Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller made some pretty rich claims about Britain's knowledge of US torture, but there was one part of the former MI5 chief's lecture this week that will have met with knowing nods. "One of the sad things," she said, in a mournful disquisition on the sort of people she had to deal with in Washington, "is that Cheney, Rumsfeld and Bush all watched 24."
This makes sense to anyone who remembers that wide-eyed British staffers in the Blair years were addicted to The West Wing. Cheney has long been a confessed fan of Jack Bauer's adventures in tortureland, along with a vast audience of adrenaline-junkie serial thriller fans in the US and here. You can easily believe that back in the waning days of the last administration he might have roped his neo-con colleagues in for an evening of explosive entertainment. George would provide the pretzels and some non-alcoholic beer, and the trio would settle in on one of those enormous Oval Office sofas, probably under a duvet bearing the presidential seal, ready to thrill at Jack's masterful way with a pair of pliers and some stripped electrical wire.
The next imaginative jump is a bigger one. Manningham-Buller, we are told, hinted that their enthusiasm for the TV series had more than a little to do with the gung-ho attitude of American agents in comparison to their British counterparts; that, we may infer, the United States' homeland security policy was broadly inspired by the derring-do exploits of a psychologically wonky mass killer who cannot possibly be getting enough sleep.
It's likely that this is the wrong way round. The whole point about the neocons, after all, is that they've been itching to get their hands on a bucket of water and a fishy-looking foreigner since about 1987. 24 has simply caught up.
The problem, in the end, is not what the people in charge watch: it's what everyone else does. Think of The Wire, a brilliant and blazingly intelligent political argument about long-term answers for America's urban wasteland that hardly anyone has ever actually seen. Jack Bauer's adventures, on the other hand, are inescapable. This is not a matter of ideology, but of popular narrative: a ticking time-bomb is obviously riveting, and so is extracting information by means of pulling off someone's fingernails. Multilateral engagement with the Middle East just isn't.
However depressing that might be, Manningham-Buller should bear it in mind because it means that taking on the Bush clan by means of a proxy war on their television choices will never get you anywhere. Imagine, after all, if a double-barrelled British Baroness in pearls walked into the Counter Terrorist Unit at three minutes to midnight and started squawking at Bauer about better information-sharing. Out the back, some grim-faced Islamist is one sharp shock away from revealing the location of the dirty bomb; meanwhile, here's Lady Eliza, chuntering on about due process, and the significance of human rights, and why haven't you consulted your closest allies?
In real life, she's right. Of course she is, and I'm firmly on her side. Transpose the situation to the telly, though, and I'm under the duvet with Cheney et al, throwing pretzels at the screen, and imploring our hero Jack to get his electrodes out before it's too late.Reuse content