It’s all getting a bit meta


I had an unusual experience yesterday, especially for an academic interested in how newspapers use sources to support stories about foreign policy. I was called by a journalist and asked to comment on a story about foreign policy. If you take a look at page 4 of today’s Independent, there I am. I’m a news source.

The journalist, political correspondent James Cusick, emailed me yesterday afternoon looking to talk about US views on the release of original documents underpinning the Chilcot Report, and particularly the “200 Cabinet-level discussions, 25 notes from Mr Blair to President Bush and more than 130 records of conversations between either Mr Blair or Mr Brown and President Bush” that Sir John Chilcot mentioned in his letter to the Prime Minister of 4 November. He had a source (or sources) within the Cabinet Office that said US State Department officials were privately asking that the latter two categories of document be kept classified. Chilcot has always said that he would work within the bounds set out by the Cabinet Office, and the Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood remains the ultimate arbiter of what can and cannot be released. A decent wedge of material is already in the public domain, but Sir Jeremy has previously insisted that these particular documents be kept private, in part to avoid damaging the convention that governments keep private communications between leaders private.

Sir John isn’t actually challenging this point, despite what some media coverage has suggested. It’s also important to remember that he has actually seen this material. The unresolved question is how he uses it in his report. The US is very tetchy about secret documents, and tends to take the view that once something is classified it should stay that way. That is why it responded angrily to Wikileaks despite the fact that, in the end, there was little particularly sensitive material released.

The Cabinet Office knows the US position. It’s a position the UK broadly shares, and one most states would recognise and follow. But the government has committed to transparency, hoping Chilcot will finally draw a line under Iraq. So Sir Jeremy and his colleagues face a judgement call. How much material can they release before the Americans get upset, and how upset can the Americans get before there are negative consequences for the special relationship? It’s incredibly difficult to predict, and it’s obviously taking them a long time to strike a balance they feel they can defend.

Having returned to my office after teaching I called James Cusick and talked to him for about 20 minutes. It was an interesting experience. We have different roles in relation to this sort of issue. His role is to be as questioning and critical as possible. You won’t find anything out as a journalist if you don’t push the envelope. Academics can afford to be more circumspect. So we naturally have different interpretations of what is going on here. I think the story here is the time delay – which Chilcot is obviously finding frustrating – rather than the level of US involvement or otherwise.

I also don’t think there is anything particularly to be gained by having the documents themselves in the public arena. Chilcot has more than enough evidence to conclude that Blair decided in early 2002 to support the US in confronting Iraq, knowing that would probably mean military action. He has more than enough evidence to conclude that Blair was at least economical with the truth when it came to explaining his position to the public, to parliament, and to the Cabinet. He has more than enough evidence to conclude that the decision-making process was riddled with hubris and groupthink (see the Butler Report on how groupthink affected the interpretation of intelligence). So I’m quite relaxed. I expect the remaining issues will eventually be agreed, the report will emerge, and it will criticise the Blair government, though it will stop short of calling for Blair to be shipped off to The Hague.

Cusick can’t be that circumspect. He needs a headline – for the front page as it turned out – and he needs an angle, to keep readers once they’ve been drawn in. So he has to frame the delay in terms of US interference. What he wanted from me was an independent opinion on whether there was anything surprising about the US taking an anti-disclosure position. He was hoping I would agree with him that the answer is no – and he said he’d looked at my thesis before getting in touch, which is interesting in itself since I arguably take a fairly mild line on Blair-era ‘spin’. As it turned out, I did agree, so was willing to be quoted as I am in the article. He didn’t include my more qualified views about the significance of the documentation not being released, because it didn’t fit his line. That’s how the process works.

Speaking to the media is part of my job. Academics are supposed to generate new knowledge, and then share it – through publications and through teaching, of course, but also through engaging with public debate. That’s why I have an LSE experts profile, though unhelpfully it usually leads to queries about domestic politics in Libya, Syria, or Iraq, about which I know relatively little (for a foreign policy analyst). Journalists don’t have much time to research their stories. They need authoritative sources. Academics are authoritative because they are perceived as both independent and expert. They’re also boring, for the same reason, which is why I’m cited at the end of the article. Did I really add anything in objective terms? I’m not sure. The article was essentially written by the time I spoke to its author. I didn’t change his views on anything. But hopefully I lent some credibility to what I think is a valid point – the US thinks in terms of categories of document, rather than contents. If the State Department has asked for this  material to be kept confidential, it’s because it’s the sort of material that is usually kept confidential, not because it says anything dramatic.

Update 17:06

Following on from my appearance in the Independent, I got a call from Al-Jazeera asking if I’d come in and  speak to them in the studio about the same issue, as part of their News Hour programme. I think I answered about four questions in a 60-second slot, and it all seemed to go well. So today has been a day of firsts for me!


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