The Power of Bad Television

by Clive Davis

The BBC's bizarre new documentary on terrorism and neoconservatism.

Even before the first episode went on air, the BBC’s new documentary series, The Power of Nightmares was being showered with superlatives. “Brilliant,” “fascinating,” chirped the chorus of bien-pensant admirers. The Guardian, inevitably, was at the forefront: “This intelligent, scintillating series is a must for anyone who has the remotest interest in what is going on the world.” Even the conservative Daily Telegraph joined in on Monday, heading its op-ed page with a column by the paper’s political correspondent Rachel Sylvester, printed under the headline: “Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid . . . It’s What Blair and [Home Secretary] Blunkett Want.”

Thanks to Jim Geraghty’s outraged response on the Kerry Spot, NRO readers will already have some idea of the arguments put forward in the series, written and produced by the award-winning film-maker Adam Curtis. The Power of Nightmares would have us believe that the international terrorist threat is a myth concocted by governments and orchestrated by a cabal of devious neoconservatives. Since the public has lost faith in ideology, politicians must now use fear in order to maintain their hold over the masses. Al Qaeda is a figment of our imagination; there are no sleeper cells, and talk of lethal dirty bombs is all so much radioactive hot air.

If that seems bizarre enough, the series also sets out to claim that the Islamists and the neocons are, in reality, soul mates. As Curtis explained in a magazine interview this week: “My original intention was to look at the neo-cons and then the radical Islamists. I was astonished to discover that they have the same philosophical roots. They both believe that the problem with modern society is that individuals question anything; by doing that they [those individuals] have already torn down God, that eventually they will tear down everything else and therefore they will have to be opposed.”

This symbiotic relationship with Islamism will no doubt come as a surprise to the good folks at the American Enterprise Institute. It is a sign of how fevered political debate has become in Britain’s media-land that such lurid, Michael Moore-ish notions are given a prime-time slot on the channel that once gave us Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation. BBC executives were nervous enough about the contents of Curtis’s films to ban the showing of trailers in the immediate aftermath of the murder of the British hostage, Kenneth Bigley. But normal service was quickly resumed, blanketing the TV and radio airwaves with teasing clips juxtaposing fundamentalists and Cold Warriors.

After seeing a preview tape of the first installment of the three-part series, I can only say that Jim Geraghty’s account–which was based on a Guardian report–was actually understated. The opening episode amounts to a ludicrously one-sided account of the rise of the neocons which manages to impute all manner of sinister motives to a tight-knit circle devoted to the teachings of Leo Strauss. In Curtis’s world, it is Strauss, not Osama bin Laden, who is the real evil genius.

Slick editing and arty use of archive footage cannot hide the flimsiness of the concept. I am no expert on Strauss, but I know enough about him to be aware that much of his thinking was influenced by his first-hand observations of life in Weimar Germany. Curtis’s narrative cleverly fails to mention this point, portraying Strauss and his followers as responding to the wickedness of American suburbia. The program is not short of American talking heads–Harvey Mansfield, Paul Weyrich, and Bill and Irving Kristol are among those taking part–but the editing of the interviews is manipulated to support Curtis’s conspiracy theories. One of the most egregious examples is Curtis’ portrayal of the Reagan-era arms build-up as the fruit of a devious “Team B” plot (supervised by Paul Wolfowitz and the eminent historian Richard Pipes) aimed at misleading the American public about the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union. While Pipes is allowed to present his arguments in the sketchiest of terms (he was, in effect, questioning the efficacy of the CIA long before it was fashionable), Curtis proceeds to rubbish him with the help of disarmament expert Anne Cahn, who concludes that the Harvard professor’s claims were “fantasy.” Pipes, perhaps the world’s leading expert on Kremlin ideology, is left looking an amiable dunce. British viewers, unaware of his distinguished career, will be none the wiser. Pipes tells NRO in response to it all: “The allegations made by Ms. Cahn and others about Team B are so preposterous that I would be at a loss to answer them: they are similar to those made by the Holocaust deniers. They sort of leave you speechless.”

Even odder is the treatment of Michael Ledeen. Curtis portrays the AEI maverick as the dupe of CIA “black” propaganda disseminated during the 1970s with the aim of portraying the Soviet Union as the coordinator of international terrorism. The program goes on to accuse Ledeen of using the dubious material in a bestselling book which subsequently convinced CIA director William Casey to over-rule his more cautious analysts and instigate a tougher line against Moscow.

There is one problem with Curtis’s theory about Ledeen’s book, The Terror Network: The Secret War of International Terror. It was written not by Ledeen, but by his friend, the investigative journalist Claire Sterling, whose death in 1995 was acknowledged on the floor of the Senate by one of her admirers, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Ledeen was traveling in Spain this week. When I contacted him with a partial transcript of the program, he was understandably bemused: “Almost everything Claire said was borne out by the Stasi files,” he told me. “The situation at the CIA in the ’70s was very similar to what’s happened over Iraq. The CIA was busy saying that the Soviets weren’t involved in international terrorism. This at a time when the PLO actually had training camps in the Soviet Union.”

Of course, nothing in the murky world of intelligence is ever straightforward. Nevertheless, British producers, hooked on Chomskyite visions of “Amerika” as the fount of all evil, are clearly not interested in even beginning to dig for the truth.

Clive Davis writes for the Times of London and the Washington Times.