As various prior posts about ‘The Power Of Nightmares’ have listed its various propaganda tricks, I will say no more here than that their contempt is justified. If the producer of ‘The Power Of Nightmares’ ever wanted to learn how to make a documentary series with a somewhat better ratio of fact to slanted comment, they could do worse than look at ‘Empire Warriors’. Its producer may have the same views as their colleague, but the very fact I write it that way indicates a difference in how they make programmes. Despite the gross error I note below, this is a series from which one can learn something.
’Empire Warriors’ format is for participants (i.e. British veterans and civilians, and their enemies) to reminisce, linked by brief factual voiceover and occasional low-key dramatisations of key incidents. The first episode was about Lt. Colonel Colin Mitchell (‘mad mitch’) and the Argylls in Aden in 1967 (something I can just barely remember from my childhood). If a Robert Fisk watched it, he would summarise it as a tale of pointless imperialist brutality. However the episode did much less than a Greg Dyke would wish to prevent viewers taking quite different messages from it. There was a message about Labour politicians too cowardly to authorise desperately needed action, and then too cowardly to restrain an officer who did it anyway and proved more adept than them at handling the media. There was a message about how military action that terrifies politicians can prove easy and effective when finally done, costing fewer Arab and British lives than inaction did. There was simply the message that terrorists can be defeated. You could take other messages from the story instead, or as well, perhaps without having to be a Fisk to do so, but this episode seemed to be telling the story and letting viewers read into it what they would.
Near the end, a single sentence on Mitchell’s various careers during the rest of his life did include the word ‘mercenary’; that word suggests a character in a Frederick Forsyth novel to most viewers, but its dictionary definition would include both a Gurkha and those British soldiers who stayed in the middle east after 1967, technically paid by the Sultan of Oman or similar local rulers but with the full blessing of HMG. Just a little more (or less) on this might have been clearer. Save for this trivial point, it told the story while grinding no very obvious axe. (If you want more on what happened, here is a summary and here is an interesting page on a soldier with the Argylls in Aden who was later killed, when a civilian, in a quite separate terrorist action.)
The next episode was on Jewish terrorists in Palestine in the late forties, concentrating on the King David Hotel bomb and surrounding events. Compared with the BBC’s usual standards when the subject is Israel, the actual describing of events was quite bias-free, and the voiceover did state that Irgun and Stern Gang (who were not clearly distinguished) were ‘only supported by a small minority of the Jewish population in Palestine’. However they had no interview with anyone from Haganah, which slightly undercut the effect of this. The member of Irgun they interviewed described her induction into Irgun well, with its heavy emphasis on secrecy, but most viewers would not realise that Irgun were often hiding from the main Jewish organisation at least as much as from the Palestine CID. That the tip-offs CID received were sometimes from Haganah also did not appear. Indeed the word Haganah was never once mentioned. The episode had only an hour to tell its story, I concede it would not be easy to point at something to cut, and Haganah’s relations with Irgun were just a little complicated to summarise; still, the omission limited understanding.
However the truly ridiculous thing in this episode, disfiguring an otherwise good series, was its line about, ‘How ironic it is that it was the Jews of Irgun who invented terrorism’. That was an interviewee, but the voiceover promptly agreed, calling the King David hotel explosion ‘the first terrorist attack of the 20th century’ and generally treating the whole idea that Jews invented terrorism as indisputable fact. Counter-examples are so many and blatant that you wonder how makers of a history programme can know so little. Alas, I am much less surprised that they found no-one else in the BBC to correct them. That this idea could appear in a programme whose researchers have done a generally competent job speaks volumes about the current BBC climate of ignorance and bias on Israel and on terrorism.
The communists alone exploded the Sofia Cathedral bomb (Bulgarian communists, inter-war years), various bombs in Russia before WWI, and so on. In Western Europe and the United States, the anarchists used bomb, bullet and dagger to kill 6 heads of state and plenty of ordinary people during the twenty years before 1914 (Osama, eat your heart out). Three of these heads of state and a good few of the ordinary victims perished after 1899. And, by the way, have they never heard of a group called the IRA, or do they just imagine they were inactive before the late 1960s? Do I need to go on?
(As part of this ‘irony’, the programme also stated that Stern Gang were the inventors of the letter bomb; this may be true, for all I know. [Added Later: but in fact would appear to be false. This article describes an anarchist letter bomb of 1919. Thanks to Dave Smith for the pointer.])
This nonsense was a pity because otherwise the series captures much living history, seems more willing than some to let protagonists speak for themselves (and viewers think for themselves), provides much needed historical background to current events, and wisely does not underline the parallels but just tells the story. The third episode, on fighting the communist insurgency in Malaya, was worth watching just for the footage of a very English lady cutting flowers into a wicker basket that also held a couple of hand-grenades, just in case. The account of being ambushed by the communists was one of those stories worth hearing in their own right, not just as history. And the ‘happy warrior’ character of Churchhill’s wartime bodyguard came splendidly through as he described how he reorganised the Malaya CID to fight the communists with intelligence.
Despite my criticisms, anyone who turned off ‘Power of Nightmares’ in disgust and is now wondering how to get value from their licence fee could do worse than watch ‘Empire Warriors’. I look forward to future episodes.
[The quotes above were noted down from memory after the episode.]