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This week I watched two films, both with a common point of reference. One was top class, a exercise in fine scriptwriting and production values; and a searing testament to truth, honesty and transparency in a world that often obscures such qualities. One was not. More of those contrasting examples in a moment.
My interest in those varying films was prompted by a comment made to me during The Trinity Forum in Doha late last month by a young Qatari woman of poise, class, intelligence and energy. A young woman who will go far in this world, I predict.
She surprised me at the Forum when she made reference to my recent Blog and other articles about TFWA’s choice of Tony Blair – a man whom, as I have previously noted, many people in the UK, the Middle East and elsewhere consider a war criminal – as a keynote speaker at the Cannes conference. As she broached the subject, I was unsure, and a little concerned, of her take on what I had written might be.
Not for long. “Congratulations for what you wrote,” she said. “There were so many Iraqi lives lost because of what he did.” He, of course. being Tony Blair.
“I am someone who cares about journalism,” she told me in a follow-up conversation, the voice of a young generation who also clearly cares about truth.
I will not embarrass her by saying more. Instead I will move onto the two films. On Monday night I visited my local cinema to watch ‘Official Secrets’, a searing new movie about another highly intelligent young woman, this time from England. I urge everyone in this industry to watch this film.
The young woman’s name is Katharine Teresa Gun, a young translator who, back in early 2003, was engaged in top-secret monitoring work at GCHQ in Cheltenham.
I quote from the official film blurb: “British intelligence specialist Katharine Gun receives a memo from the NSA with a shocking directive: the United States is enlisting Britain’s help in collecting compromising information on U.N. Security Council members to blackmail them into voting in favour of an invasion of Iraq. Unable to stand by and watch the world be rushed into war, Gun makes the gut-wrenching decision to defy her government and leak the memo to the press.”
I won’t ruin the film for you by revealing what happened next. I will tell you, however, that the film is based entirely on fact. And I will quote some sections from the script. Excuse the (masked) profanities but I want to stay true to the script and the truth of the film.
Katharine Gun: “Just because you’re the Prime Minister, it doesn’t mean you get to make up your own facts.”
Observer journalist: “We’re the press, for God’s sake, not a f****** PR agency for Tony Blair. “This paper needs to take its finger out of its **** and stop taking Tony Blair’s press releases at face f****** value!”
And now I will fast forward to some statistics shown at the end of the film. Mere numbers? No, these are very human statistics. They detailed Iraqi deaths caused by this illegal war. And deaths of UK, US and other service men and women. The numbers make you want to turn away in horror, in shame, in sadness.
According to National Geographic, war and the subsequent occupation directly and indirectly claimed the lives of about a half million Iraqis from 2003 to 2011, many in the initial, terrifying “shock and awe” bombing campaign led by the US, which was joined by the UK and several coalition allies. Whatever the death toll – and estimates of the number vary widely – remember that their root cause lay in a false justification for the invasion – that Iraq possessed nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons that presented an immediate and intolerable threat to world peace. No such proof, and ultimately no such weapons ever existed.
And so to movie two, played out to a rather smaller audience (98 viewings as of today). Mr Blair features in it once more. And so, perhaps surprisingly, do I – though, curiously, neither my name nor my company is mentioned. The film is from our respected rival Travel Retail Business, the interviewer is their esteemed journalist Andrew Pentol, and the interviewee is TFWA Managing Director John Rimmer.
You can view the relevant section below in which Andrew queries my criticism of the fact that Blair had been chosen as a keynote speaker at the Cannes conference and the fact that he had undoubtedly been paid handsomely to do so.
“Peoples done their homework… people know… what’s your message to people that, I don’t know… who even raise this?” asks Andrew, apparently exasperated at my querying of both the choice and cost of keynote speaker.
John replies: “Well people… talk about people doing their homework… because any fees we pay to speakers are subject to negotiation and that’s subject to a non-disclosure agreement, which is entirely natural in that kind of contract so I’m not sure what kind of homework people have done but it might not get very good marks.
“We as an association are fortunate in that we can invest in speakers of that kind of calibre but we only do so if we think it’s going to add value to the event and if we think that our delegates are going to enjoy it and we were confident that would be the case and from all the feedback that I have had this week I think it was the case.”
I’m sorry (well, in truth, I am not) that by criticising the choice of Mr Blair, questioning the way his CV had conveniently omitted his enduring and shocking legacy of Iraq, and pondering what his fee might be (based on public record estimates), I had not passed John’s homework test.
But perhaps that’s because when I asked the question of the association about Blair’s fee, I was told by TFWA’s PR agency, “As with all their speakers, financial arrangements with Tony Blair are subject to a non-disclosure agreement”.
In my original Blog I had written, “According to LoveMoney.com, “The most sought-after former British politician on the after-dinner lecture circuit, ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair has made millions delivering speeches around the world since he left office in 2007. The erstwhile lawmaker can command around US$260,000 (£195k) per speech, which equates to approximately US$7,800 (£6k) per minute.”
Now I know, as John demonstrably does, that such demands are usually tempered by negotiation. I suspect the final number was closer to US$100k. But is that really the point? To me, the only statistics that matter are the ones relating to the deaths of Iraqi men, women and children and the thousands of US servicemen and women. US$260,000, US$100,000, US$1 – it matters not a jot. One cent was too much. [Unusually, media were banned from recording Blair’s speech, while the moderator, the excellent Stephen Sackur, advised the audience that the session was being conducted under Chatham House Rule – i.e Participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.]
John is a bright man. I should know. I too judged his homework for several years when he worked for me as a journalist. And it was invariably very good work indeed. So I’ll skip the slight and take some comfort, and my moral compass, instead from two young women whom I met over recent days, one in person and one on the screen.