Whenever I start to feel that the standard of programs broadcast by the BBC is declining I do often find myself pleasantly surprised. This has happened twice in the past five days. On Friday evening, quite by accident, I watched and enjoyed a documentary on British blues called “Blues Britannia Can Blue Men Sing the Blues“. I am not going to write about this. It was just another fine example of a music documentary made for BBC4. The second program, broadcast yesterday at 9PM, was the first part of a two part series called “The Secret War on Terror“. In this series journalist Peter Taylor is exploring the use of torture in the intelligence war fought against Al Qaeda in the decade since 9/11.
Much of the information offered in the program for an informed viewer is not new. The use of “enhanced interrogation” methods, including waterboarding, and extraordinary rendition by the CIA and their allies to secret prisons has been well documented over the past ten years. Instead “The Secret War on Terror” makes the skeleton of the documentary a sequence of extracts from interviews conducted by Peter Taylor with key people involved in the gathering and use of intelligence gathered in the war on terror. These are joined together by narrated reconstructions and explanations of the questions presented to the interviewed individuals. Individuals interviewed in this program include former heads of departments in the United States State Department, the CIA and the head of MI5 after 9/11 Baroness Manningham-Buller.
Because Peter Taylor’s interview technique is excellent many interesting reactions to questions arise. By asking the interviewee a direct question or a series of short questions about a single subject and letting the interviewee answer with no interruptions they reveal truth through omission and contradiction. One example of this method at work can be seen when the former head of the CIA is asked a direct question and is forced to answer looking stressed, blinking uncontrollably and searching for an answer. A second example of this is a pair of answers given by Baroness Manningham-Buller and the former president of Pakistan General Parvez Musharraf about British complicity in torture. Their answers contradict each other. General Musharraf states into to the camera that the British Government did not tell him to not torture detainees.
At the end of the first part of this two part documentary we know where Peter Taylor stands on the use of torture, and we know what the opinions of the FBI and MI5 officially are: they are against it. This opinion is never thrust into the program as an agenda. If “The Secret War on Terror” has an agenda I suspect that it is solely to document rather than to change opinion. In the closing remarks of the first part, Peter Taylor does concede that the use of torture has saved lives, and Baroness Manningham-Buller says that security cannot be guarantee and that all terror attacks can not be stopped. In fact it is a delusion to think that they can all be stopped.
“The Secret War on Terror” is good intelligent journalism. It is a model I wish more programs on the BBC would follow. Gather primary sources and present them to us with as little editing as possible. Let journalists have an opinion, make it clear, but never let that dominate the presentation of evidence gathered. There is a difference between a polemic and a documentary. This is a documentary and we need more good documentaries like it.