Media Lies

Friday, October 29, 2004

Crude Cartoonists

Although much of the Guardian these days seems written by fair to middling reasons for bringing back hanging, there are occasional bright spots. A L Kennedy’s far too occasional column is one. Seumas Milne and, now and again, Richard Norton-Taylor are others. But the brightest of them all, the most pungent commentator, the most accurate political portraitist and the wielder of the some of the sharpest metaphors since it was discovered that the pen is not only mightier than the sword but a more efficient deflater of the self-esteem, is of course Michael White.

I was going to say Steve Bell, but there’s a problem. Like most cartoonists, apparently, Bell lacks political sophistication. Most cartoonists, according to that sparkling fountain Michael White, are "curmudgeonly anarchists with the political sophistication of a football-mad twelve-year-old" (Guardian, 28 October, "Cartoonists exhibit their comic savagery"). They are unfair and they draw "awful" things, says Michael White.

Certainly, some of Bell’s drawings are horrendous. Bell it was who portrayed George W Bush as a diarrhoeic chimp in a turd-splattered shithouse, mustering just enough co-ordination to wipe his arse with the flag of the United Nations. That was certainly an awful thing to draw. It was pretty awful to see, as well. My sides still hurt when I recall it. I think it appeared round about the time leading columns in the Guardian were referring to George W Bush’s régime as being a trifle unsympathetic. Political sophistication at work, you see.

The Chambers dictionary defines "sophisticated" as "very refined and subtle; devoid or deprived of natural simplicity; complex; with qualities produced by special knowledge and skill; accustomed to an elegant, cultured way of life; with the most up-to-date devices; worldly-wise". Political sophistication presumably includes much of this. It is certainly more refined and subtle to speak of Dubya as "unsympathetic" than to refer to him as an inadequately toilet-trained specimen of Pan troglodytes. Doubtless those worldly-wise culturati accustomed to an elegant way of life, like Michael White, dislike having images of such specimens leap out at them from the pages of the Guardian just when they’re trying out their most up-to-date devices. Why, it must be worse than having one’s breakfast interrupted by a football-mad twelve-year-old.

Like many sophisticates, White is happiest straddling. Despite most cartoonists’ undesirable personalities, "What a joy," he proclaims like an indulgent father, "to look forward to their work in the papers every day. And what a joy to see it at an exhibition in central London, Grin and Blair It, which focuses the trade's savagery towards Tony Blair since he became Labour leader." But the note of disapproval is not long in reappearing:

"No equivalent of Vicky's 1950s portrayal of Harold Macmillan as "SuperMac" here, though Blair has arguably been a much more dominant leader, more successful."

It appears that Michael White is a domination fetishist – a trait he has in common with many sophisticates, though not always political ones. To the politically sophisticated, it appears, success as prime minister does not mean compromise, negotiation, discretion or humanity. To the politically sophisticated, as represented by Michael White, the successful prime minister must trample, crush, tear and merrily dominate his way along the paths of power. And, of course, to the politically sophisticated, the fact that, as a result of all this dominating, "there is little affection" is a cause for mild consternation.

Instead of the affection Blair’s domination act merits, Michael White is struck by the way in which Bell and his fellow cartoonists "seek to portray our prime minister as a conman, Bush poodle, victim or shabby opportunist." Well, of all the awful, unfair, politically unsophisticated ways to portray our prime minister, that truly takes the cake.

Blair of the top-up fees, Blair the parliamentary reformer, Blair the dossier collector? A conman and shabby opportunist? Blair of the agreement to "git Saddam", Blair of the agreement to install Son of Star Wars in Britain, Blair of the agreement to send hundreds of British troops into the hellhole the Americans have made around Falluja? A Bush poodle? A flag-waving toy doggie poking out of George Bush’s red-and-white-striped arse? A mad-eyed assistant-vice-sub-emperor and sometime pork pie salesman clothed only in whitewash? Say it isn’t so, Michael!

Damn, I nearly forgot one. Another meaning of "sophisticated", according to my Chambers, is "adulterated; falsified".

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Those Tricky Foreign Types

This is a small matter, but seemingly a persistent one. I first read of it months ago, in a Guardian report by Duncan Campbell and Patrick Wintour (“New WMD blow for Blair”, 24 January 2004). Somebody (David Kay, I think) was asserting that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, as usual. According to Campbell and Wintour, this meant that “Saddam was involved in a gigantic bluff to shore up his international prestige”.

Now, foreigners are a tricky bunch, as everyone knows. Only a few days ago, Ewen MacAskill’s illusions about the gallant humanitarianism of Vladimir Putin and Jacques Chirac were cruelly shattered by the revelation that they might have been bribed by Saddam Hussein (Guardian, 7 October, “Saddam ‘used oil revenues to buy influence at UN’”). Apparently France and Russia may have opposed the Iraq assault not out of any concern for human life or international law, but because they stood to make a profit out of the country’s oil. What conduct could be baser? MacAskill was so indignant about it that he described the issue as “the freshest and most politically combustible part” of the Iraq Survey Group’s report. Perhaps he was right. The only other revelation of note was that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass nonexistence were indeed nonexistent: a fact which many of us have known for years.

