Thursday, 21 November 2013

The wrong people in the room?

This Chatham House paper by James de Waal published today, 21 November, is worth reading. And thinking about.
DeWaal is no lightweight - he's a visiting fellow at the RIIA and has a distinguished background in the MoD and the Diplomatic Service. His short paper is a study not of the political decisions to get involved in Afghanistan and Iraq – we know that the first of those was spasm, the second a deception – but how the Blair government managed to make such a Horlicks of military deployments both during and in the long years after the conflicts.
At its most political, it condemns Tony Blair’s Downing Street and its ‘sofa government’:
“Blair’s tenure as prime minister was noted for the practice of decision-making in small circles of selected (and therefore supposedly tight-lipped) advisers – an approach condemned by, among others, the Butler Review of intelligence on weapons of mass destruction.” 
A style that Blair’s Chief of Staff, Jonathan Powell, defended as a system that produced good decisions so long as you had “the right people in the room” - from which deWaal takes his title.
Obsession
The problem was, de Waal argues, that “the right people” didn’t have quite the right attitude to managing the military:
“Politicians and civil servants did not wish to be accused of interfering with military planning, and so did little to ensure that military action supported political aims.” 
And Downing Street’s infamous obsession with the next day’s headlines led to astonishing recklessness:
“In 2002–03, Britain decided to make a ground force contribution to the invasion of Iraq …" 
That’s to say, the decision on the type of intervention, ‘boots on the ground’ not the decision per se to oust Saddam by military force – that had already been taken on the false premise we now know it to have been:
 “… with implicit responsibility for post-war security in that country’s southern provinces, primarily because politicians feared they would have problems with the British army if it was left out, and that these problems would find their way into the media.” 
Later, in another part of the forest:
“In 2009, Downing Street was not convinced of the military need to send reinforcements to Afghanistan, but agreed to do so because it wanted to prevent hostile press briefings by the military.”
The explanation? Well, the obvious. But also the …
 “incoherence, inconsistency and opacity …” 
 … of Downing Street’s “model” for working with the military. No10 was:
“apprehensive of the close relationship between the armed forces and the media, and were therefore reluctant to challenge military opinion.” 
And as a result, did nothing at all to query the plans of those senior officers who:
“felt their role was principally to support the institutional interests of their branch of the armed forces.”
"Poor judgment"
De Waal’s main focus isn’t to explain, condemn or excuse political decisions - though some Blair apologists read it as such. That's odd. In measured language - ever the diplomat, perhaps - his judgment is scathing:
“It seems reasonable to accuse Blair of poor judgment – at the very least – in overestimating both the threat from Saddam Hussein’s regime and the prospects of installing a viable replacement in Iraq.” 
And he recalls the admission of political misjudgment that Sir David Omand shared with the Chilcot inquiry. The admission that the immediate pre-war political strategy failed catastrophically in the case of Iraq:
“He cited the chess concept of Zugzwang, ‘where you force your opponent into a position where they have to move and every move they can make will worsen their position’, and showed how ‘instead of putting Saddam in that position, we turned out to be in that position ourselves because we were forced to […] get the [UN] inspectors to look for the smoking gun in double quick time before the window for invasion closed’.” 
Makes you wonder how serious the UN/weapons inspectors’ route really was – and how much Blair was, contrary to his assertions at the time, wholly governed by the military timetable.
Code
De Waal ends recommending a new code to circumscribe governments’ decision making on the use of force – not a bad idea since that decision, peace or war, is the most grave a democratic government can take.
And the code’s aim - he suggests it should be approved by parliament - wouldn't be to constrain a government's proper and legal use of force. It would be to ensure that political and military decisions were aligned and supported each other - as they self-evidently did not in the first decade of this century.
He draws on the American model where:
“the stronger tradition of political-military debate and a clear legislative framework give the United States assets in this area that are not yet available to the United Kingdom.”
Like I say. Worth reading - the paper itself, that is, and not the gloss Tony Blair's apologists would like to put on it.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Choose your mammal

