Tuesday 10 September 2013

Without hesitation, repetition, deviation, or repetition...

Psittacus naughtiecus

The second half hour of this morning's Today programme began with James Naughtie talking (from Washington) to Justin Webb about yesterday's remarkable events over Syria, when Presidents Obama and Assad both giving interviews to the U.S. media, John Kerry made a throwaway remark about Syria giving up its chemical weapons and Russia pounced on that remark to throw an almighty spanner into the U.S. administrations calculations by saying that Syria might indeed give up its chemical weapons, so there's no need whatsoever for strikes. 

From everything I've been reading in the last 24 hours, this has been reported as not reflecting well on either John Kerry or President Obama. Their diplomacy has been slated and Mr Kerry's remark has been widely seen as a massive 'gaffe'. 

So I was expecting James Naughtie to reflect something of that. I certainly wasn't expecting what he actually said:
"I was talking to Ambassador Nick Burns, who you know, very experienced American diplomat, a few minutes ago, and I said 'What about what Kerry said?' and he said, 'Well, I wouldn't call it a gaffe.' You know, what happened? Within three or four hours, the Russians said, 'Listen, we've got a plan'. Now if you look at it in that context, and given that this might suit Obama to have a longer diplomatic game to play, while he keeps the military pressure up...I'm not talking a game that goes on for months, but for weeks...then you can see it...maybe he didn't use the right words...but what it certainly hasn't done is to knock the thing off track. It seems to have opened up a new avenue, and from the point of view of a president who's having trouble on Capitol Hill that's no a bad thing."
Well, that's a paraphrase of what Ambassador Burns said, presumably. 

A master tactician. Apparently.

What followed shows James Naughtie continuing to pretty much regurgitate Ambassador Burns's views wholesale:
"What's going to be absolutely fascinating is that the president is going to speak to the American people from the Oval Office tonight, on Tuesday evening, and that is the moment when he'll try to synthesize these two things - the military presence, which he's undoubtedly trying to crank up on the other hand, but on the other his desire for something that does not involve American military action. The Russians will help in that and, as Nick Burns put it to me, President Putin has got every interest in being a deal-maker in this. That's him. If he can turn the hawkish America into a country that does a deal, well that's good for him, and it's very good for Obama, so who knows? The thing has taken a peculiar, an interesting, and, who knows, a hopeful turn."
Ambassador Burns's take is certainly an interesting one, that's for sure; but it's an unusual one, and a very helpful one for Mr Kerry and Mr Obama. They couldn't have hoped for a more charitable reading of events than that.

Why did James Naughtie simply repeat what Ambassador Nick Burns had to say? Why didn't he add any caveats to it? Why didn't he point out any alternative, less favourable takes on the Obama administration's behaviour? Yes, a pause might prove be a useful thing for the administration at the moment, a chance to catch its breath and get a grip, but that's only as the result of a lucky accident (getting played by the Russians), surely?

Moreover, what sort of reporting is this? Is it the biased reporting of someone who has a warm regard for the Obama administration? Or is it the kind of reporting someone does when they've only just arrived in a country and haven't got a single fresh insight of their own to offer? Or both?

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