The empire strikes back

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.]

A curate’s egg

: at first, I thought the BBC news would manage to cover Arafat’s death without once mentioning that he himself had ever caused anyone else’s.

“The Israelis, with whom he failed to negotiate a peace, regarded him as a terrorist but … died without achieving his dream of freedom … Israel branded him as a terrorist but … Ariel who once said he regretted not having killed Arafat twenty years ago … couldn’t bring himself to utter the name of his oldest enemy … If Sharon blames them [the new Palestinian leaders] and isolates them, as he isolated Arafat, then nothing will change here. In fact things could get worse. … It’s become an article of faith in Israel that Yassar Arafat is the obstacle … Arafat has been the great enemy and frankly also the great excuse. The Israelis have been saying for years that Arafat is unreliable, that Arafact can’t be trusted and that may have been true to a greater or lesser extent but the pressure will be on the Israelis … “

There was also just a hint of the ‘summarising what they should have said, not what they did’ syndrome noted before on this blog.

“… Sharon will want them [the new Palestinian leaders] to prove themselves … Israelis will be safer, the opposition believes, if they start talking to the Palestians straight away … “. Actually, the opposition leader desired dialogue but pointed out that, “they are difficult people to talk to.”

“… Tony Blair saying there has to be progress .. ” led naturally into talk of pressure on the U.S. and Israel but Tony in fact simply moved skillfully and quickly off the subject of Arafat onto a not-quite-so-emphatic generality about its being desirable to resume the peace process.

“… The UN shares Europe’s frustration at the stalling of dialogue …” The context and the mention of Europe implied that the frustration was directed at Israel. Probably in fact it is but Kofi’s actual remarks were an invitation to the Palestinians to make the legacy of Arafat’s death a renewed search for peace.

However, well on in the news item, the broadcast stepped out of the standard newsdesk-talking-to-reporters format to present a cameo short history of Arafat’s life, and this was rather different. It mentioned the Munich killings and called them murder, even if the remark, “Arafat’s direct resposibility was unclear but Israel blamed him”, seemed just a little carping in tone. It mentioned that Arafat only recognised Israel’s right to exist very late in the day. It mentioned his “disastrous misjudgement in backing Saddam in the first gulf war”. It mentioned that agreement with Israel over Palestinian autonomy was hampered by the fact that Arafat’s “administration was notoriously corrupt”. It mentioned that he initiated the “cycle of suicide bombings and Israeli reprisals”. It mentioned a good deal else but it was a passably balanced brief summary; respectable reportage.

Matt Frei also did point out, amidst the ‘pressure on U.S.’ stuff, that “the worst thing that could happen to any new palestinian leader is for the U.S. to back him too openly”, noting that some restraint in their public involvement was inevitable. In the past, I have sometimes seen Matt’s coverage as the very epitome of Greg-Dyke-style reporting but I would not have said that of his short slot today.

So, good in parts, or at least, unbiased in parts. It’s just a pity the factual reporting mostly came late in the slot while the one-sided stuff was presented first.

Grinning and bearing it

: with the partial (in both senses of that word) exception of Matt Frei (the BBC’s Washington corespondent, already often featured on this blog), and within the usual limitations of their analysis, the BBC 10’o’clock news handled Bush’s reelection more calmly than his doings in Iraq. I think this is because elections are a part of the world that the BBC accepts; somehow the concept of impartiality in reporting an election is not as alien to them as in reporting a war.

“America keeps faith with George Bush … He won more votes than any president in history … George Bush has won a convincing victory …”

The tone was very sober but you could not complain the chosen words betrayed any bias.

“If Kerry had won, Tony Blair would have been the last war leader left standing”

was a silly remark (Australia’s recent election obviously doesn’t count, or for that matter the other countries where leaders who supported Bush are still in place), but to be fair the same man who said it (Mark, standing outside Westminster), went on to say that:

“Many labour MPs think that only a few weeks ago Tony Blair moved British troops to help Bush’s campaign. I’ve never believed that, I don’t believe that at all but they believe it …”

so he isn’t swallowing every left-wing statement. Even Matt Frei mentioned something he could have omitted. As Bush was declared the next president:

“Sweet words (pause) again and after this election vistory they must sound so much sweeter (pause) to him and to them. [tone makes clear, not to Matt] … George Bush now has a very clear mandate. The question is will he use it to unite (significant pause) or to divide.”

but further on Matt gave us, even if incredulously, an interesting fact:

“There is a curious irony. The Republicans did what the Democrats used to do so well, organising the party from the grass roots. They spent less than the Democrats, can you believe it !!!”