Rat or ferret - you choose
I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk about the letter I got on Friday. 
I don’t know because a few days before I left the BBC back in March 2011, I signed a confidentiality agreement. And I've no intention of breaching it. Here or anywhere else.
Funny how things turn out, though. 
What I think I can say is that none of the former BBC colleagues I’ve spoken to in the past 48 hours is prepared to agree to the details of his or her severance package being passed on to the MPs on the Public Accounts Committee.
"Why are we being dragged into this?" one said.
There’s talk of lawyers, actions for breach of confidence and judicial reviews.
The whole BBC pay-off story has been bloody. And whether your preferred mammal-in-a-sack is rat or ferret expect it to get bloodier.
Buried rot
It’s not entirely clear why the MPs want name, rank and numbers of the 150 or so ‘senior managers’ who took redundancy or some other form of severance between 2010 and 2012. "Surely anonymous data will do the job" one former 'senior manager' told me.  
But perhaps they believe that the National Audit Office report and their own inquiries back in July revealed only the tip of some vast rot, buried deep in the corporation. And that a bit of naming and shaming is now in order.
Certainly the BBC’s performance at the committee can’t have given them confidence that public money had been carefully and judiciously spent.
The niff of something not quite wholesome is there in that NAO report. They looked at a sample of 60 deals between December 2009 and December 2010. And their inquiries threw up any number of anomalies in the severance deals of a handful of executives on stratospheric salaries.
Payments in lieu of notice … even when the executive worked the notice period. Payments for unused leave … even though leave policy in the BBC is ‘use it or lose it’. Discretionary payments and sweetheart deals.  
Worse, rules had been broken; procedures hadn’t been followed; paperwork wasn’t complete; deals were signed off in a way that left the BBC unable to show that it had handled public money wisely.
“The BBC has breached its own policies on severance too often without good reason. This has resulted in payments that have not served the best interests of licence fee payers. Weak governance arrangements have led to payments that exceeded contractual entitlements and put public trust at risk. The severance payments for senior BBC managers have, therefore, provided poor value for money for licence fee payers.”
It wouldn't be surprising, then, if MPs thought that was the story with all the BBC's redundancy and severance deals. Cronyism, snouts in the trough etc etc.
They'd be wrong to think that. Here’s why.
Irony
The phrases ‘senior managers’ and ‘executives’ don't quite mean what they seem. They conjure up ranks of pampered desk pilots on annual salaries approaching sums that many licence-fee payers won’t earn in a decade or more.
That’s way off the mark.
It’s true that during the 2000s, pay at the very top of the BBC went crazy. And that craziness is at the heart of this severance row.
That’s not without irony, incidentally. The very people who were so essential to the BBC in the early 2000s that they had to be attracted and motivated by boggling amounts of cash became, by the second half of the decade, among the most easily disposable. Though they had to be motivated once again by boggling amounts of cash. This time to go away.  
As former Newsnight reporter Liz McKean told the Edinburgh TV festival, those inflated salaries at the very top of the BBC created an …
“officer class … that seems to fly in the face of the principles of public service broadcasting … the corporation has been treated as a get-rich scheme …”
But those crazy salaries never reached very far down the corporation. And that created at the time something more than dismay in the BBC’s production offices, regional stations and newsrooms.
Wide range
‘Senior managers’ in the BBC means a very wide range of staff on a very wide range of salaries. 
At the apex, the five ‘executive directors’. 
Below that, team leaders, newsroom editors, programme editors and so on, all on two grades called SMS; the higher, SMS1, the lower, SMS2.
At the top end, heads of this and controllers of that on those £300k, £400k salaries.
At the other end, men and women at the BBC’s sharp end – in charge of projects or putting programmes and news bulletins on air – often on salaries around £60k-70k. Not shabby by any means. But not extravagant riches either.
Many of the 150 ‘senior managers’ whose details the PAC is now demanding are in the latter category. Broadcasters with twenty or thirty years experience, overseeing programmes or editing strands of the News Channel or TV and radio news bulletins with audiences of three or four million. 
And who, when they were told their jobs were closing, were offered the minimum deal their contracts allowed: a month’s salary for every year of service, capped at 24 months; no payment in lieu of notice – many, I understand, were asked to sign away the right even when they were expected to be out of the door within days; no sweeteners, no cash for annual leave not taken years ago.
Fishing trips
All the former colleagues I’ve spoken to have no complaint about their severance deals. None went beyond their contractual entitlement. None feels hard done by, even in the light of those NAO revelations.
None joined the BBC to get rich, either. But of course, a redundancy package of, say, £150k looks a lot of money – even though it’s entirely within the rules for someone leaving on a salary of £70k after twenty-five years.
“The tabloids will just go on fishing trips” a former current affairs editor told me. “They’ll try to make us all look greedy bastards.”
One former news editor added another worry: “We don’t know how they’re going to use this information … we know they’ll stitch us up.” It wasn’t clear who the ‘they’ were in that sentence. “I thought all this was supposed to be confidential” he went on.
Indeed so.
Big beasts
Something else, though, something rather more important sticks in the craw of many former colleagues - including those who are still working for the corporation.
That the cage-fight to the death between former DG Mark Thompson and Trust chairman Lord Patten is yet another gift to those who just don't get public service let alone public service broadcasting.
Precisely who knew what and when about a handful of extravagant pay-offs is slightly beside the point. What really matters is that they could happen at all. That, for a few years, a culture and mindset existed at the very top that thought it was OK.
Former colleagues, including those who've found their current salaries and future prospects capped by the current DG Tony Hall, welcome the way he's rooting out that culture and mindset. And want him to continue. Clearing up the mistakes of the past, like the DMI fiasco. Trying to lead the BBC back to the public service values it aspired to before misguided voices persuaded it to look more like a business ... with executive pay and boardroom habits to match.
It's turning out to be a dirty business - some of the dirt splashing over Hall himself. It'll no doubt get muckier.
But one thing matters more than anything else. Once this is over, Hall is left to finish what he started.

