Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rewriting history

Two articles yesterday, one in The Daily Telegraph and the other in The Daily Mail trailed a new BBC documentary called Secret Iraq. A three-part series, showing at 9pm on Wednesdays, it purports to tell the "real" story of the Iraqi occupation and insurgency.

The Mail starts its report with the legend: "Britain's withdrawal from Basra was a 'defeat' which left the city 'terrorised' by militias, according to a damning verdict by British and American generals." Yet, many will recall how much effort went into portraying this defeat as a "victory", with sundry generals all offering a carefully crafted concerted line, not least Gen Dannatt, with his infamous "we have achieved what we set out to achieve" speech.

Typically, though, in order to progress the narrative, the producers rely on the tired and wholly unreliable device of using "talking heads". And one of those heads is Gen Dannatt. This is not only lazy journalism, it runs the risk of misleading the watcher. Players are being allowed to state positions which are partisan, yet their contributions are accepted without challenge, effectively as stated fact.

I will not comment a great deal more, holding the bulk of my fire until the series has ended. But I would note the comment in October 1941 of Sir Stephen Taylor, Director of the Ministry of Information's home intelligence division, when he was discussing the need for a working definition of morale.

In a highly relevant observation, he said that: "Morale must be measured not by what a person thinks and says but by what he does and how he does it." The same must apply to journalism and history. Events must not be measured by what the persons involved think and say about them (especially afterwards) but by what they did and how they did it at the time. Actions should speak louder than words.

By that yardstick, Dannatt – and many other actors – come out very differently than they would have you believe from their subsequent claims. Needless to say, though, I have a dog in the fight, with my book Ministry of Defeat. Despite this new narrative being better and more expensively resourced, I still prefer my version to what the BBC has so far offered.