It gets worse. The French and the Russians are bad enough, but it seems that the further east you go, the more sinister and treacherous it gets. Eventually you come upon the Chinese, who on top of all their other sins have had the bad grace to start a rush to industrialisation just as the world’s oil production is peaking. This means that as the planet’s supply of oil declines, Chinese demand will be rising; and since we in the west are not going to do anything to avert the catastrophe, our demand will obviously continue rising too. Well, of all the low-down tricks to play.

Somewhere between the French and the Chinese, and somewhat south of a few of the Russians, there is, as some of you may know, the Middle East. Here, evil and treachery have been rife for generations: ever since the Crusades, when the Muslims had the diabolical temerity to eject some rather noisy friends of George W Bush’s notable compatriot, God. After that, nothing much happened until 1948, when the Arab hordes conspired to try and get rid of some self-proclaimed asylum seekers who had turned up illegally in Palestine; but after 1967 all hell broke loose and, as you may possibly be aware, they’re still at it.

All this by way of background. I don’t follow the news much these days, for much the same reasons as I don’t follow my nose into brick walls; but I wouldn’t want you to think I was completely ignorant of the world around me. I understand that Saddam Hussein was a Bad Thing. I really do. I’d love to be glad that he’s gone, except (a) I’m not sure we’ve managed to replace him with anything better, and (b) even the Guardian now admits that during his baddest days he was a friend of ours (see Rory McCarthy, “Hundreds of Kurds found buried in Iraq mass graves”, 14 October 2004. It’s a long way down, but it’s there).

I am curious about this bluff on Saddam’s part, however. Pretending you have weapons of mass destruction when in fact you don’t, and when the consequence of having them is that you get catastrophically attacked for the second time in fifteen years, seems rather an unorthodox way of maintaining international prestige. Campbell and Wintour mentioned the matter in January, and I’ve heard nothing more until recently; so I assumed it was merely the accidental by-product of some spin doctor, one of the few but probably quite varied absurdities which even Bush and Blair found it hard to use as a casus belli while keeping an approximately straight face.

But then the Iraq Survey Group findings came out, with those shocking revelations about Chirac the Haitians’ friend and Putin the saviour of Chechnya; and then on 12 October another illusion was suddenly and painfully laid bare. The Government’s claim that Saddam Hussein could use his weapons of mass ethereality at forty-five minutes’ notice was – who could have imagined it? – untrue. That was when the issue of Saddam’s great weapons bluff arose once more.

The findings of the Iraq Survey Group were reported in the Guardian on 7 October. It took MI6 and Jack Straw five more days to announce that the weapons which hadn’t existed probably couldn’t have been deployed; at least, not in the time previously claimed. That’s the Bush-Blair cabal all over – so well-intentioned, so protective, so careful, and yet just that little bit slow on the uptake.

The reason for the delay, it transpires, was that Saddam Hussein, as so often before, had been running rings around us all. Straw lamented:

“Even after reading all the evidence detailed by the ISG, it is still hard to believe that any regime could behave in so self-destructive a manner as to pretend it had forbidden weaponry when in fact it hadn’t.” (“Straw:45-minute claim withdrawn”, Guardian 12 October 2004)

So let’s get this straight. Saddam Hussein’s regime was pretending that the weapons of mass nonexistence did in fact exist, i.e. that Bush and Blair were telling the truth all along. Which means that Saddam Hussein’s regime was pretending it was lying to the weapons inspectors; but the weapons inspectors saw through the pretence and reported to the United Nations that, contrary to the claims of Bush and Blair, Iraq was telling the truth. The Bush-Blair cabal ignored the weapons inspectors and persisted in the belief that Iraq was lying, although despite the fact that Iraq wanted the world to believe that it was lying, in fact Iraq was not. Pretty dashed convoluted of them, I should say.

However, this devious attempt to maintain Iraq’s international prestige had, from Saddam Hussein’s warped viewpoint, one significant drawback. It provided Bush and Blair with the perfect pretext to attack Iraq, depose Saddam Hussein and liberate a hundred billion barrels of oil from an imminent future threat by the Chinese, the North Koreans or whoever the hell they might feel like fighting next. On realising this, Saddam Hussein’s regime, knowing of the Bush-Blair cabal’s unquestioning respect for international law, bribed the French and Russians to vote against a new UN resolution authorising an attack. Fortunately for the world, and especially for Iraq, the Bush-Blair cabal’s unquestioning respect for international law enabled Lord Goldsmith to discover that no new resolution was needed. Then came the bust-up, followed by the occupation and the sovereign interim government supported by 130,000 non-occupying US troops. And here we are.

Well, I’m glad we've cleared that up. But honestly, these foreigners – how do they manage to outsmart themselves on such a calamitous scale? Maybe it’s a cultural thing?