Friday, 30 August 2013

The view from the hill of beans

That vote in parliament looked very different from where I was. 
Just a few hour’s drive from Damascus. 
Not that it’s a drive I was thinking of. Not that it’s possible. Not overtly, anyway. 
Not without a tank. 
I guess if I’d been back in the editor’s chair at The World at One or Today, I’d have been bouncing around like everyone else at the British parliamentary manoeuverings. 
The microscopic points scored. The tactical blunders. 
And that laziest of lazy journalistic tropes; who’s won? Who’s lost?
It all seemed a bit irrelevant. A bit beside the point.
And the problems of three little people – Cameron, Clegg and Milliband – didn’t amount to a hill of beans … well, you get the point.
Crazy world.
Selfish
Before the vote, I was selfishly – really, really selfishly – hoping nothing would happen in the real world that’d close the airport before I was due to leave for home. 
Flicking across the Hebrew and Arabic TV channels didn't help the mood. Pictures of gas mask queues. Missile batteries. Finger jabbing threats of retaliation ... in every possible direction. Fatah and Hamas united on this if nothing else - the west shouldn't attack Syria.  
Crazy world, huh. 
But then, the draw of our narrow, self-regarding politics is too strong if you’ve spent your life somewhere in its vicinity.
So I watched what I could of the debate. And shared the shock of the vote. And got swept up in the calculations everyone I follow on Twitter was tweeting about.
What does it mean for Cameron? For the coalition? For what passes these days for UK foreign policy?
How did it happen? Where were the whips? What'll happen when Ed Milliband realises that smoke is coming from the self-administered holes in his feet? Etc. Etc.
Hill of beans.
No means no
We learnt last night what our MPs aren’t prepared to do about Assad. And by extension, it has to be assumed, any other dictator who can't find his moral compass under the barrels of sarin.
So what are they prepared to do? Now and in the future. And if, as the polls suggest, they're more or less speaking for us voters, what are we prepared to see done in our name.
It'd be profoundly depressing if last night's vote means we're heading down some amoral cul-de-sac. Traipsing behind little Englanders, wringing our hands at inhumanity muttering ‘somebody should do something’. Like curtain twitchers who tut at the yobs on the corner, hoping someone will stop them before they pee in our garden and violate the gladioli. 
But if we're not prepared to back the use of force. And still want to see a vaguely moral world ... what is it that we're prepared to commit to to bring it about?
Polluted    
There’s no doubt that Iraq and Afghanistan shifted our perspectives on the use of force.
MPs let us be bundled into war in Afghanistan in 2001 without any serious examination. Two years later, we trooped with more deliberation but more mendacity into Iraq.  
There are similarities, of course, between then and now. But the differences are much greater. And tell us much, much more.
If Afghanistan was instinctive – ‘something must be done’ ‘what?’ ‘dunno but let’s do it’ – Iraq was not. Blair had a roadmap. A detailed one. Written in Downing Street in March 2002.  If you care to, you can even trace his Iraq trajectory back to Chicago in 1999.
Cameron had/has no road map. If he has a foreign policy at all, it’s difficult to spot. And on Syria, his lack of both tactics and strategy has been painful to watch.
Blair’s convictions, of course, took us down another route. And to another difference between then and now.
We now know beyond any doubt that in 2002/3, intelligence that was known to be unreliable and which turned out to be pure fiction was massaged in Downing Street to remove doubt. To match Blair’s convictions and shape a misleading case for war in the shaming September 2002 dossier. Policy-based evidence.
This time, the JIC’s reasoning, doubts and uncertainties have been published intact – or at least sufficiently intact to make John Day’s document a very different one from John Scarlett’s.  
So, while the spooks can come to conclusions about Assad’s use of lethal chemical weapons over the past 18 months …
with the highest possible level of certainty …”
… when it comes to the 21 August, the potential trigger for military intervention:
“... we do not have the same degree of confidence."
And the conclusion that Assad was responsible, as he almost certainly was? Well, the document concedes it's derived not from hard intelligence but from retroductive reasoning – ‘we’ve looked for evidence of the alternative, that it was a fake or the Syrian Armed Opposition, but can’t find any’. That, and a:
limited but growing body of intelligence which supports the judgement that the regime was responsible for the attacks”. (emphasis added)
This time;
“the JIC concluded that it is highly likely that the regime was responsible for the CW attacks on 21 August” (emphasis added)
“Saddam Hussein is continuing to develop WMD … the assessed intelligence has established beyond doubt … the threat is serious and current … ”
Of course, the intelligence had done no such thing.
Perhaps it was the frankness this time round, those concessions of doubt that Cameron echoed in the House – another sharp contrast with 2002/3 – that guaranteed the government’s defeat.
Perhaps Blair was right. Perhaps we can only be taken to war in a spasm or on the back of an 'interesting' approach to creating the truth.
Long Haul
Whether you support(ed) or oppose(d) Britain's participation in punishing Assad, it was/is impossible to see how it could end well. Impossible even to see where or when it might end.
Possible, though, to see the global policemen ending up worse off than the crook. A prospect that remains even if - when - the UN inspectors' report demonstrates Assad's crookery beyond peradventure. 
Other options, though, are few - and require levels of commitment to the long haul that the bean-hill builders baulk at.
One is a decades-long project to create a solidly rule-based international settlement. A settlement that would create international institutions with the power and consensus to constrain and contain 'offenders' before they go critical. But we sigh at the thought, knowing that every 'internationalist' achievement since 1945 has seen its ideals trumped by power and self-interest.
Perhaps, too, we need some sort of coherent re-statement of Britain's policy on its role in the global police force.
Or perhaps we need to expect more from diplomacy. Perhaps that 'wait and see' setting needs attention for the 21st century.
If for no other reason than to avoid the absurdity of P5 members facing each other down over the corpses of gassed children.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Thello goodbye

