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11 December 2009

Question Time’s bias on Afghanistan

Salma Yaqoob versus five supporters of the war

By Mehdi Hasan

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 Sixty-three per cent of the public believes troops “should be withdrawn from Afghanistan as quickly as possible”, according to a ComRes poll in November.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?

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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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