I refer, of course, to the recent encounter between President Bush’s derrière and Matt Frei, butt-kisser extraordinaire. Not for Frei are half-measures and almost-there’s, like standard BBC reporting which, while undoubtedly deferrential to power, typically affects at least a pretense of concern about ‘balance’ and ‘impartiality’. No: Frei is content with nothing less than total and utter servility to power, and by God no amount of ethical standards or (perish the thought!) residual journalistic integrity will stand in his way.
This is the man who, in April 2003, informed BBC viewers that:
“There’s no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now to the Middle East… is now increasingly tied up with military power”,
and who, following the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians by U.S. marines in Haditha, dared to ask:
“How and why have the liberators ended up killing the liberated?”
But in his most recent interview, with President Bush to be broadcast on ‘Newsnight’ tonight, Frei took obsequiousness to new and grotesque levels. In the spirit of St. Valentine’s day, Frei boldly began the first BBC interview with the U.S. President for seven years by flirtatiously informing him of his high approval ratings in African states. After a bit of fluff from Bush (”mine is a mission of mercy and a mission of the cold realism of the world in which we live”), he got down to the nitty-gritty:
“Frei: Your administration has given $15bn to treat Aids in Africa?
Mr Bush: Yeah.
Frei: Which is an unprecedented amount of money, and you want to double that amount yet again?
Mr Bush: Yeah.
Frei: This is a huge commitment. And, yet, the administration and you, personally, don’t seem to be getting a lot of credit for it.
Mr Bush: Yeah – you know, this is kind of tied to your first question about polls. Polls are nothing more than just, like, a puff of air. What matters is results. And, ultimately, people will be able to make, you know, an objective judgment of a president and his administration and, in this case, a country’s commitment. And so I care really about is the results of the programmes. I hope by now people have learned that I’m not one of these guys that – really gives a darn about elite opinion. What I really care about is, are we saving lives? And in this case, we are. As I mentioned in my speech that you kindly listened to – when I first went to Sub-Saharan Africa, 50,000 were receiving antiretrovirals. Today, 1.3 million. And that’s a lot in a very quick period of time. But, there’s so much more suffering. And that’s why I’ve called for a doubling of aid. The good news is, it’s not just America. As I mentioned in my speech, the G8 nations also are supporting this very important initiative. And, you know, it’s… like an effort of mercy.
Frei: But, it has made a huge difference, hasn’t it? So…
Mr Bush: Yeah.
Frei: Why not take some credit for it?
Mr Bush: Because it’s just not my nature, you know?”
You can feel Frei’s heart melt at this point: the man’s in love. Bush the Saviour of Africa safely established, Frei moved on to the next item on Bush’s agenda: Darfur. Why, he demanded, are you refusing to send troops to stop the “genocide”? This whole line of questioning implies that Bush’s failing, should one exist, is that he has been too reluctant to conduct military interventions abroad, a “criticism” which suits the establishment just fine. Feeling extra generous, Frei fearlessly proceeded to present Bush with an opportunity to criticise China:
“Yesterday, Steven Spielberg – the Hollywood director – pulled out of the Beijing Olympics over Darfur. He said the Chinese aren’t doing enough to stop the killing in Darfur. Do you applaud his move?”
How courageous! A lesser journalist might have taken the opportunity of an interview with the President of the United States of America to challenge American policies, but not Frei. He is not afraid to ask Bush exactly what Bush wants to be asked.
After allowing Bush to blather on (unchallenged, of course) for a bit about how “America’s soul is enriched” and her “spirit…enhanced when we help people who suffer”, Frei teased the President that “there’s only one country, really, that the wider world will associate with you”: Iraq. “Are you happy about that?” This absurd question is the journalistic equivalent of saying: ‘go on, just talk about what you want to talk about while I sit back and get lost in your eyes.’ But how’s this for stinging criticism?:
“But, do you regret, rather, I should say that you didn’t listen to your – some of your commanders earlier, to send more troops to Iraq to achieve the kind of results that we’re seeing now?”
That one must have had Bush trembling in his boots. You can hear Frei struggling to force even this mild attempt at “criticism” from his enraptured face. ‘Why, Mister President, did you wait so long to escalate the occupation of Iraq to current levels, when the peace and happiness that has resulted from the surge could have been achieved so much earlier?’ ‘I did follow advice from my commanders’, sez Bush, and on we move. In a frankly heroic display of single-minded determination, Frei studiously avoided mentioning any other possible criticisms of the invasion and occupation – the staggering death toll, the campaign flagrant lies on which the war was based, the fundamental illegality of the whole enterprise, and so on. Such topics are not fit for polite conversation.
The rest of the interview continued in this vein, with Frei questioning whether Bush’s confessed sanctioning of torture might “send the wrong signal to the world”, clearly grasping the fact that the big problem with torture is its potential to damage America’s PR.
And then it was over. Frei left with Bush’s number in his pocket, a second date sure to follow, and the BBC once again covered for a war criminal with the blood of over a million Iraqis on his hands. And counting.