I was always in two minds about it.
Going to Venice on the train. The overnight sleeper.
For all sorts of unimportant reasons, it was pretty late in the day that we decided to spend a week or so in Venice at the beginning of August.
A place we know well.
A place that can’t be spoiled even by the billions of tourists shambling around San Marco and the Rialto in the impossible heat.
We were going to be in France in July. And it seemed nuts to fly. And I didn't fancy the day-time train.
So, the Thello night sleeper from Paris it was. Encouraged by The Man in Seat Sixty-One.
A thirteen hour rumble through the night. Via Dijon, the Simplon tunnel, Milan, Verona, Padua. A whiff of romance. Bed down in Paris. Wake up in Venice.
Such a bad idea.
Pluses and minuses
On the plus side, three-berth cabins were easy to book straight from the Thello website.
And not too expensive … though at £100 per berth each way, it wasn’t that much cheaper than the most conveniently timed Paris/Venice flights. And more expensive than the red-eyes.
And that’s about it. For the plus side.
Place des Vosges
That and the afternoon we got to spend in Paris (most of it acting the bourgeois in the gloriously splendid Place des Vosges) before setting off at eight o’clock.
Well, that was the time we were supposed to set off.
We got to the Gare Lyon at six. Time for a drink, Something to eat etc.
Didn’t quite trust Thello’s boasts of “a menu card to suit every budget”.
Late and later
Bad news.
Up there on the departure board, the Venice train was showing a delay of one hour.
Grumpy.
An hour later, another hour’s delay clicked up. Two hours.
An hour later, a third. Then a fourth. Then ‘indeterminate delay’.
No one knew why. The staff in the Thello shop had all gone home. And the SNCF information desk denied all knowledge, responsibility or interest.
There’d been intemperies on the Riviera, apparently. And that was causing delays. We weren’t going anywhere near the Riviera.
And a train was stuck at Avignon. Not going that way either.
The best anyone in a uniform could do was shrug about “the late arrival of equipment”. But our train had arrived at Gare Lyon at nine-thirty that morning and had been sitting in a siding outside the station since. It seemed hard to see how those misfortunes were anything to do with it.
Grim gare
Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to spend four and a half hours at the Gare Lyon as it closes down for the night. It’s not a very nice place.
Not at all.
Apart from anything else, it’s in the middle of a major re-build right now. So things that should be there aren’t. And things that should work don’t.
Like seats. And lavatories.
Some things are unaffected, though. Like the slamming shutters on Relay and anywhere else selling food or drink on the dot of eight-thirty.
I’ll never criticise an airport again.
Midnight comes and goes 
Thello runs two night trains. One to Rome, one to Venice.
Both were delayed.
Both, in the end, by over four hours.
Both victims of something we underestimate at our peril. The stubborn inflexibility of the French public servant.
A man or woman who, with a following wind, can make the most cussed jobsworths of any other nation seem like Good Deed Daily.
Thello, you see, is a new(ish) venture. A private venture. The first to exploit ‘open access’ on the French railway system.
Hence SNCF’s general lack of interest in it or us.
Sure, it leases its engines in a complex arrangement involving SNCF. But otherwise it’s a thorn in the sprawling side of the state behemoth.
And you can imagine what that means for the place it has in the heart of every SNCF fonctionnaire.
Think Robert Maxwell running a couple of trains on pre-Beeching British Rail.
Shrugs all round
So when things go wrong for SNCF – as they clearly had that day – SNCF is the priority. And if that means keeping platforms free for delayed SNCF trains and not finding one for those pesky private Thello trains for over four hours … **shrugs and makes that ‘muh’ sound**.
But at least it can't get worse, can it? We think. As round about a quarter past midnight we drag ourselves on board.
Obviously, our carriage is at the very far end of the platform.
And it’s clear that it’s very, very old. Between forty and fifty years old, it turns out.
Thello – which, for the time being, is a consortium of Veolia (the people who take your rubbish away and run the bus and tram systems in many European cities) and Trenitalia – uses carriages originally built for the Wagon Lits company when Charles de Gaulle was President of France and England was yet to win the World Cup.
They look like it.
They might even be the very couchette carriages I traveled on back in 1969 on a school trip to Switzerland.
I wouldn't be surprised to learn they hadn’t been cleaned since about then.
Shabbiness, you can just about forgive. Decades of congealed cack in every corner is a tad harder to ‘understand’.
Expectations
Of course, there’s no room in the cabins. Not for you and your luggage. You expect that.
And you expect the bunks to be four inches shorter than you are.
What you don’t expect is that the top bunk’s headroom – mine – is mere inches. A single digit’s worth of inches.
Nor that, by some evil trick of circulation, all the hot air from the rest of the train ends up there. Driven by the train’s ancient emphysemic ventilation system.
Never mind. “We’ll have the morning to watch the Italian countryside drift by.”
Not really. After Milan – we arrived there about the time we were supposed to be in Venice – we trundled along, stopping at every signal, deep in an embankment, hidden by trees or plastic wind shields or weaving through the industrial zones of Lombardy and Veneto.
Breakfast was marred by an electrical failure in the buffet car. So they, apologetically, made the instant coffee with lukewarm water pumped from a flask.
Oh. And the plumbing is … romantic. Best leave that there.
Way to go?
Would I do it again?
No. Obviously, no.
As it turned out, the return journey left Venice and arrived in Paris on time.
But the temperature on board was over 38 degrees. And up there on the torture bunk, sleeping wasn’t much of an option. Though the dehydration induced hallucinations were entertaining.
Bluntly, this is not a way to go to and from Venice. At best, it's an adventure in masochism.
If you're thinking about it, don't. Stop. Now.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Can anyone help ... ?

