[I wrote most of this post on Thursday 24th. Unfortunately I did not have time until today to dot the i's and cross the t's and post it.]
Deference was alive and well when James Naughtie interviewed Joe Wilson on Radio Four this morning. Naughtie started risibly by describing Valerie Plame as a “deep cover” agent – clearly he had no idea what the phrase meant. I laughed out loud, but that isn’t my complaint. My complaint is that throughout the interview Naughtie gave no indication that he had ever read or heard anything other than the standard American Democrat line on this affair. Republican “takes” on the Wilson/Plame affair abound. I referred to this WSJ article to write this post; hundreds of others would have done. Yet my impression is that Naughtie’s only significant source was a quick skim of Wilson’s own book.
All this is very much an American scandal. I don’t claim to have followed it in any detail. This Q & A by Paul Reynolds gives the basic story. (The American Expatriate, who has followed this affair, says it’s pretty good, and given the somewhat acrimonious exchanges on this very issue between Messrs Callahan and Reynolds in earlier AmEx posts and comments, that is not empty praise.) The point I want to make is that I am aware, just from casual mentions and links from Republican-inclined blogs, of all sorts of aspects to the story that don’t seem to have reached the Today programme. For instance it is all over the news that Bob Woodward of Watergate fame has come out and said that he knew Valerie Plame was an agent and it wasn’t Scooter Libby that told him. No mention of Woodward from Naughtie, although of course he did mention Scooter Libby.
When I became aware that this might make a B-BBC post, I scribbled down as best I could various of Naughtie’s words that caught my attention. My transcriptions are reasonably accurate but I don’t know if I can quite get across the extent to which nearly everything Naughtie said came across as being a prompt to allow Wilson to get across some talking point from his message. Because this is a blog about the BBC rather than about US politics, I have concentrated on Naughtie’s supportive questioning rather than Wilson’s answers. Here are some examples:
- Naughtie asks in tones of sombre shared disbelief at presidential folly, “Why did the president use it?” [i.e. Why did the Persident refer to the disputed claim that Iraq sought uranium yellowcake in Niger in a speech.]
Wilson answers righteously, as Naughtie must have known he would, “That’s a question for the president.”
Naughtie responds with a chummy laugh: “Ah, but he’s not here so you’ll have to do.”
- “What conclusions did you reach?” In principle, questions like this that just encourage the interviewee to talk more are fine – we listen to interviews with people to see what they have to say, after all. But in this interview there was almost nothing else.
- “So the bureacracy was being harnessed to The Cause?” Naughtie’s speech tone while he said “the cause” was heavily ironic. The only possible answer to this was yes, they were, and that Wilson duly gave.
- This next one was a contender for the toady of the week award: “Reading your book, it’s impossible to miss almost the sense of shock…” [that anyone would be so wicked.]
- “Are you still mystified that this happens?” [Again referring to the wicked, wicked ways of Capitol Hill]
- “Explain (apart from your personal distress) why that matters so much?” Another prompt, this time for Wilson to say how dreadful it was to reveal his wife’s cover. The personal distress bit was said in tones more appropriate to a bomb victim.
- “When you became a hate figure…” At this point, only my iron digestion, the result of wholesome living, prevented a distressing breakfast time event.
I didn’t expect or want to hear an unremittingly hostile interview with Mr Wilson. But I would have expected to hear one or two questions that raised issues that might at least speed up his heartbeat for a minute. Such as “Why did you tell the Washington Post that you had seen documents suggesting an Iraq-Niger deal (and recognised them at once as obvious forgeries) months before you could have possibly seen them, since they did not reach US intelligence until later – and if the answer to that is a fault of memory, why not extend your tolerance for faulty recall to Scooter Libby?”
Or “What do you say to the criticisms made of your behaviour by the report of the Senate Intelligence Committee, including several Democratic senators? This Committee said that nepotism had been involved in your wife’s recommendation of you for the Niger mission, when you had said that she had had nothing to do with it.
Or “If breaching your wife’s cover was so bad for you how come you immediately leapt into print to breach it more widely? Anonymity is a continuum, not a glass that breaks once and forever.”
Or Naughtie could have alluded to the fact that although Wilson has always said that Iraq did not buy uranium from Niger, he has become strangely unclear over the question of whether Iraq sought it – another point brought out by the Senate Intelligence Committee. But not by Mr Naughtie.