Matt spoke of republican success in reaching out to the blue collar vote

“although Kerry said again and again [emphasis as Matt’s impatience broke through] ‘no tax cuts for the rich, we must help the poor.”

The tone betrayed his incomprehension of those stupid blue collar voters who don’t understand their own interests as well as Matt does, but the facts were welcome. Kerry and Kerry supporters got the lion’s share of the time but perhaps that is not so unfair; we’ll be hearing lots about Bush hereafter. The BBC’s general analysis was of course unable to step outside their worldview. There were many remarks along the lines of:

“… middle America that, just as Matt has been saying, surrounds itself with the flag …”

and much talk of Bush’s ‘radical’ view (implicitly contrasted to Kerry’s, or the BBC’s, moderate one), plus the

usual talk on Israel and on Europe

“… no doubting the interational pressure on George Bush to adjust his tone and tactics …”

However John Simpson’s discussion was, as often, rational and not marked by one-sided bias;

“… they (France and Germany) would have had a much harder time if Kerry had won; then they would have to help out in Iraq …”

John explained that instead they could now continue to do nothing. They had managed without close ties with the U.S. over the last few years and would continue to get along O.K. without such ties. The U.S. equally would manage to do without them. By the time he had finished talking, the divisions that had been much mentioned in the rest of the programme sounded hopeless, but not serious.

And had it been otherwise … ?

As soon as the result of the Australian election was announced, the BBC assured us that the campaign and its outcome had been driven solely by domestic concerns.

“People abroad thought Iraq might be an issue, but Australians wanted to talk about domestic issues; that’s what the election was about.” (BBC News analyst, 9th October 2004, quoted from memory)

Remarks to the same effect appeared on Ceefax and elsewhere.

Doubtless local issues were important. Unless John Howard’s acceptance speech was unrepresentative, he did not avoid international issues. I’ll let people nearer Australia than the far side of the world say whether Iraq was as irrelevant to the result as the BBC is telling me. My interest is slightly different.

If the election had gone the other way, would we be hearing so much about the outcome being driven by domestic concerns and having no Iraq-war dimension?

Would pigs be flying?

A sorry spectacle

A sorry spectacle: all those who thought Greg Dyke would never say sorry, think again. Yesterday, speaking to an audience in Glasgow, he apologised unreservedly – for having once given Tony Blair £5000 to help him win the leadership contest in the Labour party. Mr Dyke said he now saw that Tony was “the worst sort of prime minister.” Greg’s repentance for having assisted him in the past was total.


Of course, some of us think Tony unfit to be prime minister because of his habit of appointing people like Greg Dyke to posts where impartiality is needed. Natalie Solent has described how people below a certain moral level can’t see how they betray themselves even as they apologise. That Greg had contributed sizable sums to Labour party funds was known to me. That he had also given money somewhat more directly to Tony was news to me (and perhaps to many in his audience). A cleverer man would not have mentioned it while denouncing his sacking. A man who had a clue why the BBC should try to be impartial would not have reminded us how very partisan he was. And a man with a sense of humour would have avoided a speech that so invited parody (I helped Tony get Tony’s job and Tony helped me get mine; how dare he go back on the deal !).

The idea of this rather obvious satire did not help the air of martyrdom Greg saught to hint at: (I summarise the gist) ‘Now that the government have had their revenge on the BBC and imposed their authority, at least the renewal of the BBC’s charter in 2007 should go through easily.’ I’m not sure if Mr Dyke really sees himself as a noble sacrifice for the cause of the BBC, but I suspect he hopes others may. In the same vein, having vented his spleen on the prime minister, Greg preferred to damn his successor at the BBC with faint praise (a good sign as far as it goes, I suppose, though savage criticism of him would have been a much better one). There was a definite air of holding himself in, and great praise for the splendid people in the BBC generally. I think this disappointed some in the audience, who hoped for scandalous revelations (or assertions, at least) but Greg is not burning any boats. Tony is a passing thing, but the BBC is eternal.

I pass over his defence of the general correctness and well-intentionedness of everything else he has ever done and said. He offered nothing new and others have posted more than enough analysis of it. It was a little unfortunate that a man assuring us he got things essentially right should repeatedly fluff the names of such well known actors in the drama as Tony Blair, Andrew Gilligan and Saddam Hussein, but (as he himself might agree with reference to Tony Blair), speech-making skill is no guide to general ability. I’m happy to extend him as much courtesy on this as he and his like show to such right-wing US politicians as sometimes fluff their lines.