The ubiquitous West Bank water butts
I don't do conspiracies.
But what's been happening to Google searches via Chrome on my trusty Macbook since I came back from Palestine a few weeks ago is genuinely puzzling.
And I wonder if it, or anything like it, has happened to anyone else.
Relaxed in Ramallah
Back at the end of March, just before Easter, I spent a while in Ramallah designing a new diploma and postgraduate course on Strategic Communications at Birzeit University.
Ramallah is, incidentally, one of the most sophisticated and relaxed cities I've ever stayed in.
Once I'd finished there, I spent Easter/Passover in Jerusalem ... and noticed that some of the internet "issues" I'd experienced in Palestine were still happening.
Mostly, Google searches timing out. Or error messages telling me that websites - the site for the Ramallah hotel I'd stayed in, for instance - didn't exist,  though I knew they did.
I put it down to bad WiFi. Just one of those things.
But ...
Back in London last night, I picked up some of the threads of the work I'd been doing in Palestine.
I needed to search for Hanan Ashrawi, the veteran Palestinian spokesperson.
So, on the Mac that had been with me on the trip and using Chrome, I put Hanan's second name into Google. And got this:

OK ... glitch. Try "Palestine:

Hmm ... I had a vague memory of 'stuff' like this happening in Ramallah and Jerusalem. OK ... try "Ramallah":


Same for "Erekat", "Abbas", "Fatah", "Hamas", "Birzeit", "Gaza" and "intifada".
Must be a broken browser ... so, to check, tried "Jerusalem":


Lucky shot. What about "Netanyahu":


Right. Must be working now. Glitch sorted.
Except ... no. Still, Palestinian search terms gave no results and crashed Chrome.
Switched to Safari and Firefox ... which both worked just fine. And Chrome working fine on my PC, using my Google account.
Odder and odder
Oddly, "city of Ramallah" produced no browser crash and the usual hundreds of search results. Ditto "palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat".
But still, even today (after numerous cache clears and that old standby 'turning it off and on again) the one or two word terms that crashed Chrome in Palestine and did so again last night are still, eventually, returning 'Page(s) unresponsive'.
Like I say, I don't do conspiracies. I'm happy to believe this is all my fault and I'd done something weird.
But two questions.
Has anyone else had anything like this? And how can I fix it?

Saturday, 9 March 2013

Leopards and spots and stuff ...

