By Ewen MacAskill in The Guardian
One of the most embarrassing episodes for the Foreign Office in recent years is about to become even more embarrassing. British film-makers are planning to make a movie for release next year about the exploits of the renegade British ambassador, Craig Murray, with Steve Coogan in the running to play him.
The producer, Michael Winterbottom, who directed The Road to Guant’namo and A Cock and Bull Story, which starred Coogan, has bought the film rights to Mr Murray’s Murder in Samarkand, an account of his two years as ambassador to Uzbekistan. The book, which is due out in June, is described by its publisher, Mainstream, as “an incredible true story of espionage, torture, high politics, sex and murder”.
But the Foreign Office, which sacked Mr Murray in 2004, warned yesterday that it could take legal action if publication goes ahead. It described the book as misleading and incorrect, and the criticism of colleagues as “unfair and unwarranted”.
Mr Murray, who is on holiday in Ghana, said yesterday that he intended to go ahead with the book, adding: “Let’s see if they try to ban the film.” He was pleased at the prospect of being played by Coogan, who is best known for his creation Alan Partridge. Mr Murray met Coogan for a chat in London last month at the office of Mr Winterbottom’s Revolution film company. He said Coogan had liked the book. “He is keen to do it. He seems to have a genuine empathy with the part.” He did not know who might play the foreign secretary, Jack Straw.
While Mr Murray, 47, was ambassador, he made many public statements condemning the regime of the Uzbekistan president, Islam Karimov, for its atrocious human rights record. At the time, the US government was seeking Mr Karimov’s help, especially in using Uzbekistan as a base for US operations in Afghanistan after September 11.
Eva Yates, a spokeswoman for Revolution, said: “We have the rights and we are intending to make it. Because of the nature of the book, we are trying to be quite discreet in terms of research over there [in Uzbekistan].” She said the film was at an early stage and it had not been confirmed who was to play Mr Murray, though Coogan has a long-standing relationship with the company.
“I do not come across as a hero,” said Mr Murray. “I am an ordinary, fallible guy who could not go along with what the government was doing. He [Coogan] likes the fact that the humour is self-deprecating.”
He added: ” There is a lot of satirical humour as well as total horror, really awful moments. We had a certain gallows humour in the embassy.”
Since being removed from his post, he has been a continual irritation to Mr Straw, standing against him at the last general election to publicise his case. He has received several letters from the Foreign Office warning him against publication, which he has posted on his website. Last month he went to the Foreign Office to discuss contentious parts of his book but refused to back down.
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said yesterday: “There is still ongoing discussion with Craig Murray. We have made it clear it is not right to publish this book. The reason we gave to Craig Murray is because it is a betrayal of trust. Some of its contents are misleading and incorrect and we also believe that criticism of former colleagues is unfair and unwarranted.”
She added: “We will actively consider our legal options if he publishes his book.” After sacking him, the Foreign Office claimed the breakdown of its relationship with Mr Murray was not about his outspoken comments but came about because he was suffering from personal problems.
Downing Street bitterly regrets allowing the former Washington ambassador, Sir Christopher Meyer, to publish his memoirs last year. The Foreign Office later blocked a detailed account of diplomatic manoeuvring in the run-up to the Iraq war by former United Nations and Iraq ambassador, Sir Jeremy Greenstock.
Asked about the sex content of the book, Mr Murray said: “There is part of me that is a bit fallible. During my couple of years in Uzbekistan, I went through a marriage break-up and started a relationship with a younger woman. The government has been trying to discredit me.”
But he said this was only a small part of the book: “It is not a Jackie Collins bodice-ripper.”
Murray on the FCO: “Ponderous, self-important and ineffective.”
On the foreign secretary, Jack Straw: “It seems to me essential that Straw is punished for the illegal war, for the decision that the intelligence services should regularly use information obtained under torture, for the dossier of lies on Iraqi WMD.”
On the British government’s alleged use of unreliable information obtained by torture: “We are selling our souls for dross.”
On how a British diplomat should deal with repressive governments such as Uzbekistan’s: “There is no point in having cocktail-party relationships with a fascist regime.”
On the US need for bases in central Asia: “Above all, we need to care about the 22 million Uzbek people, suffering from poverty and lack of freedom. They are not just pawns in the new Great Game.”
On sex and drinking: “I have no intention of living like a monk – not that I have anything against monks.”