Saturday, August 30, 2003

If I have a guilty conscience about never managing to read more than a few pages of Marcel Proust, I feel almost as bad about not looking at the official documents posted on the Internet by the Hutton inquiry. Given that the investigation into the death of the Iraqi weapons expert David Kelly is front page news here every day, I really should make the effort to plough through the papers and e-mails made available to the public in a very un-British outburst of official transparency. Living in a country with no Freedom of Information Act, we seldom have the chance to eavesdrop on our political masters’ private conversations.

But so far I have not summoned up the energy to go surfing. The truth is, I just do not see the point. By the time you read this column, it is just about possible that the inquiry will have uncovered some devastating secrets about the government’s behavior in the months preceding the war. Somehow, though, I doubt it. My own guess is that the report will find that Tony Blair and his inner circle made presentational errors over the so-called “45-minute” section of the weapons dossier, while the British Broadcasting Corporation will be accused of shoddy journalism in its coverage of the entire affair.

And that will be that. As for the exact reasons for Mr. Kelly’s decision to take his own life, we may never know the whole story. It is quite possible he was under severe pressure from his superiors at the Ministry of Defence. Yet it seems equally clear that his predicament flowed in part from unauthorized briefings to journalists and his subsequent denials to his bosses. As far as I can see, what we are left with, amidst the swirl of memos and off-the-record conversations, is a private tragedy.

None of which will satisfy Tony Blair’s enemies, who have been hoping that Lord Hutton will bring about the prime minister’s downfall. The faithful members of the anti-war camp will be disappointed too. For them, Mr. Hutton is essentially part of a retrospective campaign to discredit the entire war against Saddam Hussein. All that can really give cheer them up now is an American failure to live up to the promises to build a free, democratic Iraq. (It pains me to say it, but so far the lack of clarity and purpose emanating from Washington is proving an enormous source of comfort to the peaceniks.)

It would be reassuring to think that Mr. Hutton will throw up some larger lessons too. Regardless of how you feel about Tony Blair, the last 12 months have illustrated how easy it is for a strong prime minister and his advisors to centralise powers at the expense of the legislature. As more than one commentator has pointed out, Mr. Blair has often appeared more presidential than George W. Bush, and not simply because he is a better public speaker. In this particular instance, I am glad Mr. Blair got his way, but what happens if the next occupant of 10 Downing Street is not on the side of the angels or the White House?

There is a lesson for journalists and broadcasters too. If the BBC’s coverage of the war and its aftermath has been less than admirable, the same is true of other sections of the media. In the post-September 11 world, reporters and editors should surely reflect on the point that Robert Kaplan —a journalist himself — made in his recent book “Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos.”

“The media,” writes Mr. Kaplan, “is no longer simply the fourth estate, without which the other three branches of government could not operate honestly and effectively. Because of technology and the consolidation of news organizations — similar to the consolidation of airline and automobile alliances — the media is becoming a world power in its own right. The power of the media is willful and dangerous because it dramatically affects Western policy while bearing no responsibility for the outcome. Indeed, the media’s moral perfectionism is possible only because it is politically unaccountable.”

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I spent most of this month on enemy territory, namely France. Reports of the Hutton proceedings did occasionally make it into the papers there, but were overwhelmed by the torrent of news about the alarming death toll caused by the heat-wave. Every news bulletin led on “la canicule” and its dire effects. It was not, if truth be told, the best of summers for the French, with tourism in a slump and seemingly every arts festival across the country disrupted by demonstrators protesting against changes in social security payments.

Some things never change, however. At super-modern Lyons airport, waiting for our flight home, we had a small encounter with surly French bureaucracy, all because of the walking sticks our sons had made from branches during our stay in the Alps. Would we be allowed to take them on our airplane, I asked? The man loading luggage into the X-ray machine answered in the affirmative. But when the woman at the other end of the conveyor belt saw the sticks, she immediately raised objections. I pointed out that her colleague had given me permission to take them. Ah, no, said the man, I only meant you could put them through the machine, not that you could take them on the plane. At which point I told them to keep the sticks, and muttered a few choice words in English too.

England hadn’t changed much either. Inside the washroom at Stansted airport, a young man in a tee-short was making a very loud call on his mobile phone while standing with his arms pressed against a warm-air drier. “Yeah, we just arrived. I’m in the toilets, drying my arm pits.”

It was, you could say, a side of England you seldom see on Masterpiece Theatre.

Clive Davis writes for the London Times.

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