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TV review: Once upon a Time in Iraq, The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty, and Mrs America

24 July 2020

BBC/Keo Films/Gus Palmer

A supporter of Saddam Hussein, Issam Al Rawi, who was interviewed in Once upon a Time in Iraq (BBC2, Mondays)

A supporter of Saddam Hussein, Issam Al Rawi, who was interviewed in Once upon a Time in Iraq (BBC2, Mondays)

WE DON’T exactly need sobering up at the moment, but watching Once upon a Time in Iraq, BBC2’s new documentary series (Mondays), will decisively remove any vestigial pride in our brilliant international achievements.

There is neither an omniscient narrator nor a succession of experts analysing the events from outside: here, the story of the Iraq War is told simply by those who were engaged or caught up in it: Iraqi citizens, United States soldiers, and journalists covering the conflict and its aftermath. This does not make it, of course, entirely objective, a pure account without distorting bias of opinion or attitude: these particular voices have been chosen, and the film edited.

Any filmmaker has a personal perspective, but these recollections of those who were there, struggling attempts to articulate what they themselves did, or what was done to them, and how that has utterly changed their lives, have a compelling ring of authenticity.

Many Iraqis welcomed the invasion, and longed for the defeat of Saddam Hussein and a new life of freedom and greater integration into the democratic culture of the West (which, as long as they made token deference to the regime, they already enjoyed, to a surprising extent). But this changed, almost overnight.

US policy (supported, of course, by the UK) insisted on the cleansing of everything associated with Saddam and his Ba’ath party — thereby, at a stroke, removing the entire infrastructure of the country, which, with frightening rapidity, descended into violent chaos.

A brilliant, well-intentioned US officer originally sought to work with local leaders, rebuilding in partnership, but the death of one of his soldiers transformed him into an implacable destroyer, blowing up homes, razing villages, and humiliating civilians in the desperate hunt for terrorists. Such actions made the population almost entirely anti-US, sowing the seeds for ever more violent opposition — and eventually for Islamic State.

The strongest case for UK-US coalition in the war was made, deliberately, by news media controlled by the subject of The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty (BBC2, Tuesday of last week). This is almost as sobering an analysis of our social and political situation as the Iraq series. Wealth and power wield practically unlimited influence over public life. Tony Blair gave unprecedented access to 10 Downing Street to the Murdoch press, in return for its support. Rupert Murdoch worked a long game to ensure that, eventually, the UK would leave the EU. Watch as the Leveson inquiry reveals illegal abuses by the Murdoch press; wait in vain as supine governments avoid enforcing Leveson’s conclusions.

Mrs America (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) is a brilliant drama series depicting the rise, in the 1970s, of US women conservatives fighting to scupper the Equal Rights Amendment. Popular white anti-feminism prepares the ground for the Moral Majority, anti-Obama-ism, and, eventually, Trump.

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