimist in spite of everything, she is now raising money for a film about drones and collateral killing, and working to trace the murderers of another of her friends and allies, the Pakistani investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad.
“Everything that’s happened has taught me to believe in the power of one. The individual citizen can change things, and the internet has turned individuals into a band, one with enormous power,” she says.
“I can’t afford to go to Hollywood this weekend and I’m not into that sort of thing anyway. But if I did get to speak, I would say that Bradley Manning [the soldier accused of leaking the WikiLeaks material] deserves a Nobel peace prize more than Obama ever did.”
from Martin Wainwright