Richard Ingrams' Week: Beware those Washington opinion-forming classes

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The Independent Online

If British foreign secretaries are not what they once were, the reason is that nowadays they have to be acceptable in Washington. Robin Cook was probably the sharpest mind in Blair's Cabinet but George Bush didn't like his anti-war attitudes. He was relieved of his post – luckily for Blair, as heaven knows what would have happened if Cook had still been foreign secretary in March 2003, the time of the Iraq invasion.

Cook was replaced by Jack Straw, who had his doubts about the invasion but still managed to keep them to himself. However, when he later said very publicly that any attack on Iran would be unacceptable, the Americans made it clear to Blair that he ought to be redeployed. Margaret Beckett, who took over, never gave them any trouble.

David Miliband will likewise prove to be acceptable. But the same doesn't go for junior foreign office minister Lord Malloch Brown, whose appointment, according to a recent article in The Spectator, "caused consternation in Washington and continues to cast doubt on Gordon Brown's judgement". The co-author of this widely quoted article – a wide-ranging attack on Malloch Brown – was one Claudia Rosett, described by the magazine as journalist-in-residence at the "US-based Foundation For Defence of Democracies" (FDD).

The FDD, you may read on its website, grew out of EMET, which was created by a group of billionaire philanthropists to "offer Israel the kind of PR that the Israeli government seemed unable to provide itself". The name is now different, they say, "but the goal of influencing America's opinion-forming classes remains". And not just Americans, it seems, but opinion-formers in this country as well, like the many readers of The Spectator.

The critics of Malloch Brown are a determined lot and are unlikely to let the matter drop. But it helps if we all know where they are coming from.

Experts can err and get away with it

One very good reason for not giving the police greater powers to detain people for longer periods is that they have a regrettable tendency to detain the wrong people. Not to mention an even more regrettable tendency to shoot them dead.

It is rare now for a day to pass without revelations of some new terrible miscarriage of justice which has ended in wrongful imprisonment or even death. And now it looks as if the Jill Dando case is going to be added to the long list of police cock-ups.

The facts emerging from this week's appeal hearing are scarcely credible. Barry George – a man, according to his friends, scarcely capable of tying up his shoelaces – was convicted of the murder mainly thanks to so-called expert witnesses who stated that a minute particle of gunpowder, invisible to the naked eye, had been found on one of his jackets eight months after the murder. The gunpowder was said to be identical to that used by the murderer.

However, six years later, these same expert witnesses are now saying that the tiny particle is "neutral" – in other words it might have come from anywhere. As a piece of evidence it was quite worthless. How was it possible that the expert view could have changed so radically? But no clear answer was forthcoming. Nor is it likely that we will ever have the explanation of this extraordinary U-turn by the experts. An innocent man may well have spent six years in prison but those who helped to put him there will never be called to account.

* Earlier this week I was privileged to witness the unveiling of a statue of Sir John Betjeman at the newly refurbished St Pancras Station in London. Long ago Betjeman described "tweed-clad lairds" going north from St Pancras with gun cases and fishing rods, but when it came to architecture he was always much more interested in the huge Gothic hotel adjacent to the station with its ironwork staircase and Arthurian-style wallpapers.

Whether he would approve the new-look station where the tweed-clad lairds have been replaced by dark-suited executives queuing with their laptops to board the Eurostar I very much doubt.

The new station has had an ecstatic press from all the architectural pundits, but I found the atmosphere in its vast interior bleak and soulless. The station is said to have the longest champagne bar in the country. But railway travellers do not necessarily crave champagne. They are more likely to want somewhere to sit down, and there wasn't much sign of any seats that I could see.

Impossible to ignore is the gigantic statue in the station's forecourt. Described as the Meeting Point – the work of Paul Day – it shows an elongated young couple locked in an embrace and it looks completely out of place against the backdrop of Victorian Gothic windows.

I shudder to think what Betjeman – whose own statue is, by contrast, stylish and appealing – would have had to say about such a monstrosity.