A working week in the life of Michael White, political editor of The Guardian
For once my wife wakes first. With a sharp nudge she announces at 6.34am: “The war’s started.” The television screen is already filling with images of conflict, but otherwise life goes on as normal apart from the weirdly bright March sunshine which enhances the air of unreality. Lobby correspondents have long been part of what we now call the “embedded” reporting system, travelling with the legendary “Downing Street Rats”. As such, we turn up at the Foreign Press Association HQ on Carlton House Terrace where we are briefed on the war by Jack Straw. Both he and Geoff Hoon (speaking later in the Commons) warn that there will be no official “running commentary” for the voracious 24/7 media. Both are quickly proved wrong by the overriding necessity to keep feeding the TV beast with pictures and talking heads. Liberal Democrat MP Paul Tyler tells me over lunch that it was Robin Cook who persuaded Tony Blair to risk that Commons vote on the war, then resigned to vote “No”. Later I file on Blair’s TV broadcast. He keeps his emotions under control – just.
Now that the fighting has started there is less pressure on political correspondents, so I can take my day off. We drive to Birmingham where I am due to join a panel discussion at the Repertory Theatre after the performance of The Absence of War, David Hare’s “Neil Kinnock play”. A lot has changed since 1992, (eg, Labour’s unelectability), but I am moved by its familiar dilemma: principles or pragmatism? All the audience wants to discuss is the non-absence of war in Iraq: they are against it. “Eighty per cent of the country is against war and our MPs are supposed to represent our views,” says one young woman. The consumerist’s view of politics.
After a a cholesterol-enhanced breakfast (why are British hotels so over-priced?) Pat and I inspect Birmingham’s revamped city centre which looks terrific until I drop and break my mobile phone. At the city art gallery there is a Sikh exhibition next to the Pre-Raphaelite collection. In the pubs the TV sets are all switched to sports channels, not the war. More bright sunshine on the road home. England looks peaceful and beautiful.
My fellow baldie, Trevor Kavanagh, for whom I am sometimes mistaken (“Aren’t you that bloke from The Sun”) by taxi drivers, predicted the war would be over by the weekend. But it persists. A familiar media debate begins: are the papers so slow as to be “irrelevant”? Not at all, as 24/7 TV is like war itself. Its footage occasionally brilliant, mostly dull, repetitive and voyeuristic. Sky is sharper, but more prone to run flyers than BBC News 24. But you can only start to make sense of the big picture by reading the papers. Lots of them. “We Bomb, They Suffer” shouts The Sindy’s splash headline. But, astonishingly, Baghdad is claiming only three dead after 500 missiles and bombs. ITN’s Terry Lloyd is also missing.
I cancel lunch with a Tory former minister because both Blair and Clare Short are making Commons statements on the war. Too late, I remember that on Mondays they are still made at 3.30am, not at 12.30am as they now are most days under Cook-ite reforms. Blair tells MPs the campaign is designed to minimise civilian casualties. How long will that last, we wonder? After work I dash to posh publisher John Murray (est 1768) for Bernard Ingham’s launch of his new book, The Wages of Spin. Lady T has turned out for her loyal spinner who looks after her like a son. When she has left, an eagle-eyed diarist asks if anyone else had been drinking Scotch, since the Bell’s bottle is two-thirds empty. Alas, yes: so no story (probably). Just before midnight, I am woken by the night desk. Blair is off to Camp David, says Reuters from the US. No 10 won’t help, so I write 600 prescient words for the third edition.
My Guardian colleague Hugo Young has written his first column since his pre-Christmas illness. Being a passionate pro-European he tilts strongly against Bush/Blair on the war. I tilt gently the other way. Blair believes you have to keep repeating the message, so he holds his monthly press conference. In 65 minutes there is little new. He still sounds fluently confident, except on the issue of repairing US-EU damage. Since the premier again talks a lot about restoring Iraqi democracy, I ask if he and George Bush would countenance Iraq’s Shi-ite majority voting in a pro-Iranian Islamic regime. “I do not believe that will happen,” the PM replies. Political editors do not find much interest in his performance at any of our offices. My piece is boiled down to 300 words, at least in the Chiswick edition.
Amid all the rumours of war, everyone quickly learns to trust the more sceptical correspondents and the commentators whose views reflect their own. As generalisations go, the tabloid media – TV and print – tends to jingoism; their broadsheet cousins to (equally daft) pessimism. My sketchwriting chum, Simon Hoggart, wonders how Sky would have covered the Battle of the Somme with its 20,000 British dead (40,000 injured) on the first day: “Our brave boys have advanced three feet” Invited to a black tie dinner in the City, I hear the Lord Mayor equivocate on the wisdom of the war. But his Arab friends now want it over quick and an end to the “monster” Saddam.
Or “Mr Hussein” as the FT calls him.
I like that.