I don't follow Alastair Campbell (@campbellclaret - 214,999 followers) on Twitter.
But the other day, a friend told me I'd (@kjmarsh - 2,040 followers) been mentioned in one of his tweets ... so naturally, curiosity got the better of discrimination.
The last time I was aware of being on his radar was way back in 1997 and 1998.
First, when he tried to poison the waters around a job - editor of Today - that I hadn't even applied for. And then, at various parliamentary lobby briefings when he railed against me and the programme I was editing at the time, The World at One. 
You can read all about all of that in Stumbling Over Truth, incidentally.
Anyway, this time it was all about Nick Robinson's excellent Battle for the Airwaves - his short series on Radio Four about the scuffles between the BBC and governments over the past 90 years. The edition that looked at the row over the 'sexed up' September 2002 dossier, Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction (sic).
Unsurprisingly, both Alastair Campbell and I featured in the programme. Unsurprisingly, too, our respective stances haven't changed much over the intervening decade.
But I had to smile when I read his tweet. It's not just our respective stances that haven't changed.
Campbell's uniquely polytropic verbal habits haven't, either.
F'rinstance, he tells his followers that I called Andrew Gilligan "journalistically criminal" in the programme.
Old tricks
That's not quite true. Though, unsurprisingly, it's close enough to confound all but the most attentive. An old trick. Leopards. Spots. Etc.
What I actually said was that "to misquote" and "misattribute ... one of the key claims" of "a single, anonymous source" was "journalistically criminal".
Gilligan's story, however, that Downing Street had "sexed up" the September 2002 dossier and that it made some in intelligence unhappy, was, as we now know for certain, wholly correct. Nothing criminal there ... well, not in putting the story on air.
We now know for certain, too, the truth of Dr Kelly's central allegation; that the notorious 45 minute claim was included in the dossier even though the best analytical brains in the intelligence community had warned it was almost certainly wrong. A warning that was over-ruled using intelligence from an untested source. Intelligence that was subsequently withdrawn.
Those brains were right and Downing Street was wrong ... unless I missed the haul of WMD finds from Saddam's "continuing" and "accelerating" production lines back in the day.
The journalistic criminality was Gilligan failure to report Dr Kelly's allegations accurately in one broadcast out of some dozen and a half on that one day in May 2003. The allegations themselves, however, were true.
As I wrote at the time, it was a case of "good journalism marred by flawed reporting".
In denial
Someone who does follow @campbellclaret is Mike Anson (@MikeAnson). He tweeted a response that "what Gilligan alleged was essentially correct".
Now, I've never been fond of that defence. As I said to Nick Robinson, "essentially correct" or "mostly right" isn't good enough. Not for the BBC and not when you have only a single, anonymous source.
The fact is, though, that but for one idiotic moment, Gilligan did report Dr Kelly accurately. And had he had the nous to report the allegations as he'd set them out and worded them in the script he'd written a few hours earlier, as he was meant to, he'd have spared us that idiotic moment and much else besides.
But Campbell remains in denial. "Wrong in every regard", he tweets.
Every regard?
Well, that's for others to judge. By and large those who care at all any more have made up their minds. Drilling down to what was actually said would bore even those with a PhD in Hutton Studies. And anyway, if you're minded to you can read it all in Stumbling Over Truth.
Suffice it to say, while all of the words in @campbellclaret's tweet were used by someone at some point in the whole affair, it wasn't necessarily in that order, all at the same time or all by the same person.
Pedants note, for instance, the word "agencies".
Bizarre
Most bizarre of all, though, is this little extract from the exchange with a politely persistent @MikeAnson.
Mr Anson correctly reminds Alastair Campbell that Downing Street did "sex up" the case for war, the September 2002 dossier. Even Lord Hutton acknowledged that ... though you have to have a degree in interlinear reading to spot it. And so, of course, did Lord Butler ... rather more bluntly.
Does @campbellclaret?
Not quite.
Ten years late?
One thing, though, I would agree on.
It would have been better had I been able, ten years ago, to tell Lord Hutton how and why Gilligan had screwed up in one broadcast - but that his story was sound. The story I passed, the story written in his script, the story that time has shown to be spot on.
Only Lord Hutton knows why he didn't feel he needed to hear from the programme editor who put the allegations on air. Only the BBC knows why it didn't shove me into the witness box - but if you care at all, you can read why I believe they felt it better to silence me here.
It's baffling how @campbellclaret is still trying to persuade us, perhaps still believes himself, that if the BBC had apologised for the witless wording of one broadcast, it would have had to concede the story and Dr Kelly's allegations were wrong.
That would never have happened. And if anyone still believes the 'sexed up' dossier allegations were wrong ... well, they really are "10yrs too late".

