Friday, January 30, 2004

The Hutton Affair

Andrew Sullivan and some British blog sites give the impression that however inept the BBC, it is redeemed by its hostility to Tony Blair. That is a complex phenomenon, joining those who despise Prime Minister Blair for destroying traditional British institutions like Lords with those who think him not Leftist enough; a strange amalgam of those who hate him for being too close to Brussels and those who loathe him for being too close to Washington. Yet leaving politics aside, the most curious thing about the BBC-Hutton affair was how little sense it made in the traditional calculus of war. There was Andrew Gilligan, charging the most powerful man in Britain with an empty Palm Pilot at the very point on which he was not prepared to yield.  'You, Mr. Prime Minister, made up the entire cassus belli for invading Iraq', he in effect said, without so much as an electron to stand on.

Yet this fecklessness was nothing beside that of Richard Sambrook, who, confronted with every indication that Downing Street intended to fight to the death on this issue, carelessly urged his troops further into enemy lines. Confronted with the most powerful force imaginable in Britain, the BBC's director of news did not even stoop to examine the strength of his defenses. Rather he assumed that the Corporation, as it is called, would prevail as a matter of course. To make the matter certain, he lined up support for the mendacious Gilligan, who by now must have wondered how his inventions could have gone so far, by convincing the BBC's Board of Directors to declare most solemnly than their ace reporter, had not nor had ever been less than a tower of probity. Just as the BBC's heavy cavalry charged off into the mist,  every bridge was blown and every avenue of retreat cut behind them by the suicide of their one source -- a source who never said what they ascribed to him -- David Kelly. And there, cut off, watching the flood waters of the Rubicon rise behind them, was the very the flower of the BBC: the great and the good as they called themselves,  with their Johnsons nailed to the floor.

One can hardly imagine a Trotsky, a Mao or Giap acting in such blatant disregard of the objective realities of war. Every cardinal rule was violated. Attacking the enemy's strongest point with one's greatest weakness. Ignoring the enemy counterattack. Omitting to prepare any defense, or indeed inquire if there were any. Committing the army reserve while in effect pouring it into a sack. Then to crown it all, expecting vindication from the Hutton report when everything pointed to a rout. Where have we seen this before? Why in Hitler, consulting his horoscopes to predict a dramatic change in fortune, even as the US Army poured across the Rhine. In Saddam Hussein, who confidently ordered counterattacks by units that had already gone home. In every organization in which information has absolutely ceased to flow.

And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the seas rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves

The strangest thing about the entire episode was how little anyone in the BBC knew about the actual facts. What Kelly really said. What Gilligan really heard. What the intelligence report really described. The very men who pretended to tell the world about the nuances of the Arab-Israeli conflict and about the cultural currents on a planet hostile to America, could not in the end tell themselves what was in their own correspondent's electronic notebook: even though they had built a towering castle of lies upon it. In a building festooned with telephones, awash in computers, with journalists from the best Oxbridge colleges, nobody knew. Nobody knew.

It would be far less frightening of course, to think that Greg Dyke and Richard Sambrook were only feigning ignorance; that the BBC governors actually knew the facts, only pretended not to. Yet the truth was probably far simpler. In organizations of a certain type, where things must always be as they are imagined, the Emperor must always be magnificently clothed; and the last Five Year Plan always an unparalleled success. Survivors who report that their units have been wiped out are shot at once because such things never happen in the Red Army.

However the battle between the British Labor Party and the BBC goes, between Red and Redder, the ultimate loser will almost certainly be the truth. It has been banished to those primitive regions where the unsophisticated still think it exists. Where children are adjured to maintain it and still gather before their elders to learn it. The world's premiere news organization now maintains but a tenuous connection to it, a sentimental attachment really, that grows frailer year by year, until one day, like a thread stretched too thin, it will snap entirely. Then the BBC will be free to rise unhindered to whatever heights its fantasy or malice take it, having slipped the surly bonds of earth.