Thursday, February 22, 2007

Harumph from Malcolm

BBC Radio 4's 9 a.m. news summary, after the extended Blair-Humphrys interview, caught Malcolm off balance. He had heard a lengthy sparring match, with Blair making many telling points despite Humphrys' usual intrusive squibs. The news summary was then full of "Prime Minister refused ..." and "did not apologise" and "would not deny" and numerous permutations thereof. This was not a fair précis of the programme Malcolm had just heard. It was, on the contrary, a draft for an opening paragraph of a Sunday Times smear-job. Here is Nick Assinger giving the "official" BBC summary:
More defiant, unapologetic and convinced of his rightness than ever, Tony Blair has insisted he takes no responsibility whatever for the violence in Iraq.

... he displayed no hint of any self-doubt or readiness to give an inch to his critics.

Time and again he refused to apologise for the current situation in Iraq or accept claims the war had made the world and the UK more dangerous places.

(Malcolm has already directed an elf to enquire whether the BBC have issued, or will issue a transcript of the interview. The contact to the BBC Press Office is here. Don't expect to be served.)

This was Humphrys' opening shot: The charge against him [Blair] is that he has made Iraq more dangerous, the Middle East more dangerous, and the world, including this country, more dangerous.

Humphrys is usually exact in his use of words. Indeed, he has penned a small treatise on the use and abuse of the English language. He must know the difference between "active" and "passive" as grammatical terms. How, then, would he defend his use of the word "dangerous", (now endorsed by Assinger, and—inevitably, in tomorrow's prints—) especially in respect of Britain's posture in the world? Is Humphrys proposing, even for the sake of argument, that Britain is a "rogue state"? Or did he mean to say that Britain is now more "endangered" (which may well be a generally-accepted point-of-view)? If the latter, then he is largely conceding Blair's whole point. That does not make good journalism. The BBC's and Humphrys' aim is not just to report the news, but to make it — which also amounts to proposing an oppositionist agenda.

Inevitably, some 18 minutes into the interview, Humphrys jibed on the issue of Iraq and WMD: Saddam was a brutal dictator, but the evidence shows he was not a threat because he didn't have weapons of mass destruction. This is the wisdom-after-the-event that is as adjacent as one can get to woolly-LibDemery and their Trot fellow-travellers. It is a view that rapidly seques into implying Saddam was misrepresented, and actually nearly as housetrained that that nice Mr Göring used to be. Malcolm urges any doubter to see the parallels: after all, the Ba'athist party was consciously modelled on Uncle Adolph's prototype:
As a young man, Saddam Hussein admired Hitler's system of government. His fondness for totalitarianism came from his maternal uncle, Khairullah Tilfah (1). Stalin and communism were subsequently Saddam's exemplars. He tailored his system along Nazi and Stalinist lines, though it had a number of new features. In keeping with Nazi ideals, Iraq's Ba'ath party had four main pillars: totalitarian ideology, single-party rule, a command economy (nominally socialist), and firm control over the media and the army.
The evidence on WMD (a good Humphrys word, there) is all to the contrary. Malcolm sternly advises resort to GWU's National Security Archive for the historical bases, starting here.

Malcolm's own reading is that Saddam was highly effective in a continuing bluff that Iraq had developed WMDs. The track-record was there:
  • missiles developed beyond the 88 SCUDs actually used in 1991 (which had a range of 1,100 miles);
  • the chemical agents and nerve gases employed throughout the 1980s; and, above all,
  • the Osiraq/Tammuz nuclear facility. In this case, when something is named alternatively for the Egyptian god of the dead, or the Ba'ath Party's accession to power, that gets a message over pretty clearly.
It cannot be denied that, throughout 2002 and into 2003, it was commonly accepted that Iraq had access to such weaponry. So much so, that it was one of the main arguments against the Iraq invasion. The LibDem rewriting of history, as endorsed by Humphrys, is:
All now agree that there were no WMD in Iraq in 2003. The rationale for the March 2003 invasion was flawed and the invasion illegal. The Labour Government’s frequent argument since then that the invasion was justified by the removal of Saddam Hussein’s regime contradicts its repeated statements before the invasion that it was the issue of WMD, not the character of the regime, that justified intervention.
This contrasts with the Lib Dem position (Charles Kennedy leading) in the Iraq debate of 18th March 2002, when they accepted the Iraqi WMDs:
... is it not better to pursue the course of disarmament on the ground in the presence of weapons inspectors? No matter how sophisticated modern technology, even compared with at the time of the last Gulf war, is it not more precise to have weapons dismantled in the presence of inspectors rather than so-called precision bombing trying to take them out?
Humphrys, quoting Sir Richard Dearlove, followed the LibDem line with the chestnut that "the intelligence and facts [were] being fixed around the policy". This was Humphrys' way into the Iran-issue, on the way instructing Blair that he was naïf in his belief that there was only one kind of democracy. This amounted to a claim that Iran was democratic (a claim Blair queried, but was quickly over-ridden).

All this leaves Malcolm wondering where the BBC/Humphrys are coming from, or going to. Obviously there are scores still to be settled, post-Gilligan. Try this, from the SIndy, for poison:

Greg Dyke, the former director-general of the BBC, stunned a literary festival audience when he chose an unfortunate turn of phrase, saying the Government "tried to kill" the reporter Andrew Gilligan.

Mr Dyke, who was forced out of his job at the BBC in January in the wake of the Hutton report, launched into a familiar tirade against the Government at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature in Gloucestershire.

Mr Dyke said: "Andrew Gilligan was a guy of 32; like all those press guys ... they're all a bit odd. It's the nature of the world they work in. He lives on his own and he's not the most popular man in the world.

"The Government tried to kill him. Campbell hated him. They tried to get him. When he wouldn't do the deed [a reference to Gilligan apologising], they basically said to us: 'Right, we are going to throw the whole PR operation of the Government against you'. These are not nice people.

Humphrys is at the core of this feud: if anyone has forgotten the Tim Allan kerfuffle, try the account by David Elstein. Curious how these defenders of open debate react to the publication of their back-stage machinations.

This persistent sniping from Portland Place is dangerous in that it endangers the basics of British democracy, and the Beeb's own impartiality. Or, is there a fifth column somewhere in the Corporation looking for a Tory government and a sell-off of radio to ... Murdoch? "Triples all round", © Private Eye. Then all the circles will be neatly squared.

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