27 July 2004


In July 2003 Dr David Kelly, the much-respected weapons expert, suggested to Andrew Gilligan of the BBC that the claim that Saddam Hussein could put weapons of mass destruction into action within 45 minutes was typical of a process where intelligence information was being ‘sexed up’ to support the necessity for going to war.

The Government was furious and Alistair Campbell, the Prime Minister’s spin doctor, went ballistic. Dr Kelly was cruelly discredited and the BBC accused of telling lies. A point here: the BBC doesn’t tell lies or even tell the truth. Its job is to report a wide range of informed opinions. Common sense dictates that, if some of these opinions are right, then others must be wrong.

The political implications were enormous. Dr Kelly committed suicide. Andrew Gilligan was forced out of his job. The Chairman of the BBC resigned. The Director General was sacked.

One year on, billions of pounds later, and untold thousands of deaths later, Lord Butler has reported his findings on the whole sorry mis-information mess.

And, guess what? When you break down Lord Butler’s grand observations it is clear that Dr Kelly had hit the nail on the head.

Andrew Gilligan’s report may have used an inappropriate phrase here and there but what was broadcast on that fateful morning on Radio 4 was substantially true.

The Butler enquiry demonstrates that the intelligence reports referring to the 45 minute claim had many ‘caveats’ – provisos, qualifications, areas of doubt, reservations – and that these appeared in the early drafts of the Prime Minister’s statement to the House of Commons. These caveats were removed from the final version. It is now the turn of the ‘disgraced’ Director General of the BBC, Greg Dyke, to ask the searching questions. He has already done so. He wants to know, first and foremost: who removed the caveats?

Might it be reasonable to suppose that Alistair Campbell, who chaired the key planning meetings to finalise the draft, had a hand in it? He must at least have been aware that caveats had been removed. If Campbell didn’t remove them, who did? Will anybody own up? Will any individual or group take responsibility? Will anybody say sorry? Will anybody get sacked or resign?

Should John Scarlett, the less-than-stupendous Chairman of the much-discredited Joint Intelligence Committee, resign?

Well actually he’s been promoted. He’s now Director of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6.

20 July 2004

Unwelcome advances

In the early 1960s I made a series of radio programmes for what was then called the ‘BBC Home Service’. The Home Service was the better-elocuted ancestor of Radio 4. My subject was – wait for it – mathematics. Exciting eh? One programme dealt with the wildly futuristic topic of computers and I had access to ICL in Belfast where all the cutting edge stuff was happening. A battery of machines took up a sizeable workshop. Huge discs whirred at great speed, lights flashed, clip-boarded boffins made notes.

Actually the whole caboodle was doing the work of the sort of calculator we might buy today for less than a tenner.

In the 70s I acquired a primitive ‘Sinclair’ and by 1987 I had become fully ‘IBM compatible’. Ignoring all derision I bought a ‘personal computer’ (a PC) with a storage capacity of 20 megabytes, in the certain knowledge there would be forever room to spare.

Well my present desktop, by no means a Rolls Royce, has exactly 7,000 times that space and it works 100 times faster.

Since 1987 all my PCs have frozen, locked, crashed and generally misbehaved with steadily increasing frequency. I moved over to the Apple Macintosh system. My last Mac died peacefully after a long illness.

Buying a PC is just like buying a Ferrari – powerful, fast, technically advanced, a product of corporate genius. The big difference is that when you get it home you must install all the essential fittings yourself before it will actually run. Once it starts you can then look forward to regular break-downs. You wouldn’t buy a TV or a fridge or a cooker or a heating system under the same circumstances. That’s what makes computers unique.

Computer power (capacity plus speed) doubles every 18 months and the number of people worldwide connected to the Internet grows at 50 percent per year. If these trends continue, just 10 years from now my computer will be around 100 times as powerful and the number of people world-wide on the Internet will have multiplied by 60. Crash-induced senility will have taken hold of me by then, so I’m not bothered.

But shouldn’t Microsoft, which supplies 96% of the world’s PC software, stop, take a breather and build in simplicity and real reliability. I don’t want a Ferrari Mr Bill Gates. An old Ford Ten, like the one I used to own, would do rightly.

