I was first alerted to the new BBC flagship drama The State Within by a friend who pointed out some of the BBC publicity to me. It concerned a character in the series, a former British Ambassador, who the BBC described thus:
‘James Sinclair. An outspoken critic of President Usman and the human rights abuse he encountered in Tyrgyzstan. As a result he was recalled and subsequently fired from the job of Ambassador. Seen as an embarassment to the UK government, who support Usman and have many commercial and strategic interests in the country. Now determined to turn Western public opinion against Usman. And to force both the UK and US administrations into withdrawing their support for him.’
Now if you substitute the very real Uzbekistan of President Karimov for the fictional Tyrgyzstan, you get a description of me precise in every detail. Uniquely so – there is nobody else that description remotely fits.
There are other coincidences ‘ the Prime Minister of Uzbekistan when I was Ambassador was named Usmanov. James Sinclair is an anglicised Scot like me. I live in Sinclair Gardens. Sinclair’s wife has the common Uzbek name of Saida. I have an Uzbek partner. Like me, his tipple is neat Scotch (not as common as you might think).
Both ‘Tyrgyzstan’ and Uzbekistan are in Central Asia; both have major US airbases threatened by a change of allegiance of the dictator. Both are described by the US and UK as ‘an ally in the War on Terror’ and ‘A backdoor to Afghanistan’. Both have perpetrated a large scale massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators.
Which was fine by me. I like the series, and James Sinclair is well played. I have received scores of emails from viewers, mostly complete strangers, commenting on the series, often asking me about its accuracy.
So I was pretty surprised to hear that the BBC were not just denying that the character was based on me, but denying it vehemently, as though it were an appalling accusation. A journalist had inquired, and received urgent rebuttals from both the Press Department and a producer.
Some of the things which the BBC asserted were simple nonsense. They claimed that many Ambassadors had resigned over human rights, not just Craig Murray. In fact, the only other example is David Gladstone about twenty five years ago ‘ and he wasn’t in a ‘stan’. The BBC even denied knowing that I had written my memoir, Murder in Samarkand. That is very strange, because the BBC had it in manuscript and I had formal meetings with BBC Drama over the film rights..
So what do I think of the series? On occasions the director is over-impressed by his own slickness. Rapid cutting between five second scenes accompanied by urgent percussion undermines some rather good writing, which builds up its own pace without such clich’. The atmosphere is nothing like that of any Embassy. FCO house style is much more ponderous. Nor do we sit in rooms whose walls are inexplicably all made of glass, surrounded by scores of flickering screens.
But that is to carp. This is important television. It touches on some of the most profound themes of our worrying times. In three episodes we have seen persecution of Muslims, attacks on civil rights, US support of dictatorships, false flag War on Terror operations, out of control private military companies, distorted intelligence and a very powerful statement against the death penalty.
Since resigning, I have spent the last two years in drafty halls speaking to small audiences about just these issues, and despairing as to how you reach a mass audience in these days of desocialised consumers sitting in front of their televisions. This series does it.
Bewildered as to why the BBC was denying the obvious connections, I spoke with a senior BBC contact. They sounded about as nervous to speak with me as my FCO friends, but told me that The State Within had terrified the BBC top brass because of its attack on the special relationship and the war on terror. They dreaded the government reaction. An edict on the line to take had therefore gone out to all, including the actors. The State Within is purely entertainment, with no political meaning and has no relationship to any real people, places or incidents.
But it has. The plot of The State Within begins and ends with a terrorist bomb blamed on the ‘Islamic Movement of Tyrgyzstan’, which turns out to be perpetrated by others entirely. In Murder in Samarkand I detail bombings blamed by Colin Powell on the real Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. British Embassy investigation proved these not to be what they seemed.
Getting my book published involved tough negotiations between the publisher and the FCO, determining what could be published without the government taking legal action. My conclusions on who was behind those bombs were scrubbed out. But I managed to slip past the censors: ‘it is instructive to read Graham Greene’s great novel The Quiet American and acquaint yourself with the historical truth behind it.’ Greene’s novel hinges upon a real event ‘ a terrorist bomb planted by the CIA and blamed on the Viet Cong.
In fact the world of The State Within is more real than you might imagine. There may yet be a story twist to please the conservatives. But already the BBC has produced something brave, relevant and timely, worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as Edge of Darkness.
They are just too scared to admit it.