I woke up this morning to an interview on Radio 4 which illustrated, in a bizarre way, the problems of public ‘thought control’ we now face in this country.
The interview was ostensibly a news item about the fact that British soldiers are back on the streets of Basra, having withdrawn earlier in the year, supporting the Iraqi army. This situation has come about because, although the original operation was mismanaged and needed American intervention to succeed, the Iraqi military is now strong enough to confront the Mahdi army and other Iranian-backed elements who had been dominant in Basra and had made life miserable for ordinary citizens (especially, it might be noted, women).
The situation on the ground thus reflects the growing, though fragile, stabilization of Iraq and the increasing success in bringing the appalling violence of the last few years under some measure of control — violence which, incidentally, is largely by Muslims against Muslims, and which itself shows signs of discrediting Al Qaida’s campaign there.
None of this, however, would have been gleaned from the BBC story. I cannot be bothered to go back and produce, verbatim, what was said. You can listen yourself here if you’re quick.
The story, however, went something like this:
Interviewer: What is happening in Basra?
Interviewee 1: The Iraqi government has confronted the Mahdi army, which has adopted a ceasefire so as to remain a ‘player’ in Iraqi politics, and is not shooting at either British or American troops.
Interviewer: The Iraqi army doesn’t seem to be able to cope.
Interviewee 1: This is about getting the Iraqi army to operate effectively. The extra firepower of the British Army enables this.
Interviewer to second Interviewee: How important is this operation?
Interviewee 2: It is critical. The Iraqi army will either succeed or it will not. If it fails, the British Army will be drawn into conflict.
Interviewer: Is that failure inevitable?
Interviewee 2: It is quite likely. The Iraqi government is only one faction in Iraqi politics. It may try to fix the forthcoming election and if it does, the Mahdi Army will be back on the street with guns.
Interviewer to Interviewee 1: How seriously are British Army commanders taking this?
Interviewee 1: They are very wary. They don’t know if conditions will hold and whether the Mahdi Army will be satisfied or may fight after elections. If that happened, the British Army could not sustain their current presence as they would be mortared, shot at and rocketed.
Interviewer to Interviewee 2: If the British Army had to withdraw under that pressure it would be extremely awkward wouldn’t it?
Interviewee 2: There would be nothing they could do. They would be sniped at, mortared and rocketed, and there would be a steady stream of dead and wounded.
Interviewer: Thank you very much
Now notice what the ‘story’ has become, compared with the actual facts reported.
The facts: There is a ceasefire holding in Basra as a result of a successful military campaign. British and American troops are reinforcing the Iraqi army presence. There is an election coming up, but no one knows exactly how that will turn out, or what will happen afterwards.
The story: We are about to see the resumption of a steady stream of British casualties in Iraq. This will result from a huge increase in sniping, mortar and rocket attacks which will require another British withdrawal. This will be caused by the Mahdi Army going back on the offensive after the Iraqi government fixes the results of the forthcoming election, and this will be because the failure of the Iraqi army is almost inevitable.
The brilliant thing about the ‘story’ is that it is all possible. The important thing, which the listener may not have noticed, however, is that none of the conditions necessary for the story has actually happened yet. Of course, they may all happen — or some of them may happen and some will not. The story could go: the ceasefire holds, the elections are fine, the Mahdi Army gradually fades into obscurity, life in Basra continues to improve and there is no great increase in British casualties.
To emphasise: either outcome is possible. I will not be ‘proved wrong’ if everything the Interviewer implied actually turns out exactly that way.
The important thing is that neither has happened, yet the BBC interviewer chose to profile one as it if already had, to which I can only say, in the words of Ricky Tomlinson’s character, ‘Impartiality, my a...!’, and wonder why this is the case.
Revd John P Richardson
22 May 2008