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The (Lord Privy) Seal of Respect?

Tawfiq Chahboune


Mr Hoon“Respect,” said Eldridge Cleaver, “commands itself and it can neither be given nor withheld when it is due.” The legendary Black Panther had very little respect for himself in later years when he became a “red-fighting” Republican and “anti-communist”. (I’ve always found that strange expression deeply humorous. It always reminds me of the reply the Watergate burglar gave when asked by the judge his name and profession: “Bernard Barker, anti-communist”. The judge’s response is no less priceless: “Anti-communist? That, sir, is not your average profession.”) Nonetheless, the aphorism holds: respect commands itself.

So it came as no surprise when Geoff Hoon, the new Lord Privy Seal and Leader of the House of Commons and former defence secretary, was heard bleating about the lack of “respect” shown to MPs and Parliament. The whining included the following gems: “Parliament is facing a crisis of respect. We need to communicate better” (mislead better?), “Many of us are concerned with the apparent alienation that people feel from the political process” (no “apparent” about it), “How depressing it is to see younger people swearing at police officers, or parents complaining unreasonably about teachers who have dared to discipline their child? This is sounding an alarm call for all of us in civil society” (not depressing, however, to concoct a story about WMD? No alarm call for civil society that war crimes have been committed? That no one has been held account?). Since it is Mr Hoon calling for “respect”, let us see whether Mr Hoon is worthy of any.

Tuesday 12 October 2004 saw the Blair government “formally withdraw” the claim that Iraq was able to deploy weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes. This was Blair’s way of accepting that no weapons of mass destruction will ever be found in Iraq, though New Labour is sticking to the unbelievably feeble line that Iraq had “weapons of mass destruction-related programme activities”. (For those who can’t quite grasp the usefulness of this broad description, it is that since any university laboratory is theoretically capable of having activities related to WMD, Iraq has violated the UN security council resolutions on WMD by merely having university laboratories teaching chemistry and physics. It was a manufactured get-out-of-jail-free card the Downing Street gangsters needed.) Let’s take a look at Mr Hoon’s role in the infamous affair of the “sexed-up” intelligence. Gilligan’s two claims were that the government knew that the 45 minute claim was wrong and that intelligence was “sexed-up”. The second claim is known to be true - without the corroborating evidence from the numerous leaks and the deliberately enfeebled Hutton and Butler inquiries. No one, except a few within the government, accepts that the “dodgy dossier” was not a messy web of wild fabrications spun - “innocent errors” and “a complete Horlicks” said Jack Straw, a latter-day Cicero - by Alastair Campbell. So to the 45 minute claim.

On Thursday 5th February 2004 a new round of WMD controversy kicked off after further revelations had Geoff Hoon allegedly concealing intelligence from the public and the Prime Minister. Hoon appeared on the Today programme, BBC Breakfast and many other programmes throughout the day with the same guarded and well-crafted argument. Carefully worded answers were the order of the day. He related to the British public an outlandish version of events that seemingly cleared up the controversy engulfing the government about their knowledge of Iraq’s alleged WMD capability. Hoon ostensibly cleared up the matter, but only by depicting everyone at the MoD, FCO and Downing Street as bunglers of extraordinary ineptness. Furthermore, Hoon argued, as bad as it looked for the government what was important was that there was no possibility that the government had deceived the public. Bunglers? In a league of their own. Liars? A monstrous and unsubstantiated suggestion verging on slander. The public, Hoon reasoned, could forgive bungling even if it leads to war, but not outright lying to justify war. So Hoon, naturally, swallowed his pride and admitted to clownish blundering. And of course many would buy it: everyone thinks he’s a clown anyway. Well, up to a point.

Hesitant and not especially forthcoming with clear and straightforward answers, Hoon was eventually cornered into answering the central questions. Did he or did he not know that Iraq’s supposed WMD capability referred to battlefield munitions which could not possibly be used against Britain or British interests. Yes, the “Botcher of Baghdad” replied. How was it that he knew but the Prime Minister did not? Was this not at all curious? Not at all, apparently. Indeed, Hoon himself did not know until his “curiosity” led him to ask the security services what weapons they were referring to in the infamous 45 minutes warning. Although now notified of this revealing and crucial information, Hoon decided not to pass on what he knew to the Prime Minister, or so he says. Hoon was asked the clinching question on BBC Breakfast: Why was it that when the press media went gaga with such headlines as the Sun’s “Brits 45 minutes from doom” or the Evening Standard’s “45 minutes from attack” that he, Hoon, did not inform them of their unintentionally misleading and irresponsible reporting. Hoon replied that at the time he had no idea that the press was running such stories. “Well, I didn’t see that newspaper [the Sun] or indeed any newspaper referring to that issue at the time.” On the Today programme, Hoon further claims that he was relieved upon learning that it was only the Sun that was doing so, which, in any case, he did not read on the day they hysterically claimed that the UK was 45 minutes from disaster. It may be true that he did not read the Sun. But the MoD press office? The FCO press office? And the Downing Street press office? But let’s give Hoon the benefit of the doubt: no one in the vast Westminster political machinery read the UK’s biggest selling “newspaper”. And so could not correct their unintentionally misleading “journalism”.

