BOB GARFIELD: We reported a few weeks back that the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair was in a high noon style showdown with the BBC. At issue, the BBC's claim that Blair's people deliberately used bad intelligence to push their Iraq war agenda. The government pressured the BBC to reveal its source. The network refused. But eventually, someone within the Blair camp revealed the name - a government scientist named David Kelly. To cut a long story short, more arguments ensued over the alleged substance of what the scientist said, and under immense pressure from both sides, the beleaguered Kelly took himself out of the picture for good. He was found dead near his home just over a week ago. Now Blair's government is facing ever more probing questions, as is the BBC. None of this turmoil is lost on commentators in the Arab press. Peter Valenti is a contributing editor for World Press Review, and he says that despite a British coroner's verdict of suicide, the inquest is ongoing in the Arab media.
PETER VALENTI: Most Arab writers haven't decided whether Dr. Kelly was killed or he really did commit suicide. For example, the major Saudi paper, Sharq Al Awsat, which is published out of London, put the word suicide in quotes. Another Saudi paper, Al Watan, uses the word "murdered." Probably the harshest conspiracy theory that is promoted came out of a Jordan paper, Al Ra'i. The author of that op-ed says Kelly was killed. And the reason he was killed was it was a message to all the others who are still working in the weapons of mass destruction field. In other words -- don't open up their mouths. However the author also hopes that this is a wake up call for Britons, because they should realize at this point that their intelligence services are, quote, "playing these games behind their backs." The conclusion was that Kelly was a sacrificial lamb and that Blair himself may also be at the end of his own rope, meaning the end of his political career.
BOB GARFIELD:George Bush had been portrayed as the "bad guy" and the tool of the corporate and particularly oil interests, and Tony Blair as George Bush's "lap dog." Blair has not exactly been loved in the region, but certainly wasn't as reviled as President Bush. Is Blair being more demonized in the Arab press than-- hitherto?
PETER VALENTI: Absolutely. Great, great scorn is being heaped on Blair. We have an op-ed that came out of Lebanon in the Lebanese paper As-Safir. The title of it was "Lies." It emphasizes that Blair has been a pupil of Bush, but Blair really seems to now be a caricature of the personalities that Arabs see among their own leaders in the region -- meaning in the way of his lies and his methods. Another op-ed that came out of Lebanon's As-Safir said that what we're seeing in, in Britain -- which is an echo of the United States -- is a transformation into a complete insane country. The hysteria after 9/11 has led to demagoguery that Blair has really passed the limits, and I think that some writers think that he is a step beyond what Bush has done.
BOB GARFIELD:Arab editorialists, and correct me if I'm wrong here -- you're certainly immersed in this world -- seem to me to be-- frequently bombastic to say the least. How would you rate the editorials and the stories that you're seeing now for intellectual honesty.
PETER VALENTI: That's a good question, actually. Some writers who have more reflective pieces actually see a good moral to this story. For example an op-ed in the United Arab Emirates' Al Bayan paper says "The Kelly incident fundamentally confirms that a free press is crucial, especially one that protects its sources." The author of this op-ed, Said Zaharan, says "Our respect for BBC should alert us to the fact that we need actions like this as role models for our own press and that he Arab press needs to emulate more what the BBC has done in terms of protecting its sources and facing off against the government."
BOB GARFIELD:Midweek the deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons Qusay and Uday, seemed to create a diversion, at least, for the Bush and Blair administrations. The New York Times had a headline that said that those deaths allowed, quote, "A Change of Subject." Do you think the subject will change in the Arab press?
PETER VALENTI: Overall, no. I think that the deaths of the two sons of Saddam Hussein are, are just a sidebar. Everyone in the Arab world knew that they were either going to be killed or captured eventually. It came as no surprise, and the focus or the attention in the Arab world is the legitimacy of the war, tying this into the controversy and debate that's happening in Washington, and that's happening in London. So I don't think they'll be distracted. Even releasing the photographs of the, the dead sons I think will only be a momentary distraction.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Peter, as always, many thanks.
PETER VALENTI: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Peter Valenti is contributing editor for the World Press Review and he teaches Near Eastern Civilization at New York University. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Next up, close encounters with federal agents and what the government and media aren't telling you about dirty bombs.