June 26, 2003
Just before the Iraq war, [well-known British TV news anchor and interviewer] David Dimbleby came to Washington to interview Donald Rumsfeld. They talked for half an hour. As you would expect, the questioning was persistent, forensic. Americans who heard the interview were shocked. The world’s most powerful nation does not have the world’s most powerful press. Specifically, it has no daily forum for the close questioning of politicians—no Today programme, no Channel 4 News, no Newsnight.Of course, as we all know, America is the land of plucky defiance. Don’t Tread On Us. And Europe is where they just don’t get it about that freedom stuff. Anyway, that’s our storyline and we’re sticking to it.
Incredibly—in this cultural and political superpower, in this supposed beacon of world freedom—radio stations were reduced to running interviews with experts from the BBC on their airwaves; a plucky station in Boston laid on an hour-long discussion and phone-in to follow the broadcast, during which I had to explain to the listeners that this kind of thing happened all the time in Britain.
What surprised people most was the style. Mr Rumsfeld’s answers were followed up. His reasoning was tested. He was put on the spot and not allowed to leave it. When Dimbleby asked him why he had repeatedly referred to the “so-called” occupied territories of the West Bank, Mr Rumsfeld said he might have done it once but certainly not repeatedly.
Dimbleby had the dates and occasions in front of him. The Defence Secretary was forced to concede the point.
What a far cry it was from the Donald Rumsfeld Americans know and love. Strutting his stuff on the Pentagon podium, Mr Rumsfeld is lord and master of all he surveys. The Defence hacks titter nervously at each other and hope to get off with as light a beating as possible. Difficult questions are avoided; difficult questioners are lampooned. Anyone who persists is taken out and beaten senseless. (I made that up, but the atmosphere is genuinely one of laughing menace; a truly independent spirit would not enjoy being a Pentagon correspondent. The Today programme’s Andrew Gilligan would not get through the door.)
Not for the first time, I’m reminded of Ken MacLeod’s improvisation, in a long-ago Usenet discussion, of a line of Euro-jingoism grounded in generalizations every bit as valid as the usual American self-love:
This is Europe. We took it from nobody; we won it from the bare soil that the ice left. The bones of our ancestors, and the stones of their works, are everywhere. Our liberties were won in wars and revolutions so terrible that we do not fear our governors: they fear us. Our children giggle and eat ice-cream in the palaces of past rulers. We laugh at popes. We snap our fingers at kings.The point wasn’t that this is true; it was that this is easily as true as any portrayal of a country with a cowed national media and a fear-entranced populace as “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” [02:05 PM]