The Breakfast Table

Remember the Caring

Good morning, Sarah.

The Pinochet fiasco is rapidly unraveling, and everyone involved looks terrible. Yesterday, the Archbishop of Canterbury egregiously inserted himself into the controversy with an oleaginous appeal for “compassion.” He hoped that everyone would “remember the caring,” and that they would listen to Lady Thatcher, “as, of course, we all do.” This morning, the papers are reporting that Jack Straw, the home secretary, is considering releasing Pinochet on “compassionate grounds.” (There are a number of reasons why one might consider releasing Pinochet, but “compassion” does not seem to me to be one of them.)

In the meantime, the Tories in Parliament have managed to look completely leaderless and feckless. Thatcher’s bombshell caught them all napping, hoping if they just kept quiet the government would embarrass itself (as of course it has). But now they are scrambling to find a position. Nothing they say at this point could sound like anything but late-in-the-game posturing.

Complicating it all is the impending visit of the president of Argentina, who is coming to London to “repair relations.” He, too, cannot have been pleased by Thatcher’s comments–her charge that it was outrageous to detain Pinochet (“Britain’s ally” in the Great War–Falklands, that is) while feting Menem (a representative of the Great Satan–Argentina). Menem himself is obviously squirming. The tabloids today are blaring out news of his “apology” to Britain for the war.

All of which leaves the Blair government looking completely rudderless. No one really knows who is responsible for the arrest of Pinochet in the first place, although it seems unlikely that it could have happened without the approval of the Cabinet. But now, the government wants everyone to believe it is purely a judicial matter in which they have no role. (The judiciary here, of course, is not independent in the way it is in the U.S., so the argument is a weak one.) And since Spain seems now to be hedging on actually extraditing Pinochet, Blair may now be faced with an unappetizing choice between letting him go (thus infuriating the Labour left, which already hates him) and trying him here (thus dragging this sordid drama out for many more months in the face of mounting diplomatic protests). He issued another apparent rebuke to Peter Mandelson yesterday by instructing all his ministers to shut up on the subject. Well, it took the Clinton administration a while to get its foreign-policy act together too–although I don’t recall any imbroglio quite this embarrassing.

Speaking of Peter Mandelson, after advising the workers in the downsizing Rover Plant the other day that they should work harder (New Labour tough love?), he is now apparently feeling pressure to remember that he is, after all, a minister in a Labour government. Now he might intervene in some way to try to save the jobs. A bad week for him too.

Another widely reported story this morning continues the week-long abuse of the BBC. Radio 4, the BBC’s flagship station and perhaps the one closest to our NPR, has lost a large part of its remarkably large listenership in the last year because of programming changes. Several hundred thousand of its over eight million listeners (which as a percentage of the population is an astonishing number) have deserted the station in the face of trimmed news coverage and a lot of new quiz shows and other fluff. The new station manager, who pledged a year ago that he would leave if listenership declined, issued a disingenuous statement insisting that there was nothing to worry about–the listenership had just “redistributed” itself to other BBC stations.

It’s one of those days when people seem to be running up against the “you can’t please everyone” problem.