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The GB Show
Thursday, August 2, 2007
I looked and listened in vain among all the media bloviators commenting on George Bush’s and Gordon Brown’s Camp David get-together (an event triple-stamped with a GB monogram, if you also count the new Prime Minister’s Great Britain vehicle-plate) for appropriate attention being paid to the historic accident of its date.
Brown’s first trip as PM to America – and, he was at pains to insist, to the United Nations as well – may have come while both Britain and the US are skittishly debating how and how soon to get out of Iraq. But this week’s visit also happened to coincide (on July 31st, 2007) with British troops’ final and official withdrawal from the once terrorist-infested territory of Northern Ireland.
Say it quietly or loudly … that particular UK military involvement lasted a very long time indeed (since August 14, 1969 in fact). The deployment of forces was officially described at first as a “limited operation”, and I remember one army officer telling me then that “we’ll be here a few weeks”.
What’s to be learned from that long involvement? In THE MEDIA BEAT (last year and the year before) and when punditing for CNN, I’ve been disappointed that American media generally avoid facing realistically the possibility that clearing up the Iraq mess may well take not just years, but decades. (Now whether the US and Britain should stay to do that clearing-up themselves is a different question – one that we can retrospectively see should have been opened more fully with Colin Powell’s now rather sickeningly understated use, before the war, of the Pottery Barn chainstore's dictum: “If you break it, it you own it”.)
In contrast with US media outlets, the question of how to handle insurgency and sectarian violence – fully taking the broad, and the long view – was creditably aired by Britain’s national, domestic service BBC Radio Four on the day of the final Ulster pull-out. The Beeb brought together the noted - and for some controversial - Lt Col Tim Collins (retired) of the British Army’s Royal Irish Regiment, with Michael Clarke, Professor of Defense Studies at King’s College, London.
The conclusion Professor Clarke drew from Northern Ireland was that although many mistakes were made along the way, the British army did at least learn that “the military can only hold the ring, create the space for a political settlement… and if the space created can’t be used by politicians, then the military can’t solve it themselves. It’s taken 38 years, and certainly 20 years without much positive result, before politicians were able to use that space to some good purpose”.
Lt Col Collins, for his part, is no softie. He has weathered (and been cleared of) charges that he abused civilians while leading his soldiers in Iraq – accusations that had American origins, interestingly enough. He also won the admiration of George Bush, who hung Collins' pre-invasion commander’s speech on the Oval Office wall: “If you are ferocious in battle, remember to be magnanimous in victory ... You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest, for your deeds will follow you down through history."
But Collins’ own understanding, begun in Northern Ireland and continued in Iraq, places him far from Bush. In large part it amounts, he told listeners, to “the realization that terrorism is a crime” and “[our role] is about supporting police forces and civil authority to fight crime”. He felt his understanding was nowadays being “translated” more broadly, and he referred pointedly to “the language that Gordon Brown used in America, that terrorism is a crime”.
SUCH INDEED WAS ONE DISTINCTION (terrorism attacked purely with weapons of war, versus terrorism vigorously prosecuted by law) that reporters could draw when host and visitor appeared at their paired podiums outside Camp David’s aircraft hangar. At the same time both Brown and Bush inevitably tried, from their different perspectives (that of each being right, of course, in their different ways) to have the media see only similarities. Possibly the most cringe-making moment for anyone who knows Brown was when the hail-fellow frat boy from Yale seemed to claim the Scot as a fellow-jokester.
Responding to an often-voiced caricature of Brown from some in the press throng, Bush said: “He’s not the dour Scotsman that you described him - or the awkward Scotsman. He’s actually the humorous Scotsman, a guy that - we actually were able to relax and to share some thoughts.”
I can attest, with some authority, that Brown’s sense of humor is a league away from Bush’s. I recall in particular an occasion just before his and Tony Blair’s New Labour party swept to power, that took place in New York’s Century Association club-house – an event some colleagues and I had planned in order to get the future British finance minister better known in Wall Street and beyond.
His warm-up woman, if you will, was the actress-turned-New-Labour-Member-of-Parliament, Glenda Jackson, and the only spot that offered the two speakers any kind of prominence in the clubroom’s somber layout (no paired podiums here!) was a baronial-looking fireplace and mantel. When the film-star had finished her introductory words, Brown made a sly movie-fan's reference to the famous naked-by-firelight wrestling scene in Women in Love, the film in which she won an Oscar. He opened, apparently all innocently, with: “Well, I never expected to be sharing a fireplace with Glenda Jackson”.
FAREWELL THIS WEEK TO A SON OF SCOTLAND who, as a television professional, tried determinedly to bring understanding of his homeland to a wider world. Tom Steel died at the age of 63, after a long period of poor health.
Tom produced the lengthy series Scotland’s Story for the UK’s Channel Four TV (who distributed it around much of the globe as well) plus a weighty book accompanying the series. Long before such cross-media packaging became common, he had also made A Far Better Place - The Life and Death of St Kilda, a quiet but searing documentary about the evacuation of a remote Hebridean island – which had grown out of a book he’d started researching as a teenager. The book, remarkably, is still in print, clocking up thirteen editions since it was first published in 1965.
He was also my first mentor in major-market television, in London. As a friend emailed me this week: “Tom taught us both a lot in the early days”.
Tom was also a producer on the blockbuster series Destination America, chronicling the Old World’s crossing to the New. I can’t help wondering how he, with his keen and sometimes jaundiced eye, would have covered the crossing of Gordon Brown to Camp David.
SO, EVENTUALLY AND UNSURPRISINGLY, RUPERT MURDOCH (RM) has gotten his hands on Dow Jones (DJ), and thus on that hallowed brand, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). And as you see, my monogramomania has returned.
Whatever editorial and "integrity" guarantees Murdoch may have affixed his signature to (and they amount to 7,000 words) I guarantee that - on the basis of experience - the following algebraic and acronymic formula will finally prevail for the Journal as we know it:
DJ + RM = WSJ (RIP)