2005

BURYING THE LEGAL ADVICE FOR WAR - PART 1

Marr Serves Up A Liberal Herring

The BBC’s political editor, Andrew Marr, said last week of the publishing of the Attorney General’s March 7, 2003 advice on the legality of war:

"For two years people have suspected that somehow the Attorney General believed the war to be illegal, and was bullied, and suborned, and pressured into changing that view. What we've learned today is that that was not the case, that his original view was a bit more balanced..." (BBC 22:00 News, April 28, 2005)

This was an outrageous summary of what we had learned that day. Few serious commentators proposed that the Attorney General had asserted the war was illegal. The issues have always been the extent to which Lord Goldsmith had doubts, the extent to which these doubts were communicated to cabinet colleagues, and the reasons why any doubts might subsequently have disappeared from his advice to cabinet. The April 28 revelations did +not+ teach us that Goldsmith was not bullied, suborned or pressured into changing his view. Similarly, the suggestion that Goldsmith's March 7 view was merely "a bit more balanced" than his March 17 view was simply absurd.

Marr was clearly using the idea that the Attorney General had not declared the war illegal in his March 7 advice as a reason for dismissing the story as a damp squib. The briefest of glances at earlier media coverage indicates what a mendacious liberal herring this was.

In March 2004, the Guardian reported that there was increased speculation that “the prime minister pressed the attorney general, Lord Goldsmith - known to have offered ambiguous advice two weeks before the conflict - to change it at the last minute, and intensify demands that he publish it in full.” (‘Pressure over war's legality increases,’ Sarah Hall and Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, March 8, 2004)

The Daily Telegraph reported in 2004:

“Downing Street refused to comment on new claims that Lord Goldsmith had had serious doubts about the legality of war during 2002 and changed his view only under intense pressure from the United States and British governments in the days before the coalition troops went into battle.” (Toby Helm, ‘Major calls on Blair to publish Goldsmith's war advice,’ Daily Telegraph, March 1, 2004)

In March 2005, the Guardian again reported that the Attorney General “warned Mr Blair that British participation in the invasion could be ruled unlawful by an international court”. (‘War resignation letter censored,’ Richard Norton-Taylor, The Guardian, March 24, 2005)

All along, the issue has been Goldsmith's initial ambiguity and his sudden certainty ten days later.

Not only was Marr giving a highly personal opinion on what was learned from the publication of the March 7 Goldsmith document, his judgement was highly distorted in favour of the government. In an online BBC article the following day, Marr wrote of Goldsmith:

“British politics has been acrid with the suspicion that this quiet commercial lawyer had told Tony Blair that his friend George Bush's proposed invasion was illegal - and that he was then hauled into an office in Downing Street where ‘Tony cronies’ beat him with pashminas until he changed his mind.

"‘Blair's illegal war’ has become as much part of the rhetoric of the left as ‘the missing weapons of mass destruction.’

“But, according to the advice finally published, following leaks to the BBC and others, it seems that Lord Goldsmith's story is markedly less shocking and interesting than rumoured - and certainly less worrying than the woeful tale of British intelligence before the war began.

“He hummed, hawed, balanced, warned, weighed and worried... but came down, as Mr Blair expected and wanted him to, as believing that the war was probably legal.

“The pressure on him in those final 10 days must have been intense. But he boiled away his reservations, rather than flipping his position.

“In short, had this advice been published in full - not just released to the cabinet but handed out to every MP and newspaper - it would have caused far less damage to Mr Blair than two years of secrecy and rumour have done.” (Marr, ‘Crucial campaigning wages in marginals,’ April 28, 2005, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/vote_2005/
frontpage/4495843.stm
)

This, again, was an outrageous interpretation favouring Blair. The Attorney General clearly +did+ flip his position - from one of deep uncertainty on the legality of war on March 7, to one of certainty on March 17, just ten days later. The issue has always been why this change took place - but for Marr this was a non-issue beside his hyped suggestion that Goldsmith might have asserted the war was illegal. Marr was thereby able to suggest that the issue was less shocking and less interesting than previously believed.

In his first submission to his Media Lens Blog, historian and political analyst Mark Curtis commented on the Goldsmith revelations:

“Watching TV coverage on several channels yesterday, one can only wonder at the complicity of the media in managing to avoid asking any - as far as I could tell - of the most important questions and putting to ministers any of the most important facts and pieces of evidence that have already emerged over many months. The constant repetition of Blair's comments that have been shown to be proven falsehoods - without any critical comment, or any comment whatsoever - are part of the process. An example is the airplay given to the Blair lie that France vetoed the chance of the second resolution.

"The episode shows that media reporting is seen simply as a political [game] - of catching out a minister on minor issues, excluding known facts, giving airplay to absurdities, and providing criticism without narrow parameters - parameters which, at this election time, are set by the 3 main parties. The media in my view have in effect kept Blair in power.” (Mark Curtis, Media Lens Blog, April 29, 2005, http://www.Media Lens.org/weblog/mark_curtis.php)

Tim Luckhurst, a former BBC reporter and producer, writes in the Daily Mail:

"Andrew Marr has dismayed licence-payers with apologias for New Labour in general and Tony Blair in particular. His repeated insistence that the Prime Minister did not lie about the legal advice he was given on the Iraq War has taken political coverage to a new low.

"Such conscientious rewriting of history deserves a place in George Orwell's 1984, not on a national television station funded by the taxpayer." (Luckhurst, 'As John Humphrys announces his retirement… The giant the BBC hasn't got the guts to replace,' Daily Mail, May 3, 2005)

We also wrote to ITN’s political editor Nick Robinson:

“I was surprised and disappointed, therefore, by your comments on tonight's news at 6:30. First of all, it's quite impossible for you to know if Blair feels vindicated by the publishing of Lord Goldsmith's March 7, 2003 advice on the legality of war. Blair is such a slippery character that he may well claim, and appear, to feel genuinely vindicated while actually feeling that he has once again got away with something. You are certainly not in a position to know what is +really+ going on inside Blair's head. And anyway it's irrelevant - Blair may feel vindicated but be slightly mad (as some insiders have hinted).

“Secondly, some people may have claimed that the publication of Goldsmith's March 7 advice would prove he thought the war was illegal, as you suggested. But I don't know of many people who have seriously made that claim. The real issue has always been the extent to which his initial caveats and uncertainties were subsequently, mysteriously, replaced by certainty. A related, crucial issue is the extent to which cabinet colleagues were made aware of these doubts. Perhaps Clare Short can cast some light on the issue. (Email, David Edwards to Robinson, April 28, 2005)

Robinson responded the same day:

“I - broadly - take your point!”

We were gratified to read such a positive response. Until we saw Robinson’s subsequent ITV reports on the same subject!


Part 2 will follow shortly...

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Andrew Marr
Email: andrew.marr@bbc.co.uk

Write to Helen Boaden, BBC news director
Email: helenboaden.complaints@bbc.co.uk

Write to Roger Mosey, Head of BBC Television News
Email: roger.mosey@bbc.co.uk