13 July 2004

Game, set and match

The recent women’s final at Wimbledon was remarkable for many things, not least the presence in the most elite of sporting circles of two young people born into poverty and deprivation – one a black girl in the US, the other a Russian Siberian.

But a contest between two other women has since caught my attention.

Elizabeth Wilmshurst gave up her glittering career in the Foreign Office when the Coalition invaded Iraq. She has now gone public on some of her concerns.

As an acknowledged expert in international law she believes that going to war in Iraq was not based on any kind of imminent threat and was therefore an act of aggression. The abuse of prisoners could amount to war crimes.

She is concerned about the sweeping legal immunities self-conferred by the US and British. Iraqi civilians have no comeback if they are injured, abused or even swindled by the occupiers.

She accuses the US of breaking the Geneva Convention by detaining Afghans in Guantanamo Bay.

(I find myself asking how we would react if those abhorrent television images were reversed ­– Muslim guards dragging our shackled (white) sons and brothers to interrogation huts.)

Anne Clwyd, equally conscience-driven, presents another side of the Iraq dilemma. She has campaigned for 20 years to topple the Saddam regime.

She does not believe that new interim Iraqi leaders are mere ‘quislings’ and puppets.

She reminds us that Prime Minister Ayad Allawi was nearly killed in the UK when he was attacked with an axe by a Ba'athist assassin. The Deputy Prime Minister, Barham Salih, was imprisoned at the age of 16. The Deputy Foreign Minister, Hamid al-Bayati, was imprisoned in Abu Ghraib and had five members of his family murdered. Eight thousand members of Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari's family clan were murdered in 1983.

Every day, she argues, these individuals and others face the knowledge that they are targets for assassination. But they continue to work, just as the policemen return to their jobs every day, despite the suicide bombs targeted at them.

A recent poll, conducted by the same organisation that had earlier exposed widespread disapproval of the Coalition, has found that the new Prime Minister has an approval rating of 73% while President Ghazi al-Yawar received 84%. (Follow that, Bush and Blair.)

Opposing views from two women of equal integrity and achievement.

The match isn’t over yet.

06 July 2004

The evil eye

For me, it really has been a very bad week.

Watching a car on the school run I noticed there were children bobbing about, unrestrained, in the back including one standee, his head protruding through the roof opening, hands clutching the roof itself.

Even in a minor accident, the child would have been catapulted into the air and possibly decapitated. Child neglect of the worse kind or a straight case of manslaughter?

I caught the driver’s eye, waved and pointed frantically. She gave me such a look in response. Nothing short of the Evil Eye.

Next day a car ran into the back of mine. Oh well, these things happen. Apologetic in the extreme, the other driver accepted full responsibility. I hope he won’t recant but I’m grateful nobody was hurt. It was a good thing none of us was standing up.

A day or two later I came across a family group; mother, daughter, a baby in a pram and three teenagers. They were enjoying ice cream and chocolate and as they walked they carefully dropped all the wrappings onto the footpath. The boy kicked his plastic bottle repeatedly in front of him, and with one final Beckham-type penalty, it soared into a garden.

As I passed I just may have uttered an under-my-breath tut tut or a ‘well really’ or possibly a ‘must you?’ but my disapproval was certainly noticed. The alpha female quickly slipped into abuse mode suggesting that I was ancient, nosey and born out of wedlock and, once again, the Evil Eye – five times over, not including the baby.

That’s why I’m reluctant to talk about certain other observations during the week.

The election is over but tatty party posters still litter the place. They were put up with optimistic zeal and promises of care for the environment. Nobody bothers to remove them.

Then there is the accumulation of old sofas, pallets, rubbish, plastics and tree swag soon to be ignited in a celebratory pyre to the god of tradition. Some of it has been defacing the environment since the beginning of April.

Naturally I do not want to cause any offence by suggesting there might be other ways of celebrating culture.

Of course, the law is there to deal with the worst excesses for, should any of the participants drop a cigarette end, they will be liable to a fixed penalty of £50.