Television - Andrew Billen on why, post-Hutton, we need a gutsy BBC more urgently than ever
One trusts that the Prime Minister and his phone friend Alastair Campbell are satisfied: the BBC's chairman left with no choice but to do the "honourable" thing; its best director general in a generation let go by a board of governors temporarily, one hopes, led by a former adviser to Margaret Thatcher; a dedicated investigative reporter - no flakier than any I have met - gone; hundreds of BBC journalists in open revolt in a petition published in the Daily Telegraph (congratulations to Martha Kearney, Jeremy Vine, John Sweeney, Fran Unsworth and the other senior BBC presenters and executives who added their names; white feathers to those who refused the chance); a Today programme that now sounds less like a wake-up call and more like a wake.
Could this really be the outcome that Tony Blair wanted when he commissioned Lord Hutton? Probably not, but only because he would not have dared hope for so much. Yet, by the end of a week that was supposed to rattle him, the guy must have been in seventh heaven.
Whether the Hutton whitewash will look so clever in a few months, I doubt. The early polls suggest that the public is not convinced by Hutton's fearful asymmetry. (Incidentally, did anyone else hear Campbell on Radio 5 Live denegrate the entirely independent pollsters of Nop when he spluttered it was not surprising that an anti-government paper, the London Evening Standard, had conjured an anti-government poll? Oh, Al, the pitfalls of the unscripted two-way.) As the pressure increases for an inquiry into Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Hutton will leave an ever more unpleasant taste in the mouth. Having set out to discredit the BBC, Lord Hutton may discover he has managed to discredit the quaint notion of an independent judiciary almost as much as he has the Prime Minister.
The real Hutton report, one based on a fair reading of the evidence, was the BBC's own Panorama special by John Ware a few weeks ago. Hard on Andrew Gilligan, it did not flinch from the obvious conclusion that the government was desperate to sex up its dossier with whatever tittle- tattle the spooks had to hand. Blair-Campbell should not have asked the Joint Intelligence Committee for more. MI6 should not have provided it. What we need is another Panorama, this time on the issue of WMDs. At present, this is exactly what we are unlikely to get.
Over, then, to Channel 4, which made some sort of start with a two-hour documentary on 31 January. So much has gone wrong with Iraq that it might have been more original for Channel 4 to broadcast a programme on what the allies did right. Instead, Invading Iraq: how Britain and America got it wrong was so critical of the winning side that it was sometimes difficult to remember that it was the winning side. Everything was a stick to beat our armed forces with, from equipment shortages at the start to the civilians killed when US tanks finally trundled into Baghdad. I have barely read a word of military history, but would be surprised if most of the complaints could not be applied to every war there has ever been. I had some sympathy for the American soldier who quoted the sage who said: "War is cruelty. There is no point trying to refine it. The crueller it is, the sooner it's over."
That war is a poisonous fog is just one of many excellent reasons to avoid fighting one. A more focused programme, however, would have concentrated on why we did (that is, the intelligence). The film collated plenty of evidence that the intelligence services were producing garbage from beginning to end. On the WMDs issue, it produced an interview with the Iraqi General Raad al-Hamdani, the most senior Republican Guard general still at liberty (the spooks can't find him but a Channel 4 researcher can?). He would have needed to know where the WMDs were, for the obvious reason that when the Saddam regime was about to fall would have been the moment to use them. But he said: "I knew and I'd been told [by Saddam] that Iraq did not have any weapons of mass destruction."
This was our spies' worst misreading, but not the only one. They thought at the beginning of the war that Saddam was hiding in a bunker. He wasn't, and Operation Decapitation not only failed to get him but ensured all the other top brass went on the run. There were 50 attempts to kill Iraqi leaders during the war and not one succeeded. The last attack on Saddam killed 18 civilians (it was hard to watch the father of the family destroyed in it showing pictures of his dead children). Intelligence was also wrong on civilian support for the invasion, the likelihood of Iraqi military desertions, the taking of Basra and how easy it would be to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure after the war was over.
This is an outrageously bad record, and it seems likely that the US president will want to pin it on our spooks, not his. I trust John Scarlett will resign and the chairman of his governors likewise (T Blair, Esq). But this rambling Channel 4 film scheduled during Saturday-night prime time showed how much we need a gutsy BBC. Panorama would have made the points clearer and, even late on Sunday night, would have got a bigger audience. So would Gilligan at 6.07am on Radio 4. Who'll speak for England now?
Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times