General criticism and cynicism all round about the coincidence of so many pieces of news apparently burying each other yesterday, particularly the coincidence of Tony Blair’s being interviewed by the Deputy Assistant Commissioner Yates and Lord Stevens publishing the results of his inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the French chauffeur Henri Paul and two of his passengers. Mr Eugenides reproduces a graphic that sums it up pretty well, and Andrew Allison provides a succinct summary of the suspicions, while Anorak gives a useful précis of the press reaction.
The press, ranging from The Guardian to The Sun, in the form of an unexpectedly thoughtful — given where it’s published — article by Trevor Kavanagh, seem to agree that the actual news about Blair — that he was interviewed as a potential witness, on the same terms as was, for example, Michael Howard — was nowhere near as damaging as was the apparent attempt to divert attention from it. Kavanagh, who begins his piece with the admission ‘We [the press] should not have taken our eyes off the ball,’ writes,
As it turns out, the cash-for-gongs interview was not as big a tale as it might have been.
The police did not caution the PM – a sign that he might have subsequently been charged. Nor was Supintendent Yates – Yates of the Yard – in attendance. And it seems the officers were not in uniform, so nobody spotted them going in or out.
But instead of being a damp squib, the story has now exploded into a conspiracy to keep the media in the dark.
This may, of course, be partly a result of journalistic chagrin at having been wrong-footed and of determination to find an angle on the story that’s more newsworthy than the story itself; after all, it’s not news that the PM was to be interviewed and it’s not as if the interview’s changed anything — he wasn’t interviewed under caution, which would have suggested they’re actively considering prosecuting him, and he wasn’t bundled into a police van in handcuffs. Give it time, though.
I’m not completely sure, come to think of it, how Downing Street should have handled the story to satisfy the media. Kavanagh’s two complaints, when you look at it closely, are that Downing Street knew, when the interview was arranged, that it would clash with Lord Stevens’ report and that it wasn’t announced in advance. Well, I don’t know if it would have made things any better had Downing Street told Mr Yates that a particular date was out for the interview because holding it then would lead to adverse speculation about its happening at the same time as the Stevens report, and I don’t think it would really have been on for them to ask Lord Stevens to hold off publishing for a bit because of the same fears.
They could have announced the date beforehand, certainly, though I’m not sure how that would have helped us any — as I say, we knew Blair was to be interviewed, anyway — and there’s been so much news about (much of it bad and much of it from Iraq) that almost any time the announced that an interview had been arranged would almost certainly given rise to similar speculation — that they’d announced impending the interview when they did either in the hope it would be buried under news of murders in Suffolk, or deaths in Iraq, or whatever was happening when it was arranged, or, conversely, that there was a political bad news story they wanted to bury with news of the Yates investigation.
To mind, one of the worst effects of that notorious email sent by Jo Moore is that now, whenever something’s announced at the same time as something else potential embarrassing or distracting, we get loads of speculation about the way the government’s trying to bury bad news, with the unfortunate effect of burying the bad news under journalistic outrage at thus being manipulated. Indeed, one might almost suspect that they’d deliberately handled Blair’s police interview as they did precisely order to kick off a fuss about burying bad news in the hope this would distract attention from whatever it was they really wanted burying.
What upset me more than any supposed media manipulation by Downing Street (hardly a surprise, after all, if that was their intention) was the news that the SFO inquiry into allegations of bribery involved in Saudi arms contracts has been dropped.
This bothers me for much the same reasons as it angers the Reactionary Snob. Personally, I’m not that bothered about the bribes themselves; having done business in Russia, the idea that government officials in some places expect backhanders isn’t any great surprise to me, any more than it can be news to large British oil and gas companies working there (who, I presume, may shortly expect a visit from the SFO now they’re not quite so busy). Furthermore, it seems to me that if your morals allow you to swallow the various metaphorical camels involved in entering the notorious murky world of selling weaponry to various dubious governments (but only for purposes of training and self-defence, of course), then it really is straining at gnats to cavil at paying bribes along the way.
