The BBC lacks the ambition to go the whole way

BBC2's Iraq War reviewed.

The Iraq War (BBC2) is brought to us from Brian Lapping and Norma Percy, who made The Second Russian Revolution (1991), The Death of Yugoslavia (1995), Israel and the Arabs (2005) and numerous other acclaimed documentary series on contemporary history. They are, without doubt, among the jewels in the BBC’s crown.

There was much to admire about Wednesday’s opening episode. It was like going back to a bygone age. A narrator rather than a celebrity presenter. No Paxman, no Marr, no Dan Snow. Just Alex Jennings reading a clear, thoughtful script written and re-written by the production team, just like serious history and current affairs programmes used to be made. Superb archive research by Declan Smith, the doyen of film researchers for over 20 years, including footage from Iraq I for one had never seen before. Interviews with many of the key players: Blair, Straw and Campbell, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, important figures from US intelligence and from Iraq. The narrative line was clear and full of drama.  The sense of pressure on all the decision makers was palpable. You could feel the clock ticking as Blair asked for more time to win over Parliament, at the same time as Powell wanted to double-check his sources, at the same time as the US military told the White House to make a decision before summer came.

A lot of information was packed into just under sixty minutes. None of this comes cheap and the series has been made with ten foreign organizations plus support from the MEDIA programme of the EU. My guess is that this is code for saying that the BBC put in too little but will preen themselves when The Iraq War wins the awards and acclaim it deserves. The devil, as always, is in the detail. In TV programmes it’s usually to be found in the end credits.

Norma Percy and her Executive Producers, Brian Lapping and Paul Mitchell, hit on a winning formula almost twenty-five years ago and like the Burns Brothers in America and Adam Curtis here, they have stuck with it.  In their case, it consists of chasing the key players and intercutting their testimony with great archive film and simple specially-shot footage which is relevant but not distracting. It’s high politics plus. Talk to the decision-makers about who said what and to whom. That’s it.

It’s churlish to be critical but several curious points arose (or should have but didn’t). First, critics of the war will argue that Blair and Cheney, in particular, were given a soft ride. What about "the sexed-up dossier"? Why were the politicians and their advisers (at Westminster, in Congress and at the UN) so easily fooled by the security services and who set their agenda? One strange line stood out in the commentary: "Western intelligence agencies had gathered thousands [sic] of reports, using both human and electronic sources, and most of them pointed to the same conclusion [ie that Saddam had WMD]." "Thousands" of sources is a fascinating phrase. What were they? Could we have an example? Who produced them? Much of the evidence discussed had a Keystone Cops feel. Did these other sources? "Most of them pointed to the same conclusion". How many is "most"? Indeed, how many is ‘thousands’?

The second point is the elephant in the room. Except just once when we got a tantalising mention. But only once. An Iraqi general was interviewed and described an insane speech by Saddam about how the Iraqi army would destroy the American forces and then go on to Palestine and liberate Jerusalem. This was the only time in the whole programme that we got a sense of how mad Saddam was, how completely out of touch with reality. The British and Americans had no illusions about this and where this could lead – had led - with weapons of mass destruction against Iranians and Kurds.  

But the really interesting point is about liberating Jerusalem. It is the only reference to Israel in the whole programme. But surely Israel was crucial to the Iraq War as it is to anything that happens in the area from Egypt to Iran. Israeli intelligence must have had something to say about WMD but no Israeli was interviewed in the programme.  Whether or not Blair (or anyone else) ever thought Saddam’s missiles could hit London, we know from the First Gulf War that they could probably hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. How did that influence the discussions about attacking Iraq? Apparently, no one was asked. Once one big thing is missed out you start to wonder what else was never asked.

As always this was a London/Washington view of the world. One French minister, a few Kurds, a few Iraqis. No Israelis. No Russians either. Did they have no say? No threat of a UN veto? Why not? How about Arab politicians? Nothing interesting to say? 

This is hardly nitpicking. But I dare say Lapping and Percy didn’t start out wanting to fit everything into three hours. The BBC should have put their money where their mouth is and paid up. Are they a world-class broadcaster or not? The BBC should be proud of making these programmes, but they should be ashamed of lacking the ambition to go the whole way. A few executives’ expenses would have made up the shortfall. Let’s not even mention the £100m IT disaster.

Photograph: Getty Images
Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
Show Hide image

How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.