Iraq: government vs. the BBC “ Greg Dyke speaks (again)

Greg Dyke, Director-General of the BBC until dismissed by the BBC governors in the wake of the Hutton report and the death of Dr David Kelly, delivered the annual James Cameron Memorial Lecture at the City University on 18 October 2004 at a packed gathering which included a representative sample of the usual suspects: Richard Ingram and Ian Hislop, Melvyn Bragg, Peter Hennessy, John Cole, Brian and Ann Lapping, Sandy Gall, Peter Jay, Alan Rusbridger, Paul Foot’s son John, even a frail but cheerful looking Michael Foot – and those were just the ones we recognised. Most of what Dyke had to say was familiar from his and his many supporters’ utterances since the publication of the Hutton and (especially) Butler reports, including Greg Dyke’s own book ‘Inside Story‘, and he said it with both humour and passionate indignation, at length (at such length indeed that there was no time for questions afterwards, which was a pity).

I was struck though by Dyke’s comparison of the bitter argument over Iraq between Blair and Alastair Campbell on the one hand, and the BBC on the other, with the strikingly similar conflict between Anthony Eden (despite the leftish views of his press secretary* at No. 10) and the BBC over the Suez affair in 1956, a British diplomatic and military disaster famously comparable with the blunders and misrepresentations over Iraq today. Eden was outraged by the BBC’s decision to allow Gaitskell, then leader of the Labour Party opposition, the right of reply to Eden’s television and radio address to the nation setting out the case for going to war at Suez, a case subsequently revealed of course to have been founded on a huge conspiracy and a pack of lies. Dyke recalled Eden’s complaint that the BBC was failing to reflect the government’s case, as he thought its role as the national broadcaster required it to do, instead giving equal time to the opponents of the war and critics of the government’s actions. Eden even at one time considered having the government take over control of the BBC to put an end to this pernicious even-handedness, as he saw it, which would have been an even more extreme step than anything that Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell ever, so far as we know, contemplated doing even at the height of their campaign against the BBC over Iraq and the Gilligan broadcast. Dyke quoted the formidable Grace Wyndham Goldie, the first Head of BBC Television News and Current Affairs, as having acknowledged in her memoirs that all governments tried to exert pressure on the BBC to present a more favourable picture of government policy than it was willing to do, and that it was the BBC’s duty to give a properly balanced account of current issues: it was vital to recognise that the aims of government and BBC were not the same, and the BBC always had to fight to defend its independence, something the BBC governors (said Dyke, as he would, wouldn’t he?) had signally failed to do after Gavyn Davies’s resignation as Chairman of the Governors and Dyke’s own dismissal by them.

Some commentators have questioned the common description (e.g. by Robin Cook and many others, including me) of the Iraq war as the biggest disaster for British foreign policy and diplomacy since Suez, pointing out that the Iraq war has caused many more deaths and casualties, and wreaked much greater destruction and instability, than the Suez adventure. In terms of the consequences, this is certainly true, especially as the Iraq casualty figures, already far exceeding those at Suez, continue to mount. But there’s a good case, I think, for arguing that the misrepresentations and suppressions of the truth, and the murky dissemblings over the true purposes of the Iraq war, barely approach the scale of the conspiracy and lying that surrounded Suez, with its cynical misrepresentation of the real intentions of Britain and France in pretending to go to war to ‘separate the combatants’ in a conflict which they themselves had conspired with Israel to arrange. There’s a melancholy irony in the fact that at Suez it was the United States under Eisenhower which put a stop to our and France’s ill-conceived adventure, and rescued us from the worst consequences of our folly: whereas over Iraq it was the United States and Britain that launched the ill-fated attack on Iraq under a false prospectus and with concealed motives, while it was France, among others, which tried, this time unsuccessfully, to restrain us. From the Suez fiasco successive British leaders drew the conclusion that we should never again allow ourselves to be detached on a major issue of war and peace from the Americans, while the French drew the opposite conclusion – that the Europeans should develop sufficient unity, power and influence to be able to restrain the Americans from acting contrary to European and global interests (a point for which I am indebted to my good e-friend Peter Harvey).

*William Clark was Eden’s press secretary until his resignation in November 1956 over his opposition to Suez and the way it was being presented; subsequently Alfred Richardson (November 1956). Richardson was replaced, after Harold Macmillan came to office in January 1957 following Eden’s resignation on account of his health, by the celebrated Harold Evans, later one of the most distinguished of British newspaper editors at the Sunday Times. William Clark had been "diplomatic correspondent of the Observer and, to this day, the only press secretary with significant experience of political television, of which he was a pioneerâ€? — Memorandum to the Select Committee on Public Administration by Colin Seymour-Ure, Professor of Government, University of Kent at Canterbury.

20 October 2004

1 Response

  1. One similarity is that both Eden and Blair appear to have believed in the rightness of their causes, to the exclusion (it seems to me) of sufficient rational thought. One difference is that Suez ended – was forced to end – quite quickly, while Iraq is likely to go on for some time, with deaths, kidnappings and possibly not much more success, perhaps until the time of a General Election, when the economic and social achievements of the Government will have to be weighed against their willingness to become involved in this nasty, silly adventure, about which you write so well.