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
OLIVER BURSTON
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How science and statistics are taking over sport

An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others.

In the mid-1990s, statistics undergraduates at Lancaster University were asked to analyse goal-scoring in a hypothetical football match. When Mark Dixon, a researcher in the department, heard about the task, he grew curious. The analysis employed was a bit simplistic, but with a few tweaks it could become a powerful tool. Along with his fellow statistician Stuart Coles, he expanded the methods, and in doing so transformed how researchers – and gamblers – think about football.

The UK has always lagged behind the US when it comes to the mathematical analysis of sport. This is partly because of a lack of publicly available match data, and partly because of the structure of popular sports. A game such as baseball, with its one-on-one contests between pitcher and batter, can be separated into distinct events. Football is far messier, with a jumble of clashes affecting the outcome. It is also relatively low-scoring, in contrast to baseball or basketball – further reducing the number of notable events. Before Dixon and Coles came along, analysts such as Charles Reep had even concluded that “chance dominates the game”, making predictions all but impossible.

Successful prediction is about locating the right degree of abstraction. Strip away too much detail and the analysis becomes unrealistic. Include too many processes and it becomes hard to pin them down without vast amounts of data. The trick is to distil reality into key components: “As simple as possible, but no simpler,” as Einstein put it.

Dixon and Coles did this by focusing on three factors – attacking and defensive ability for each team, plus the fabled “home advantage”. With ever more datasets now available, betting syndicates and sports analytics firms are developing these ideas further, even including individual players in the analysis. This requires access to a great deal of computing power. Betting teams are hiring increasing numbers of science graduates, with statisticians putting together predictive models and computer scientists developing high-speed software.

But it’s not just betters who are turning to statistics. Many of the techniques are also making their way into sports management. Baseball led the way, with quantitative Moneyball tactics taking the Oakland Athletics to the play-offs in 2002 and 2003, but other sports are adopting scientific methods, too. Premier League football teams have gradually built up analytics departments in recent years, and all now employ statisticians. After winning the 2016 Masters, the golfer Danny Willett thanked the new analytics firm 15th Club, an offshoot of the football consultancy 21st Club.

Bringing statistics into sport has many advantages. First, we can test out common folklore. How big, say, is the “home advantage”? According to Ray Stefani, a sports researcher, it depends: rugby union teams, on average, are 25 per cent more likely to win than to lose at home. In NHL ice hockey, this advantage is only 10 per cent. Then there is the notion of “momentum”, often cited by pundits. Can a few good performances give a weaker team the boost it needs to keep winning? From baseball to football, numerous studies suggest it’s unlikely.

Statistical models can also help measure player quality. Teams typically examine past results before buying players, though it is future performances that count. What if a prospective signing had just enjoyed a few lucky games, or been propped up by talented team-mates? An ongoing challenge for analysts is to disentangle genuine skill from chance events. Some measurements are more useful than others. In many sports, scoring goals is subject to a greater degree of randomness than creating shots. When the ice hockey analyst Brian King used this information to identify the players in his local NHL squad who had profited most from sheer luck, he found that these were also the players being awarded new contracts.

Sometimes it’s not clear how a specific skill should be measured. Successful defenders – whether in British or American football – don’t always make a lot of tackles. Instead, they divert attacks by being in the right position. It is difficult to quantify this. When evaluating individual performances, it can be useful to estimate how well a team would have done without a particular player, which can produce surprising results.

The season before Gareth Bale moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a record £85m in 2013, the sports consultancy Onside Analysis looked at which players were more important to the team: whose absence would cause most disruption? Although Bale was the clear star, it was actually the midfielder Moussa Dembélé who had the greatest impact on results.

As more data is made available, our ability to measure players and their overall performance will improve. Statistical models cannot capture everything. Not only would complete understanding of sport be dull – it would be impossible. Analytics groups know this and often employ experts to keep their models grounded in reality.

There will never be a magic formula that covers all aspects of human behaviour and psychology. However, for the analysts helping teams punch above their weight and the scientific betting syndicates taking on the bookmakers, this is not the aim. Rather, analytics is one more way to get an edge. In sport, as in betting, the best teams don’t get it right every time. But they know how to win more often than their opponents. 

Adam Kucharski is author of The Perfect Bet: How Science and Maths are Taking the Luck Out of Gambling (Profile Books)

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism