I’ve just made my first official complaint to the BBC over its coverage of Saddam Hussein’s trial verdict this morning.
I was watching News 24 and was appalled to hear the presenters relishing the prospect of Hussein being given the death sentence (he has been), discussing in some detail how he might be killed. They were also creating a build-up to Hussein’s sentence by pointing out that the sentences were getting increasingly severe.
There were lots of repetitions of a judge’s quote saying he hopes Saddam “gets what he deserves”, and Iraqi studio guests saying that a death sentence was great news. And – even though no one was allowed on the streets of Baghdad – saying that most people would be celebrating the verdict.
I’m sorry but at what point did the UK’s historic opposition to the death penalty get thrown out the window in the interests of tabloid speculation and excitement?
There have been very long, very intelligent and passionate debates over the death sentence which resulted in the end of hanging in the UK in 1965 (preceded by the Homicide Act of 1957). Since then, the matter has been the subject of hot debate approximately every 10 years, and every time the argument against the death penality has won, building a foundation of cultural thought and logic where our more base instincts have been subsumed by rational argument.
To see all that given up and ignored because it makes better television, and because of the strange madness that exists around this so-called War on Terror, makes me despair. Since 2001, we have gradually started ignoring all the lessons of the First and Second World Wars. If you ever wanted to know how humanity never manages to learn its lessons, and so is doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again, you can see it today, when the guilty verdict of Saddam Hussein should have been welcomed, but the death sentence condemned.
Just while I’m despairing, the Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett has pointedly refused to condemn the death sentence. “I welcome that Saddam Hussein and the other defendants have faced justice and have been held to account for their crimes. Appalling crimes were committed by Saddam Hussein’s regime. It is right that those accused of such crimes against the Iraqi people should face Iraqi justice.”
I’m appalled. News 24 has managed to get back on its feet thanks to John Simpson giving the coverage a bit of gravitas, and has got in one of Hussein’s legal team in the studio, who has said in response to Beckett’s statement: “Margaret Beckett has made a mistake. This wasn’t decided under Iraqi law – this was US law.”
Whatever you think about Hussein, the Iraq War and the US government’s involvement, that statement is entirely true. The judge even read out that Hussein was being sentenced on the basis of Iraqi criminal law brought in in 2005.
I don’t want people to support Saddam Hussein, he was a gangster, a murderer, a dictator, an appalling and dreadful man. But I despair of my country and how the politicians have given up condemning torture (actually trying to overturn rules in Europe so we can officially turn a blind eye), and have now given up on the principled position of opposing the death sentence. When it would have cost nothing at all to have said “we welcome the verdict but oppose the sentence”.
That the BBC lost its way and joined in this circus makes me sad. It has since recovered itself and the professionalism has kicked back in.
That much is thanks to John Simpson, the BBC’s World Affairs editor, who has himself been subject to a death sentence issued by Hussein. Simpson’s experience and wisdom came pouring through.
This was his first comment, having sat in the courtroom, and been “less than a yard” from Hussein when he was led out: “Saddam arrived looking extremely dapper. His beard neatly trimmed, he has a very expensive copy of the Koran in his hand. He refused to stand up, and so four ushers made him stand up. He shouted at them – don’t bend my arm, don’t bend my arm.
“The judge read through the fairly short verdict on him while Saddam was shouting back at him. Almost the first thing the judge said was that he would suffer the death sentence by hanging. Saddam was also sentenced to imprisonment for 10 years for torture. At end, Saddam said ‘Long live Iraq, long live the Iraqi people’.
“I can’t have been more than a yard from him when he was led out. Had a quiet sort of smile that said ‘yes I have been able to do what I wanted to do’.”
Asked what he thought personally, Simpson fell back on his journalistic objectivity: “My own view doesn’t really matter very much. But I will say it has been the most extraordinary time – almost like a gangster movie where a young man, brought up for violent acts, becomes president, and now we see him sentenced to execution.
“It depends who you are – most Shiite and Kurdish Iraqis will be absolutely delighted. But alot of Sunnis – not necessarily supporters of Saddam – will see that their last supporter has gone, and there will be some anger and some sadness.”
Now *that* is how to approach it. Provide facts, no opinion. Provide background and insight, not excitement and bloodlust.
Saddam’s words were translated soon after Simpson’s first piece. “Down with the traitors, down with the invaders, god is great, god is great,” he said. He paused briefly before then shouting out a number of slogans including “long live the nation”.
When told which articles and clauses he was being sentenced under, he cried out: “Go to hell with your law and your articles and clauses.” As the judge read out the sentence undeterred, he shouted: “I curse the agents, I curse you, God is great. You are the mouthpiece of colonalism. You are the enemy of the Iraqi people. Death to the invaders.”
BBC back on its feet
Suddenly the BBC got its act together. Previously they had cut to their correspondent in Baghdad who was outside amid sounds of gunfire. This was, he said, “celebratory gunfire”. The BBC news anchor’s news brain kicked in next time they went back to the correspondent: “Are you sure it was celebratory gunfire?”
A bloody good point. How exactly do you tell the difference between the gunfire that kills you stone dead and that other type of gunfire, the celebratory kind.
Since then, the BBC has pulled in some more knowledgeable and less excitable people that have managed to give the verdict some context – how Iraqis are happy that Hussein has been found guilty, but unsettled that it was done through a US-sponsored court, with US law pulled into their country.
But, just to repeat my main point again: where is the UK’s historic opposition to the death sentence? How long until the Home Secretary is recommending we open the debate on hanging again? Only for those found guilty of terrorism of course.
We are entering dark times. And if the BBC loses its way by failing to report on current affairs without the full consideration of history behind it, it is all too easy to see how our society’s hard-fought-for values will be squandered.