When HMG in its wisdom, forbade the paying of bribes to foreign officials in Section 12 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, I thought it was a bad idea (not the only bad idea contained in that Act, of course). However, the law’s the law and it’s not only shameful but downright alarming that the government should, in effect, say that any law — but particularly one of the anti-terrorist laws, doesn’t necessarily apply when, in the view of cabinet ministers, there’s a
national security consideration. Saudi Arabia remains a vital partner in our fight against counter-terrorism.
I know John Reid would like it to be the case that the law doesn’t apply when it’s inconvenient for him in his counter-terrorism campaigns (I frequently feel the same way about parking restrictions) but seeing it rolled out as an excuse for dropping prosecutions is a bit OTT.
It’s utterly mendacious, I fear. The Saudi government help us, to the extent they do, because they see it as in their domestic and national interest so do and because the Americans have got enough clout to make them so do. That’s not going to change, no matter how upset they might be at embarrassing bribery allegations (‘ Saudis takes bribes in arms deals — shock revelation!’ In other news, ‘ Ayatollah is a Muslim — Sensation!’, ‘ Startling discovery — camels shit in the desert’). They’re not suddenly going to get any less nervous about having a radical Shi’a government coming out on top of bloody civil war next door in Iraq, are they? They’re not going to be any less worried, because they’re upset with us, about Osama bin Laden’s views on their being a bunch of corrupt tyrants who ought to be overthrown as soon as possible catching on with their luckless citizens.
No, what the government was worried about was a combination of the Saudis taking their business elsewhere and the embarrassment of having to put BAE executives on trial, particularly since I’m pretty certain the defence would soon start alleging they’d had assurances that a blind eye would be turned to their handing out bribes in cash and kind when necessary. It would be Matrix Churchill and the Scott Inquiry all over again. You don’t get to be a senior executive of something like BAE if you’re a total idiot, after all, and someone must have had the wit to raise with government the possibly unwelcome implications of Section 12 of the ATCSA, do you not think?
I think the PM’s spokesman must have realised the Saudi connection was a line of argument best not pursued too far; pressed on the matter, he said something to the effect that yes, it is a consideration, but no it isn’t really, but it’s sort of one. Except that it’s not. If you see what I mean:
Put to him that the effect on jobs formed part of the Prime Minister’s thinking, the PMOS replied that he was trying to put words in the Prime Minister’s mouth. The Prime Minister said leaving aside the effect on jobs, there will be other considerations including national security. He reiterated that the matters considered by the Attorney General were as he had set out, the fact that a successful prosecution was unlikely, and secondly the interest of national security.
Put to him that the Prime Minister had always made it clear that the fight against corruption had to be at the heart of talking poverty in developing countries, and that the decision over BAE completely undermined our efforts to promote good governance elsewhere, the PMOS replied that view was ignoring the Attorney General’s opinion that it was unlikely that there would be a successful prosecution resulting in a conviction. Put to him that the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) disagreed with this and that they felt it was worth pursuing, the PMOS replied that this was the journalist’s assertion, not his knowledge.
Asked if the Prime Minister accepted that this meant the rule of law can come second to national security, and would this be a precedent that he was happy for other people around the world to look towards Britain as an example we would like to set, the PMOS replied that his reply was the same as the previous question. This view ignored the fact that the Attorney General said it was unlikely that there would be a successful prosecution.
Asked if this decision meant that jobs would now be secured, the PMOS replied that what we always hoped was that British industry prospered and that people’s jobs were safeguarded. But the reason for the Attorney General coming to this decision was as had already been set out.
Hmm. The A-G taking the view that, in the words of the PMOS a bit earlier,
it was unlikely that a successful prosecution resulting in conviction could be brought, even after a further period of investigation. In short, he didn’t think the case was going anywhere. Secondly there was the national security consideration.
I wonder if he’ll find himself saying that again any time soon…. rather where we came in, is it not?
tag: A Good Day To Bury Bad News, Stevens Report, Yates Inquiry, Saudi, BAE, Corruption