John Rentoul: For a balanced verdict on Blair, look beyond Chilcot

Chilcott is being intimidated into coming up with the 'right' answers

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Things are are not going well for Tony Blair. His place in the history books is being revised, and not in his favour. If the reaction to his interview on a BBC religious affairs programme last weekend is anything to go by, he faces an impossible situation when he gives evidence to the Chilcot inquiry, possibly in February.

He will undoubtedly say what he has said many times before, but it will be reported either as a "confession" of premeditated wickedness, or as a delusional denial of the hidden truth that explains it all. The media climate is such that the coverage of the Chilcot process is more selective and distorted than anything ever alleged of Blair's presentation of the intelligence.

This week's prize exhibit was an article in The Times of quite undignified ferocity by Sir Ken Macdonald, who was Director of Public Prosecutions until last year. As such, it was his job to act as the guardian of legal due process, yet he judged Blair guilty of "alarming subterfuge" and concluded threateningly: "If Chilcot fails to reveal the truth without fear in this Middle Eastern story of violence and destruction, the inquiry will be held in deserved and withering contempt." Of course, as DPP, Sir Ken had nothing to do with the legal case for military action, although – and this may be relevant – Peter Goldsmith, the Attorney General, was his senior among the Law Officers, and they were said to get on "incredibly badly". Sir Ken is also a member of Cherie Blair's legal chambers, along with Professor Philippe Sands, another notable critic of her husband's foreign policy. Those chambers meetings must be fun.

All of which makes dispassionate contemporary history difficult. The Chilcot inquiry is like the seminar room at Queen Mary, University of London, where I help to teach history undergraduates taking the Blair Government course in their final year. Our class and the Chilcot panel are both engaged in the attempt to make sense of aspects of the Blair years. Several of our witnesses – although we call them guest speakers – are the same. Yet a historical reputation is not constructed in a seminar room, or in an official inquiry chaired by a former civil servant, however distinguished. Nor will it be influenced, much, by the former Prime Minister's memoirs, on which I am told he is working steadily, in longhand, with a fountain pen on legal pads.

No, it is formed much more by the prevailing assumptions of those that work in the media and in the creative arts. Thus the reporting of what Blair says to Fern Britton, or to the Chilcot inquiry next year, is more influential than his actual words. Last weekend, therefore, people did not hear Blair say of Saddam Hussein, "I would still have thought it right to remove him," which is what he said. They heard him say he "would have invaded Iraq" even if he had known that there were no weapons of mass destruction, which was how it was reported. Him and whose army? The British media seems to collude with Blair in one – and only one – respect, that is, in refusing to accept his subsidiary role in what was essentially an American enterprise.

Thus, too, it may be that Pierce Brosnan, playing Blair in Roman Polanski's film of Robert Harris's novel The Ghost, to be premiered in Berlin in February, will seem more real than any attempt to make historical sense of the choices facing a British prime minister faced with an unpredictable tyrant in persistent breach of United Nations resolutions. Why try to understand a choice between unpalatable options when we can retreat into a simple fiction in which all is explained by the fact that Cherie is in the pay of the CIA?

Thus it was last time, when the Hutton inquiry concluded that the case for war had not been "sexed up"; all that did was increase the conviction of the conventionally wise that the opposite was the case. Now, as then, the proceedings were reported through a selective prism that let through only the anti-government case, so that the report, when it came, seemed perverse. The difference in Chilcot's case is that both the inquiry panel and the media know what happened last time. Hence the attempts to intimidate Chilcot and his colleagues into coming up with the "right" answer.

Yet it hardly matters: the headlines are already written. Depending on what Sir John and his colleagues conclude, it is "whitewash" or "Gotcha". It will be a while before a more balanced verdict is reached.

John Rentoul is chief political commentator for 'The Independent on Sunday'

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