There are many problems with Hoon’s version of events. We shall start with the most obvious before turning to the most egregious. What is obvious is that the Sun was not the only newspaper to report the 45-minute claim, which Hoon claimed was “not controversial”. The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Independent and the Daily Mail all reported the 45-minute claim on September 25th 2002, the day after the publication of the September dossier. They all carried the 45-minute claim within the context of Iraq’s ballistic missile capability and crucially with reference to British troops in Cyprus being in danger in one way or another. The Evening Standard carried its “45 minutes from attack” on the day Blair made the frightening claim, which he says no one paid any attention to. Apparently no one associated with the dossier within the MoD, FCO, Downing Street or their hordes of press officers read any of the newspapers that day. One can only wonder what press officers get paid for.

The most glaring difficulty with Hoon’s attestation is stunning in its audacity, since it directly contradicts his own testimony to the Hutton Inquiry. It is worth quoting Hoon’s testimony at length (editing out Hoon’s numerous prevarications):

 

Q: “Are you aware that on 25th September a number of newspapers had banner headlines suggesting that this [Iraq’s alleged WMD capability] related to strategic missiles or bombs?”

A: “I can recall, yes.”

Q: “Why was no corrective statement issued for the benefit of the public in relation to those media reports?”

A: “I have spent many years trying to persuade newspapers and journalists to correct their stories. I have to say it is an extraordinarily time consuming and generally frustrating process.”

Q: “But, Mr Hoon, you must have been horrified that the dossier had been misrepresented in this way; it was a complete distortion of what it actually was contended to convey, was it not?”

A: “Well, I was not horrified.”

Q: “Can we forget journalists for the moment and concentrate on the members of the public who are reading it? Will they not be entitled to be given the true picture of the intelligence, not a vastly inflated one?”

A: “I think that is a question you would have to put to the journalists and the editors responsible.”

Q: “But you had the means to correct it, not them. They could not correct it until they were told, could they? Do you not accept that on this topic at least you had an absolute duty to try to correct it?”

A: “No, I do not.”

 

Well, there you have it. The public doesn’t deserve to be given the full facts, and that Hoon has better things to do with his time than to inform newspapers of crucially important information, though on very minor issues press offices and press officers are incessantly berating the media for getting things wrong. But on matters of war, forget it. Hoon’s testimony reads like something right out of the unforgettable satire Yes, Prime Minister. In the episode “Party Games”, Bernard tells the soon to be Prime Minister, Jim Hacker: “Minister! You realise the press will be printing something that isn’t true?” To which Hacker replies, “Really! How frightful!” Hoon’s recent lamentations have a nauseating humour about them. A prime example, and precious at that, would be the following Hoon bellyache: “And as someone who has not always seen eye to eye with our great British media, I would certainly agree that we need to encourage more and better reporting of the detail of our business.” The words “shameless” and “charlatan” for some reason are rattling around in my head.

And so we move to the main charge, which is impossible not to notice: there exists a tremendous discrepancy - in fact diametrically opposed - in what Hoon told the Hutton Inquiry and what he told the media. Hoon admits in his testimony to the Hutton Inquiry that he did know that newspapers had appeared with misleading headlines. However, on February 5th, in interviews with the media, he claimed time and time again (so no room for a simple slip of the tongue) that he did not know that such misleading reports were being published. Compare “Yes, I am aware” with “Well, I didn’t actually see that newspaper or indeed any other newspaper referring to that issue at the time”. Either he lied to the Hutton Inquiry (a perjury offence?) or he went around media studios on February 5th, and almost certainly on other occasions since that date, telling whoppers with extra cheese. The testimony to the Hutton Inquiry seems plausible. Therefore his whirlwind tour of media studios with his very carefully worded but ultimately less than airtight argument is a tissue of lies. This begs the question, why? Why the two different version of events? He can admit that he was less than honest to a judicial inquiry, or he can admit to lying to the whole British media. But, then, perhaps Mr Hoon has a revelatory explanation for all this - and perhaps one worthy of “respect”.

There is, admittedly, one way out for Hoon. He can mimic Clinton’s bamboozling semantics and argue that in his case being “aware” of the newspaper reports is not the same as “seeing” them. How far that will wash with an already sceptical British public is not too difficult to judge. Some questions, however, remain. Given Hoon's testimony admitting that he knew Iraq did not have WMD in any conventional sense, what exactly did Andrew Gilligan get wrong? Why has no one been brought before a court? Is it conceivable that the Secretary of State for Defence knew Iraq didn’t have WMD but the Prime Minister did not? Is it conceivable that a Defence Secretary would withhold such information from a Prime Minister? Although desperation has its own dynamic, to assume that one can spew out such nonsense and get away with it is truly remarkable. (Correction - he has gotten away with it.) One has to have “respect” for this kind of brazen lying.

Hoon is flabbergasted that “there is a popular myth that MPs should be regarded as a bunch of second-raters who are in it for what they can get. This is grossly unfair…” Indeed it is. Mr Hoon is a first-rate liar, a first-rate spinner of yarns and a first-rate unabashed whiner. I for one will never understand why he is known as Buff Hoon. His new title as Lord Privy is, however, apt.

 

June 2005

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