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Posted Tuesday, December 22, 1998

EVENING STANDARD, London London, December 21, 1998


London Evening StandardVICTOR LEWIS-SMITH (the newspaper's Television and media critic)

TV that degrades us all

THERE was a time when we Westerners knew how to control Johnny Wog. We'd exchange a few glass beads for vast tracts of their land, introduce them to the soporific delights of opium, or (using our astronomical knowledge to calculate precisely the next solar eclipse) threaten to make the world go dark if they didn't obey us. Sixty seconds of uncompromising Galilean science were usually sufficient to have them eating out of our hand.

ClintonBut times changed, and so did foreign policy and nowadays the West relies on B52 bombers and cruise missiles to quell uppity natives, as in The Gulf War (all channels). War no longer breaks out, it's pencilled into our diaries and coordinated with TV schedulers, which is why the International Atrocity Contest flickered onto our sets last week to divert attention from the mother-in-law of all battles taking place in Washington, where Clinton's "Operation Rat-up-a-Drainpipe" was reaching its climax.

Maybe the President couldn't destroy the Republican Old Guard in Congress, but he could certainly make mincemeat of the Republican Guard in Iraq, and I wouldn't have been surprised to hear that a rogue Tomahawk had strayed from its path and was heading directly toward the home of a Ms M Lewinsky.

LewinskyAs America Junior rushed into action alongside Uncle Sam, so too did the news journalists, scarcely able to contain their ghastly glee as they played with their latest technological toys in a bid to serve up war as entertainment.

Night cameras transformed Baghdad into the Emerald City of Oz, the digital pictures so compressed and pixilated that (mercifully) the images were actually "less" clear than those from the first Gulf War. From BBC News 24 to CNN, hacks donned sombre suits and climbed onto the roof of the Iraqi Ministry of Information building, where they were allowed to look macho and unshaven (even Kate Adie) as they commentated on those nice bright lights that looked like fire-works as they flew through the air, but then fell to earth and blew or burnt unseen human beings to smithereens.

Rarely was a dissenting view allowed on air (though thank God for Tony Benn, who's mad enough to become the voice of sanity at times like these), for it would be unpatriotic to protest while our boys were "in harm's way" --. although, as far as I could see, the only people in harm's way were the defenceless Iraqis on the ground, trying to survive amid the combined chaos caused by vindictive trade sanc-tions, a powercrazed dictator, a desperate US President, and a British Prime Minister seemingly smitten by a transatlantic schoolboy crush.

A search around the satellite channels soon confirmed that the English-speaking world was hopelessly out of step with opinion elsewhere.

The BBC's Jeremy Cooke lamented that "we cannot see the military sites we'd like to see," while CNN (anchored by one of those unthreatening black faces that US networks always choose, more Sidney Poitier than Winston Silcott) reminded us that Saddam Hussein is "the greatest threat to world security". I presume that Osama bin Laden, who had that distinction only three months ago, must be losing his grip.

However, the Middle Eastern Broadcasting Centre (MBC) carried a permanent logo of an Iraqi anti-aircraft gunner, and reflected the anger of Arab people through vox pops and shots of a banner reading "Killing People for Monica", while many European stations expressed profound disquiet at this cowardly war being waged without UN approval. But jolly euphemisms abounded among English speakers, from good old "collateral damage" (killing people) to "degrade and diminish Saddam", although in the aftermath of the carnage it seems to be us, not him, who have been morally degraded and diminished.


BY Saturday evening's impeachment vote, CNN's screen had split in two as its journalists slavered over a doubledose of "history in the making". And then, suddenly, it was all over. Saddam was stronger than ever, Clinton was weaker than ever, the Iraqis were left to bury their dead, TV journalists turned reluctantly back to the dull diet of workaday non-news, and tomorrow I'll go back to writing about Vanessa Feltz, because you don't want to read about my impotent rage at the stupidity and wickedness of this sick farce.

Bill and Tony are both Christians, of course, and Christianity has a long tradition of slaughtering Muslims in the Middle East. Even at the end of the millennium, it seems, the Cross and the Crescent still rule our politics. As Gore Vidal remarked yesterday, Clinton should be on trial, though not for trivial sexual misdemeanours or the lawyers' fetish of perjury, but for crimes against humanity. But it won't happen. After all, war has never been about who is right, but about who is left.

A Website glossary for non-British readers:

•  Winston Silcott: Black immigrant prison inmate, who was convicted and jailed for hacking the head off a British police constable during violent riots on the Broadwater Farm Estate in North London; but subsequently acquitted of the latter charge on appeal (though still retained in jail on another murder conviction);

•  Vanessa Feltz: an elephantine talk-show hostess and agony aunt;

•  Tony Benn: venerable former Lord Stansgate, former Anthony Wedgwood-Benn; left-wing socialist, occasionally afflicted by embarrassing flashes of right-wing sanity (he condemnded bthe bombing campaign in Parliament as morally repugnant);

•  Kate Adie: much loved British television correspondent; wherever she goes with her microphone a war is soon to follow.

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