Shawcross and frivolous conceits

by Chris Bertram on December 15, 2005

I wasn’t going to post about “last night’s BBC Newsnight”: (still watchable for a few hours) which staged a mock trial of allied conduct in the “war on terror”. Clive Stafford Smith, the advocate for the prosecution, was simply in a different class from his opponent John Cooper. Via “Oliver Kamm’s site”: I learn that William Shawcross was invited to take part in the programme and declined, apparently because the “trial” format would constitute a trivialization of serious issues. As Shawcross puts it:

bq. A ‘courtroom’ pastiche is a fashionable but frivolous conceit …. The allegations about “rendition” need a thorough investigation and merit the closest attention of Newsnight, but a ‘trial’ will do nothing in that regard.

But commenter Max Smith at DSPFW “reminds us”: that Shawcross had no such qualms two years ago when “he appeared”: as an advocate in a similar televised “trial” on the war (on Channel 4). I’m sure that losing by 2 to 1 in that debate had no impact on his general view of the merits of such devices.

Update: Kamm has emailed me to say that “frivolous conceit” is a phrase of his making rather than Shawcross’s. Others seem to have also read the passage in Kamm’s post as a direct quotation rather than as Kamm summary of Shawcross’s communication with him. The basic point stands, presuming that Kamm’s summary accurately reflects Shawcross’s thinking.



Brendan 12.15.05 at 12:03 pm

Holding my nose I went onto the Kamm website. It’s just as well I was holding my nose because every time I see that smug spoon faced jerk I have the urge to hit the screen very hard (Kamm has what Douglas Adams once called, in another context, a ‘highly punchable face’).

Anyway. One thing that strikes me about the pro-occupation ‘left’ (I feel it’s safe to call them pro-occupation now, as Iraq is now a fully fledged democracy, at least in their opinion, and an autonomous military force acting without democratic control (i.e. by the host country) within the borders of that country can not be seen realistically as anything other than an army of occupation (or a terrorist band))….anyway as I was saying, one of the things that strikes me about these ‘people’ is their mindless use of the cliche ‘the Iraqi people’: usually prefaced by an equally banal adjective: the brave Iraqi people, the noble Iraqi people, the courageous Iraqi people and so forth. Now, why of course do they have to resort to this pompous phraseology? Because, of course, if they actually used specific names, and specific groupings, they would have to reveal the basic fact that very very few Iraqis agree with their own views.

For example take David Aaronovitch’s latest missive, and make it a bit more specific to see how it reads:

‘I recognise the bravery and the determination to succeed despite everything of the Kurdish Revolutionary Hizbullah…’ or Nick Cohen: ‘What we have witnessed is a sinister attempt by liberal opinion to deny the legitimacy of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Iraqi Islamic Forces Union …’

If you actually make it specific and talk about forces and parties that ordinary working class Iraqis actually vote for and support, rather than tiny and insignificant grouping much beloved by pompous rich white male newspaper columnists, then the cries on behalf of secularism and feminism don’t have quite the same ring to them do they?

(to be fair the one person to whom this does not apply is Christopher Hitchens who openly comes out and states that he supports pro-Iranian gansters like Chalabi, but if you still support Hitchens there’s no hope for you).

Shawcross’s ramblings deserve to be read, incidentally. He essentially says that he refuses to take part in any trial in which it was not known in advance that Bush and Blair would be found innocent. Justice would be so much easier if the likes of Shawcross were involved.


Dan Hardie 12.15.05 at 12:50 pm

Shorter Brendan: I do not understand this phrase ‘monomaniacally prolix bore’- is it a compliment?


tim 12.15.05 at 12:53 pm

Shawcross had no such qualms two years ago when he appeared as an advocate in a similar televised “trial”

I’m not sure what is supposed to be so wrong about this. Are we exposing a hypocrisy? Are we sure? Could it be that his involvement in one past “trial” was precisely what informed his refusal to participate in the future?


roger 12.15.05 at 4:16 pm

Chris, this is the second post in the last couple of days in which you begin by saying you don’t want to do what you go ahead and do. (the other being your post about Geras). In both cases, I agree with what you go ahead and do, and in my opinion, you should not feel shame about what you decide to do. You should do it and simply enjoy it. Writing under the sign of denial is never a happy thing.


Chris Bertram 12.15.05 at 4:20 pm

Thanks Roger, you are probably onto something there.


Eric 12.15.05 at 5:06 pm

Of course, the real issue about the Iraq war, and our defense against Islamist terror, was always going to be how Clive Stafford Smith would perform on a Newsnight special. My mind is totally changed on the issue of the toppling of Saddam now and the liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban.

This post underlines Shawcross’s point, but still enjoy your snort.


Chris Bertram 12.15.05 at 5:20 pm

My mind is totally changed on the issue of the toppling of Saddam now and the liberation of Afghanistan from the Taliban.

Odd that Eric, because neither of those issues was the focus of the Newsnight debate.


Brendan 12.15.05 at 5:21 pm

See when David Aaronovitch keeps on going ‘snort’…is he actually snorting cocaine?

Jesus I know that rich, fat journalists like him get access to all the good shit, but there’s no need to boast about it.

(his otherwise incoherent and tedious article is greatly improved if you imagine him doing a line every time he goes ‘snort’).


abb1 12.15.05 at 5:31 pm

I say: what’s wrong with poor saps/useful idiots imagining that they’re liberating people (well, at least compare to unthinkable horror those people would’ve experienced otherwise, minus unthinkable horror they’re experiencing now)? Let them. It doesn’t change anything; they’ve already become a laughing stock; they’re irrelevant, and they do have some real comic value.


Tom Doyle 12.15.05 at 6:45 pm

Re: Allies on Trial

C’est magnifique, mais ne c’est pas le droit.


Andrew Bartlett 12.15.05 at 7:00 pm

I am guessing that quite a few people in American dentention would fancy the frivolous conceit of a trial.

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