Adding a Liddle humour

Television - Andrew Billen on how the BBC's funny man made a better case for war than Blair

It was odd that the most coherent argument for bombing Iraq should be presented on Sunday not by Tony Blair on Breakfast with Frost, but by Rod Liddle. The shaggy-haired, untidy-looking Liddle was the most creative and successful editor of Radio 4's Today in years. Partly this was because his reporters were encouraged to break their own stories and not to rely on the BBC's creakily conservative news gatherers. But partly, too, it was because of the irreverence he injected into a programme that half thinks its role is enshrined in the British constitution. Liddle's willingness to examine arguments from outside the consensus led to his allowing airtime even to the British National Party. Popular within Today, the politicians both at Westminster and within White City distrusted him.

They got him in the end when he blatantly broke BBC protocol by letting the readers of his column in the Guardian get a whiff of his politics. His attack on the Countryside Alliance forced him to choose between his BBC career and freedom of speech. He chose freedom, and resigned the editorship rather than the column. His enemies, among whom he has alleged is David Dimbleby, celebrated.

The BBC, however, is so riddled with internal rivalry and dissent that acquiring the status of persona non grata frequently ushers in job offers from elsewhere within the corporation. The controller of radio Matthew Bannister, for instance, resigned, slagged off the digital strategy he had advocated, but has now returned as a nightly presenter on Radio 5 Live. In Liddle's case, he has since appeared on Have I Got News for You, he is to anchor a youth-oriented politics programme on TV and, on Sunday, he starred as the cynical malcontent presenter of Seven Ways to Topple Saddam on BBC2.

It would have been better named No Ways to Topple Saddam - for getting the man rather than the country was, in this reading, all but impossible.

Smart bombs are getting smarter all the time, their accuracy apparently measurable in feet. But even a smart bomb needs to know where its target is and, as Liddle put it, Saddam, always on the move and master of disguise, is an "infuriatingly secretive beast".

The secret services would face the same problem in tracing him. According to Parisoula Lampsos, his long-time mistress, the last time a guard innocently told some arriving guests where their leader was, Saddam riddled him with bullets before his guests' astonished eyes. But even Mossad when it knows its target's address can bungle an assassination. In a trial run on killing Saddam, it managed to kill five of its own.

High tech - which offers us the pros- pect of miniature spy planes, electronic drones swarming into Baghdad and self-propelling Coke tins - is apparently "still in kindergarten or pre-school". James Bond-style plots don't work, either: not on the evidence of 600 botched attempts on Castro's life. An internal military coup requires five conspirators and the fifth is always likely to be an informer. A popular uprising such as that which brought down Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania is thought unlikely and, although Saddam is mad, he does not lack guts and is not the type to throw in the towel.

So, that was seven ways - allowing for a little double counting and overlap - in which we can't topple Saddam, except by going to war. The programme was neatly divided up into sections, each introduced with a heading like a fifth-form essay, and each backed up with soundbites and, if necessary, computer graphics and "reconstructions". In television terms, the only interesting thing was the tone of Liddle's script. And this was very interesting indeed.

It came perilously close to flippant. "Politicians, of course, have a strong aversion to resigning or to taking the sort of risk that might necessitate the need to do so," explained Liddle, ever so archly. "They have good names, these things, don't they?" he told us, when introdu-cing a high-tech model aeroplane called Dragon Eye. "Mossad has never yet taken out a state leader, but, hey, there's always a first time."

My old friend John Sweeney, citing the honourable exception of himself, has complained before that there is not enough humour in TV current affairs. I am not convinced. If you look at many of the domestic reports on Newsnight, for example, you will see evidence of wit. Its political editor, Martha Kearney, will get a poster mock-up of Iain Duncan Smith as The Quiet Man or report on Blair's staff aided by a pastiche of West Wing. Mark Thomas is a comedian-reporter, as is Michael Moore. In the lobby, Mark Mardell, Nick Robinson and Andrew Marr all have a sparkle in their eyes and in their scripts. But Liddle went further than any of them. This guy would have patronised the Cuban missile crisis.

On reflection, since Liddle is not only a Guardian columnist but an associate editor of the Spectator, maybe it was not strange for him to present an argument that challenged both a liberal and a saloon bar pipe dream. To script a programme on the most serious issue of our time as if he were auditioning for Barry Norman's old job, however, certainly takes some nerve. I think his approach worked. Just about.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times