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Knots and nots

When I added my signature to a short letter to The Times a while back, it was to make one very narrow, simple but important point in the post-Leveson debate.
A debate that’s been absurdly protracted by the newspaper industry’s passive-aggressive foot-dragging. Promising us, the public, something Leveson-compliant while, somehow, never quite producing it.
Simple
That very narrow, simple but important point was this: that there’s nothing in even the strictest form of media regulation, the regulation of broadcasting, that’s “inevitably anathema to free speech”.
Nothing in that strictest of regulatory regimes that “automatically places us under the thumb of politicians”.
Simple enough, huh?
The point was to introduce a bit of reality to counter this particular diversion. Not to argue that broadcasting-style regulation should be extended to the press. Nor to put Ofcom in charge of our newspapers. No-one sane wants either.
Disappointment
But that didn't stop some getting tangled in knots over it - and that was disappointing.
Steve Hewlett in his interview with Peter Kosminsky on The Media Show, for example. Or his piece in The Guardian – I tweeted, probably a tad harshly, that it was a “stonking exercise in missing the point”.
Peter Preston took a different tack in the Observer though he arrived at a similarly disappointing, nodular destination.
He asked me whether I remembered the “catastrophe of Andrew Gilligan, David Kelly and the Hutton report” and the “Downing Street waves that lapped around (me)”. And whether Greg Dyke – who also signed the Times letter – “remembers the vote by the BBC governors – chaired then by a former chief whip – that swept him out of office?”
Book plug
Simple answer. Yes – and you can read all about both in my book Stumbling Over Truth.
But Peter's message was clear. Broadcasters are in "chains"; our journalism isn't somehow as "free"or, by implication, as 'good' as that of the press. Less good at holding power to account, calling its deceptions and standing up to its pressure.
Proof, he goes on, is that when we rattle our chains, the seen and unseen hands of power clamp us tight again and show who's boss.
It’s fantasy, of course. And, as we said in the letter, frankly insulting.
Waves
But as a pedant, I'm kinda obliged to point out he's not got the before, during and after of the dossier row quite right. The facts don't serve his argument in the way he thinks.
Those Downing Street waves (and before that, Millbank ripples) didn't lap around me only during the dossier business. They threatened daily to break over me and my programmes for a decade before Gilligan shambled on air on that May morning in 2003.
Why? Because The World at One - the programme I was editing most of that time - made a point of shining a light day in, day out on New Labour's sleights of hand intended to “create the truth”.
It meant endless bloody rows with Downing Street - and, naturally, they tried to put the squeeze on. But there was never a sniff of “back off” from my bosses. Nor so much as a raised eyebrow from our “regulators”, the BBC Governors in those days.
All the suits took an interest in was whether our stories were well-founded, well-sourced and accurate. They were, we got on with it.
Dossiers and defenestration
The 2003/4 dossier affair was no different - except for one thing.
Gilligan's story was well-founded and well-sourced ... but in one broadcast, that notorious 6.07 two-way, it wasn't accurate. And it was that inaccuracy that let the sea in (to continue Peter’s wave metaphor) not the allegations themselves.
As to Greg’s defenestration … well, he's spoken for himself on that. Short version - it’s a bit simple minded to reduce it to Downing Street’s revenge or Governors second guessing what Downing Street wanted or expected and flexing regulatory muscles.
Chains
Peter suggests it would be better if “lovers of editorial freedom” – like me, I suppose – “rattled the chains that tie them down rather than demanded more chains for everyone”.
See above for my view on whether I was ever "chained".
But the idea that I or anyone else who signed that Times letter did so to demand "chains" for everyone is bunk.
Canard
Unsurprisingly, the old phone-hacking/MPs’ expenses canard waddles on stage, too ... though once again, Peter’s memory is slightly at fault.
Chris Patten didn’t quite tell the Society of Editors at the back end of 2011 that the BBC “couldn't have broken either the MPs' expenses story or the phone-hacking scandal”.
What he did say was that the BBC couldn't have “paid for the information on MPs' expenses as the Daily Telegraph did, nor pursued the hacking story at News International as remorselessly as the Guardian campaign did” (my emphasis).
As it happens, I don’t think the good Lord is right on either count. I can’t think of anything in the BBC’s regulatory framework or editorial guidelines that would have stopped me pursuing phone-hacking back in the day if I or one of my reporters had got a sniff of it.
Nor, if we'd got our facts right, can I imagine anyone of my then bosses trying to stop me.
Teeth
And while it would undoubtedly have made for an interesting discussion in the higher echelons of BBC News, I’m not as certain as Lord P is that a whistleblower offering the MP's expenses data would have been turned peremptorily away. Certainly not if one of my former colleagues had been offered it and had really got his or her teeth into it.
Sure, the BBC almost certainly wouldn't have handed over a six figure sized wad of the public’s cash just like that. But there are ways and ways and I don't find it impossible to imagine that one could have been found.
Plus, there would have been little difficulty in a genuine ex post facto public interest justification - the acid test. 
Called to account
But in the end, tying the post-Leveson debate in these kinds of knot is all about trying to delay the inevitable.
It won't.
We know there's overwhelming public support for Leveson's proposals or something very close to them - not to "chain" the press nor impose broadcasting style regulation.
But to do something very simple and very overdue.
To place the last remaining unaccountable power in the land - the press - in the same position it insists on for all other powerful institutions.
To make it accountable to the public.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

An Unexamined War


It's difficult not to draw easy parallels between the drift to serious involvement in Mali and the stampede to war in Afghanistan a dozen years ago.
The pace, of course, is different ... but many of the arguments are much the same and warrant serious attention.
Will they get that attention?
It all reminded me of the section of a book I contributed to a few years ago - it was a chapter about the limitations of journalism in analysing and explaining war. In particular, the limitations on front-line reporting.
But my argument was that there were many more reasons that Afghanistan became "An Unexamined War" - and those arguments seem to resonate today.
I've reproduced that section here - apologies for its length.

An Unexamined War
It is easy to forget how rapidly the bombardment and invasion of Afghanistan followed the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001 – and how unexamined, by politicians and media, was the case for and road to war.  
From the moment the BBC’s Frank Gardner attributed the September 11 attacks to al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, war in Afghanistan seemed inevitable. An inevitability that effectively silenced proper examination of the case for that war.
The bewilderment on the faces of western leaders as they heard the news – President Bush, you recall, was reading to schoolchildren when the news came through, and Prime Minister Blair, was about to address the TUC in Brighton – was more than just an expression of shock at the unspeakable atrocity.
It reflected, also, their certainty that ‘something must be done’ … but that, initially, they had very little idea what. There had to be retaliation, a strike back – but against who? When, why and to what end? They were far from clear.
Debate?
Three days after the attacks, on I4 September, British MPs were recalled to Westminster to meet in emergency session. There were many words but little debate. The then leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, captured the prevailing sentiment  :
“It seems almost inevitable that there will be some sort of military response at some point—although at the moment we do not know where, when, or against whom.”
That echoed Prime Minister Blair’s declaration that … :
“ … these were attacks on the basic democratic values in which we all believe so passionately and on the civilised world ...
NATO has already … determined that this attack in America will be considered as an attack against the alliance as a whole. The UN Security Council on Wednesday passed a resolution which set out its readiness to take all necessary steps to combat terrorism. From Russia, China, the EU, from Arab states, Asia and the Americas, from every continent of the world, has come united condemnation. This solidarity must be maintained and translated into support for action.”
 
