Question Time's bias on Afghanistan

Salma Yaqoob versus five supporters of the war

What stood out for me on tonight's Question Time was David Dimbleby interrupting Respect's Salma Yaqoob -- who happened to be interrupting the former army chief Sir Richard Dannatt -- to instruct her to pipe down. He said:

Salma, you must accept my chairmanship. I will give you a chance to speak . . . you spoke at some length a moment ago. Let the general speak . . .

But why should she? Yaqoob, a passionate, articulate and intelligent critic of the Afghan war, was up against five (five!) pro-war panellists: the Tories William Hague and Dannatt, Labour's Bill Rammell, the Lib Dems' Lord Ashdown and the ex-Mirror editor Piers Morgan. Talk about a "skewed" debate, to use her apt phrase.

So, is this what the "liberal" and "left-wing" and "anti-war" BBC calls "balance"? Let's not forget that 56 per cent of the British public said they opposed Britain's military operations in Afghanistan in a BBC poll in October. Sixty-three per cent of the public believes troops "should be withdrawn from Afghanistan as quickly as possible", according to a ComRes poll in November. Fifty-seven per cent of the public thinks victory is no longer possible, according to a YouGov poll in November. Were these attitudes reflected on the taxpayer-funded BBC Question Time panel?

Is it any wonder that Salma Yaqoob had to interrupt so much in order to voice the opposition of the wider British public? Is it surprising that each of the next four audience members who spoke immediately after her agreed with her and echoed her criticisms of the war? (In fact, those of us on the anti-war left have long argued that the BBC is, wittingly or unwittingly, pro-war, on Afghanistan and Iraq. In December 2003, for example, John Pilger cited a Cardiff University study in the New Statesman which concluded that the BBC had "displayed the most pro-war agenda of any [British] broadcaster".)

Some other (largely depressing) highlights from the show:

* William Hague: "We are not going to be there for decades . . . but I don't think we can set a precise time." A really helpful contribution, eh? And convenient, too. Ashdown, interestingly, disagreed.

* Lord Ashdown: "Opinion poll after opinion poll . . . shows that around 70 per cent of the citizens of Aghanistan want us to be there . . ." To be fair, he's right, but Ashdown, like every other panellist, omitted to mention that the BBC/ABC/ARD poll from February this year revealed that less than one in five Afghans support increasing the number of western troops in their country -- in other words, the strategy announced by Barack Obama (and backed by Brown, Cameron, Clegg et al). Does this not matter?

* Piers Morgan: I counted three different occasions on which he mentioned "9/11". Sorry, but this is the biggest red herring in this entire debate. The 11 September 2001 attacks were more than eight years ago; this war is no longer about al-Qaeda. The terrorist training camps in Afghanistan were destroyed long ago and US intelligence suggests there are no more than 100 al-Qaeda fighters left in the country -- the rest have decamped across the border to Pakistan. The Afghan war is, in the words of Matthew Hoh, the former US official who served in Zabul Province before resigning in protest, "a civil war".

* Lord Ashdown: "I am going to criticise you [Dannatt'] to your face . . . you're a Tory now . . ." Both Hague and Dannatt squirmed in their seats.


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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.