11/26/2005

Boris Johnson MP: I'll go to jail to print the truth about Bush and al-Jazeera

It must be said that subsequent events have not made life easy for those of us who were so optimistic as to support the war in Iraq...

Some of us thought it was about ensuring that chemical weapons could never again be used on Iraqi soil. Then we heard about the white phosphorus deployed by the Pentagon. Some people believed that the American liberation would mean the end of torture in Iraqi jails. Then we had Abu Ghraib.

Some of us thought it was all about the dissemination of the institutions of a civil society - above all a free press, in which journalists could work without fear of being murdered. Then we heard about the Bush plan to blow up al-Jazeera.

Some of us feel that we have an abusive relationship with this war. Every time we get our hopes up, we get punched by some piece of bad news. We yearn to be told that we're wrong, that things are going to get better, that the glass is half full. That's why I would love to think that Dubya was just having one of his little frat-house wisecracks, when he talked of destroying the Qatar-based satellite TV station. Maybe he was only horsing around. Maybe it was a flippant one-liner, of the kind that he delivers before making one of his dramatic exits into the broom-closet. Perhaps it was a kind of Henry II moment: you know, who will rid me of this turbulent TV station? Maybe he had a burst of spacy Reagan-esque surrealism, like the time the old boy forgot that the mikes were switched on, and startled a press conference with the announcement that he was going to start bombing Russia in five minutes. Maybe Bush thought he was Kenny Everett. Perhaps he was playing Basil Brush. Boom boom.

Who knows? But if his remarks were just an innocent piece of cretinism, then why in the name of holy thunder has the British state decreed that anyone printing those remarks will be sent to prison?

We all hope and pray that the American President was engaging in nothing more than neo-con Tourette-style babble about blowing things up. We are quite prepared to believe that the Daily Mirror is wrong. We are ready to accept that the two British civil servants who have leaked the account are either malicious or mistaken. But if there is one thing that would seem to confirm the essential accuracy of the story, it is that the Attorney General has announced that he will prosecute anyone printing the exact facts.

What are we supposed to think? The meeting between Bush and Blair took place on April 16, 2004, at the height of the US assault on Fallujah, and there is circumstantial evidence for believing that Bush may indeed have said what he is alleged to have said.

We know that the administration was infuriated with the al-Jazeera coverage of the battle.. We are told by the New York Times that there were shouty-crackers arguments within the administration, with some officials yelling that the channel should be shut down, and others saying that it would be better to work with the journalists in the hope of producing better coverage.

We also recall that the Americans have form when it comes to the mass media outlets of regimes they dislike. They blew up the Kabul bureau of al-Jazeera in 2002, and they pulverised the Baghdad bureau in April 2003, killing one of the reporters. In 1999 they managed to blow up the Serb TV station, killing two make-up girls..

To be fair to the Americans, we must also accept that they had good grounds for resenting al-Jazeera...

And yet however wrong you may think al-Jazeera is in its slant and its views, you must accept that what it is providing is recognisably journalism. It is not always helpful to the American cause in Iraq, but then nor is the BBC; and would anybody in London or Washington suggest sending a Tomahawk into White City? Well, they might, but only as a joke. Exhausted Western leaders, living in the nightmare of a media-dominated democracy, are allowed to make jokes about blowing up journalists. I seem to remember that when I was sent to Belgrade to cover the Nato attacks, Tony Blair told the then proprietor of The Daily Telegraph that he would "tell Nato to step up the bombing!" Ho ho ho.

But if there is an ounce of truth in the notion that George Bush seriously proposed the destruction of al-Jazeera, and was only dissuaded by the Prime Minister, then we need to know, and we need to know urgently. We need to know what we have been fighting for, and there is only one way to find out.

The Attorney General's ban is ridiculous, untenable, and redolent of guilt. I do not like people to break the Official Secrets Act, and, as it happens, I would not object to the continued prosecution of those who are alleged to have broken it. But we now have allegations of such severity, against the US President and his motives, that we need to clear them up.

If someone passes me the document within the next few days I will be very happy to publish it in The Spectator, and risk a jail sentence. The public need to judge for themselves. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. If we suppress the truth, we forget what we are fighting for, and in an important respect we become as sick and as bad as our enemies.

Boris Johnson MP: Bush and Al-Jazeera

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