He had his friends in the audience but it is hard to keep left-wing activists happy, One of these wanted to know why he had not supported a plan for a wholly Scottish 6 o’clock news (I can well imagine how keen the left-wing establishment here is that we in Scotland should less often ‘see ourselves as ithers see us’). So much for any hopes Mr Dyke may have had that the throwaway remark in Rod Liddle’s critique of Greg’s regime at the BBC

… seminars (I remember them well) where you were told, “The Scottish and Welsh Assemblies are very important and don’t you dare ever suggest otherwise.” …



would at least have saved him from such criticisms. Here too, he may feel, there is little gratitude. As for me, I’m just grateful he’s gone.

Britons confused

: under the headline ‘Britons confused about mid-east’, BBC Ceefax informs us that

“A new survey has shown that many people in Britain think the Palestinians are occupying Israeli territory and not the other way around.”

Lest the ridiculousness of any such thought not strike you sufficiently, it immediately adds,

“Despite extensive media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some Britons think Palestinians are refugees from Afghanistan.”

Clearly, the two ideas are at a very similar level of absurdity.

If you read on, you will learn that these are in fact the conclusions of the Glasgow Media studies group (well known for its hard-left stance, though this was not mentioned), but the casual browser might easily get the impression that this was the BBC’s own view (after all, the new survey ‘has shown it’) and though such a casual browser might be just the sort of person the report has in mind, I think they would not be wrong.

Some Britons in the nation’s Broadcasting Centre seem a bit confused about their duty of impartiality. The question of who occupied whose land when, who started the various wars, and how far back in history one looks is very much the issue in that part of the world. Various views are possible. A private media concern may choose a given line. A publicly-funded agency whose charter demands impartiality should not present a given view as fact.

Meanwhile, despite the efforts of the BBC (and the Glasgow Media group), I suspect that Britons will continue to be ‘confused’ as different people focus on different events in the region’s long and troubled history.

The moor has done his duty, the moor may go

: Natalie Solent has already posted below about the BBC’s characterisation of one of its old-time greats, the late Alistair Cooke, as having ‘particular dislike of the shallow flag-waving of the Reagan presidency’. Let me add my testimony.

For several years, from the very end of the seventies though the early eighties, my Sunday schedule let me hear Cooke’s ‘Letter from America’ week after week. Unlike the obituarist, so cocksure that Cooke thought and felt what left-thinking BBC people should, I enjoyed learning from what he actually thought.

The Cooke I heard in those years had insights of the kind that come to someone who prefers to take a genial approach to his subject, thinking first and judging after. If he was, as Natalie sensibly speculates, more naturally a Democrat than a Republican, he was never blind to the faults of the left. Often in those years, I recall him offering not the damning indictment of Reagan that the news online obit would have you think, but penetrating critiques of the kind that that both the American Left and the BBC elite desperately need. I have no book of Cooke’s broadcasts to hand but I don’t need it; thoughts of the quality he sometimes reached stay in the mind.

One ‘Letter from America’ described the U.S. reviews of a new edition of Vera Britain’s ‘Testament of Youth’, which all talked of it in feminist categories. Alistair contrasted them with the British reviews written when it was first published (which he quoted); they talked rather of the author’s attitude to the first world war. More gently and persuasively than this bald summary can suggest, he asked whether the modern reviewers’ fashionable attitudes gave them more insight than the contemporary reviewers or, on the contrary, less. He invited listeners to think about the way in which a reviewer’s mindset can get in the way of their hearing what a book is saying.

Another ‘Letter’ examined a supreme court ruling that laws limiting how one could display the U.S. flag were unconstitutional. In the U.S., such laws were common before the ruling; in Britain, we’ve never had them – you can use the Union Jack as an advertising logo if you want to. Cooke made me smile describing how some world war two British merchants, more eager to promote anglo-american relations (and their sales) than to uphold good taste, found american G.I.s were more often shocked than amused to find the stars and stripes displayed in some unusual product locations.

By the time, he reached the meat of this letter, the listener was in no doubt that Cooke saw no actual need for such laws (and as a fellow Briton, neither do I). Yet he was disturbed by the Supreme Court’s ruling. What does it mean that such laws can be voted by legislators and supported by constitution-proud Americans for 200 years, and yet can be declared already unconstitutional; not able to be made so by some future constitutional amendment but always so? Does it mean that the judges simply described their prejudices as the constitution? Perhaps more alarmingly, does it mean they see nothing alarming in the idea that the constitution is beyond the comprehension of U.S. voters and their elected representatives? What becomes of the constitution as ‘the act of a people constituting a government’ if the court thinks the people cannot understand their act? My bald summary does not do justice to Cooke’s gentler and subtler raising of his concern. Even so, it does not seem a concern that a ‘particular dislike’ of Reagan then or of Bush now would prompt. Now, as then, such radical reinterpretations seem rather the hallmark of those who do particularly dislike them.