The contribution to this debate from newly elected, leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, Iain Duncan Smith, could almost be described as fawning:
“ … the Prime Minister … is to be congratulated on responding to this crisis quickly and resolutely, and on giving a lead to other nations that value freedom and democracy.” 
The forgotten dossier
Within three weeks, the government had produced a dossier, setting out the culpability of al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden as well as that of the Taleban regime in Afghanistan. A dossier on which Prime Minister Blair was able to lean when he told parliament, recalled for a second time on October 4, that the Taleban  :
" … allows them (al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden) to operate with impunity in pursuing their terrorist activity.”
How many of us remember that dossier? How many of us read it? How many of us gave it the scrutiny we gave to the Iraq dossiers – both the ‘sexed-up’ September 2002 dossier and the dodgy dossier of February 2003?
How many of us questioned, in the name of seeking ‘truth’, the simple choices Prime Minister Blair set out – as simple and unavoidable for the UK as they were for the Taleban?
“They either surrender the terrorists and close down the terrorist network or they become our enemies. If that happens, and the regime were to change, we are already working in close co-operation with people in and outside Afghanistan to build an alternative and successor regime that is as broad based as possible, unites ethnic groupings and gives people the chance of a stable Government there.” 
The lack of parliamentary and media scrutiny created a silence in the discourse, filled only by the sound of John Stuart Mill turning in his grave: “Truth can only emerge from the clash of contrary opinions”.
Missed opportunities
Yet there was much we journalists could and should have scrutinised. The extent to which Britain’s haste ‘to take down the Taleban regime’ – the phrase that became common currency at the time – aligned itself with what we knew about Tony Blair’s declared principles of foreign intervention, for example.
Since 1997, Prime Minister Tony Blair had been straining both to define – and exercise – what had become known as ‘post-modern’ foreign policy – broadly, the criteria on which the UK might choose to project its power into another state to right those things which, according to British values, were wrongs.
The key text became known as ‘the Chicago speech’ and contained five defining tests:
“First, are we sure of our case? War is an imperfect instrument for righting humanitarian distress; but armed force is sometimes the only means of dealing with dictators. Second, have we exhausted all diplomatic options? We should always give peace every chance, as we have in the case of Kosovo. Third, on the basis of a practical assessment of the situation, are there military operations we can sensibly and prudently undertake? Fourth, are we prepared for the long term? In the past we talked too much of exit strategies. But having made a commitment we cannot simply walk away once the fight is over; better to stay with moderate numbers of troops than return for repeat performances with large numbers. And finally, do we have national interests involved?”
It was a clever speech that appeared to establish Britain as a kind of global ‘values policeman’ – the five criteria were calculated to justify interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, for example. In fact, of course, it was a delimitation of intervention abroad, blinding the eye turned towards Saudi Arabia or China, for example, where, by any rational assessment, British values were affronted daily – the “sensibly and prudently” escape clause.
The new paradigm
The unexamined rush to war in Afghanistan blew those limitations away, arguably shaping the paradigm by which Britain became entangled in President Bush’s crusade in Iraq. And in telling that ‘truth’ about Afghanistan, journalism failed.
Chicago said nothing about regime change; nothing about de-failing failed states; nothing about assuring the safety of British streets by fighting in foreign fields.
In an April 2010 article (The Maps are Too Small, Patrick Porter, RIIA April 2010) for the Royal Institute of International Affairs – Chatham House – Patrick Porter of King’s College, London, summarised where Britain’s foreign policy stood after Afghanistan.
Porter’s article is as potent a condemnation of journalism’s failure as it is of Britain’s loss of focus in Afghanistan and after. The Blair/Brown administration, Porter argues, has become hyperactive on the world stage because :
“… it claims the country’s security depends on a liberal, ‘rules based’ world order that upholds its values … Britain is endangered by globe-girdling, chaotic processes such as state failure. Broken countries are incubators of extremism, disease and crime.” 
Britain has found itself committed to de-failing failed states and doing so in a way that is consistent with Britain’s liberal values:
“It cannot tolerate the illiberal. Therefore, London must scan the far horizons and take a forward leaning posture, watching, engaging and intervening on the periphery to protect its core.” 
This is true of nowhere more than it is of Afghanistan. There we see for real what an open-ended, bottomless, interminable – choose your term of infinity as you will – policy of intervention leads to.
Missing pieces
After almost nine years in which British men and women have been fighting and dying in Afghanistan– twice the length of WWII – the average British newspaper reader or the average British TV news bulletin viewer might well ask whether we journalists have helped locate the “missing pieces”.
Can we journalists hold our hands on our hearts and say that we have done all that we could to hold our government properly to account for its expenditure of our ‘blood and treasure’ on a policy in Afghanistan that is maximally interventionist (overturning one regime and putting another in its place) value driven (towards a multi-ethnic plural democracy) and, in its logic (the safety of British streets is secured on the battlefields of Afghanistan) capable of application anywhere on the globe where states fail?
And if we have not done so – and this is crucial – has that failure been the result of constraints on reporting from the front line? Or has it been the result of something else?