As the eighties wore on, I was less and less able to listen to weekly letters from America; my loss. No doubt,Cooke said plenty about Reagan and the Bushes. But the recent letter that Natalie links to reminds me vividly of many I heard; a critique gently offered not to the right but to the left – a thought he thinks they need to ponder. It is a kind of left-leaning regard to be sure, a kind Orwell might have recognised, but far from the dismissive BBC obituarist’s description. And that is what makes such remarks so sad. To ignore hostile criticism is human nature, if human nature not at its best. But I can’t imagine a kinder, gentler, more sympathetic analysis of the failings of political correctness than that sometimes offered by Alistair Cooke, a BBC insider and very much of the breed that gave the BBC such reputation as it has. If his thoughts are beyond the current elite’s grasp, what hope is there for reform at the beeb?

Against all Dyke’s odds and sods

: having now seen the second episode, I too would like to praise BBC2’s series on Dunkirk (‘Against All Odds’, screened yesterday, today and tomorrow).

When so many today, in the BBC and elsewhere, like to tell the fashionable PC lie, these programmes seem to have been made by someone who prefers to tell the truth. ‘Faction’ documentaries – dramatised history – are too often a particularly happy hunting ground for those who would rather express their prejudices than the facts, but the two episodes I’ve seen so far give the impression of an effort simply to convey a flavour of what happened.

That’s all we ask: that people care more about what is true than any agenda, and simply make the effort. It’s also what the men who were there deserve. It’s good that they are receiving it. It’s less good that they are again winning against the odds. There exists a PC revisionist history of Dunkirk, as of everything else. It’s a distortion, but no more so than much BBC material we have dissected on this blog in the past. It would have been no great surprise to see it appearing in the dramatised episodes.

I shall be pleased if this is a harbinger of better things. Whether or no, it is good in itself.

Balanced Coverage

: BBC2’s programme on North Korea (screened last night) was an informative, distressing, at times chilling, study of some of what goes on in that wretched country.

Near the end, the programme turned to discussing the possibility that anything might be done about it. “In the other hermetically-sealed land”, was how the voice-over introduced a view of Washington, where, we were told, action would not be taken because, “North Korea has no oil”. Not all the brief analysis of why the U.S. appears less ready to invade North Korea than Iraq was down at this visceral anti-american level, but that these lines were spoken prompts some reflections.

The programme-makers doubtless had to imply some interest in North Korea’s version of events to be let in to film. (Honourably for them, I doubt they’ll be allowed back now this has been screened.) Were the above lines performing a similar function in BBC-land, a necessary genuflection to the BBC’s view of the U.S.? The speculation seems a more-than-fair riposte to the ‘other hermetically-sealed land’ quip.

Of course, had the BBC not already established a very solid anti-Bush record, they might never have been allowed in to film in the first place. The most enlightening (and disturbing) data came from escapees and defectors interviewed outside the country, but what we saw inside – the unanimity of remarks and the patent fear and desire to cut discussion short engendered by the slightest controversial question – also told its tale. So I leave it to the reader to determine whether the tendency of this post is to criticise BBC bias or to grant that it can sometimes serve the greater good.

Meanwhile, though the horrors the witnesses told of may not alter anyone’s view of the rights and wrongs either of BBC bias or of the many other things that we or the BBC complain about here in the west, they certainly put them in perspective.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

: one of the saddest sights for an opponent of deceit is to see politically-correct bias managing to deceive someone who is not its natural or willing dupe. Jeremy Clarkson, though he jokes about his anti-U.S. bias, is not the most natural target of left-wing propaganda. Most of his programme on the gun (‘Inventions that changed the world’, shown this evening on BBC 2) was, by BBC standards, a watchable and by no means intemperate view of the topic.

Then he got onto relative statistics on gun-related killings: 1994 was the stated year. Suddenly the figures he was saying started to remind me of something. Although I have a passable memory for figures, I was not videoing the program and can only say that I think they were US: 11,127, Germany: 381, etc; the figures from Michael Moore’s notorious ‘Bowling for Columbine’.

David Hardy’s detailed analysis of Bowling has some useful discussion of how Moore may have acquired these dubious figures (and much else that was not just dubious) for the film. Jeremy Clarkson is not an obvious victim of a man like Moore. Perhaps he spends too much time with BBC colleagues who are. Perhaps he simply doesn’t realize how far the politically correct will go. After all, Columbine won an Oscar for ‘best documentary’; people could think that meant it was fact, not fiction.

I am annoyed by deliberate BBC bias. I am depressed by this very minor and probably quite innocent repetition of Moore’s bias. Meanwhile, one can but hope that Jeremy will put his anti-American bias to more productive use; Moore is one after all.