That Mitchell & Webb Crook 132

Robert Webb gave the following highly revealing answers to a Guardian interview in 2005:

Which living person do you most admire and why?
Christopher Hitchens

What makes you depressed?
Suicide bombers and their apologists

Which living person do you most despise?
George Galloway

he has now found a way to channel his hatred of the anti-necon movement into “comedy”, by making a sitcom poking fun at me, and making light of our government’s alliance with the Uzbek dictatorship.

Our Men, commissioned by the BBC, is a hilarious comedy about the drunken and incompetent British Ambassador in Tazbekistan [which the BBC says does not represent Tashkent, Uzbekistan] and the jolly despot President Kairat [No relation, says the BBC, to President Karimov].

Let us remind ourselves about the Uzbek regime with which the UK has a close military alliance. There are over 11,000 political prisoners held in terrible conditions. Thousands are tortured every year. There is absolutely zero freedom of speech, media, religion or assembly. All opposition parties are banned. Millions are forced into slave Labour in the state cotton plantations, including many thousands of children as young as eight years old.

Over 800 pro-democracy demonstrators were killed in a massacre at Andijan in 2005. Routine torture includes beating with rifle butts, smashing of knees and elbows with hammers, suffocation by gas mask with closed vent, electrocution,
mutilation of genitals, rape, both homosexual and heterosexual, rape with objects, and torture of children in front of their parents. There are properly documented instances of the most extreme torture imaginable, including Mr Avazov, on whom whilst Ambassador there, I obtained a pathology report from the University of Glasgow which said he had died of immersion in boiling liquid.

(Click for full size)

Good for a laugh, that, isn’t it?

But something is happening with Mitchell & Webb more sinister than an argument about the limits of comedy. World War 1 was terrible, but Blackadder Goes Forth is still funny and legitimate, while Mash and Catch 22 undermined war with humour. But this Mitchell & Webb vehicle is being written with the active cooperation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Because the Uzbek government, the fifth most corrupt in the world according to Transparency International, is being sustained and protected by its alliance with the United Kingdom. Just last week the Defence Secretary announced to Parliament a new partnership with this vicious ductatorship which will see most of the equipment of British forces from Afghanistan leaving through Uzbekistan:

The Republic of Uzbekistan has already played a constructive role in helping to secure Afghanistan’s stability but will face increased security challenges once ISAF has withdrawn from Afghanistan. We have therefore been examining options for gifting surplus UK equipment to help meet those challenges. The departmental minute which I have today laid before Parliament describes a gifting package to the Republic of Uzbekistan of surplus Leyland DAF trucks and Land Rover spares that is intended to contribute to this. Both items have been examined and cleared against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria, which include an assessment of whether the equipment might be used for human rights violations or internal repression.

The last sentence is as breathtakingly tendentious as anything that has ever been said to parliament, but it is only about Uzbekistan, so nobody cares. In the last three years nobody, on any side of the House, has ever said anything about the appalling human rights record of the Uzbek government.

There is certainly huge room for satire in the British government’s support of this despotism – Bremner, Bird & Fortune did it to great effect. But the Mitchell and Webb comedy is coming from quite a different direction.

The comedy in “Our Men” comes from the exposure not of the hypocrisy of foreign policy, but from the exposure of our drunken and incompetent Ambassador. That is exactly what the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has put a huge media effort into telling everybody I was, ever since I blew the whistle on the Uzbek regime and our complicity with it.

The comedy also aims to defuse the horror of our alliance with Uzbekistan and make it banal, accepted and safe.

There is an obvious issue of copyright here, as the substance and themes of Our Men are clearly taken from my book Murder in Samarkand. My literary agent therefore contacted the man of business at Mitchell & Webb’s production company, Big Talk. He said that the series is completely different from Murder in Samarkand ; it has nothing to do with human rights and “the writers have researched the project with the diplomatic service“. That is a direct quote from my agent’s record of the conversation.

Talk about comedy at the service of the establishment. Big Talk also deny having heard of me or Murder in Samarkand, and say that Tazbekistan is not meant to be Uzbekistan. They lie. Here is a quote from their advice to actors, issued through the actors’ website Spotlight:

The accent is mild Russian. Perhaps have a listen to an Uzbek national speaking English to get an idea.

When David Hare went to Tashkent to research his adaptation of Murder in Samarkand, (which became the radio play starring David Tennant), which strongly attacks the government stance, he was not allowed even to enter the grounds of the Embassy to discuss it. Sir David Hare was left standing outside a locked gate. Yet the Diplomatic Service has been working with the writers of Our Men. The reason why lies in the quotes from Robert Webb right at the start of this article.

This is comedy in the service of the state; where the victims are the butt.

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132 thoughts on “That Mitchell & Webb Crook

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  • Ben Franklin -Machine Gun Preacher (unleaded version)

    “Earlier, the FCO spokesman pointed out that even if Julian Assange wins the asylum bid, a request for safe passage will have to be filed to transport him to the airport.
    “This would be refused,” said the official. ”

    Arbed @ 3:48:

    Is ‘safe passage’ some iron-clad guarantee from the UK? Would that extend to Sweden and obligate them to refrain from extradition to the US?

  • Jemand

    Craig, I agree with some others here who advise you to use this to drum up awareness of the issues in Uzbekistan. You can view the episodes and then write ‘true story’ explanations behind the comical fiction and in a way that appeals to both fans of the show and those interested in improving human rights in the country.

    As you described, the cost of litigation is prohibitively expensive, so turn it around the other way and use it positively for your own publicity purposes.

  • MJ

    “There is, however, also a genuine question of copyright theft”

    You say in the Independent piece that Baby Cow (Steve Coogan’s production company) owns the screen rights to Murder in Samarkand. Have you discussed this with Coogan?

  • Ben Franklin -Machine Gun Preacher (unleaded version)

    “(As a comparison, Sacha Baren Cohen openly admits Gadaffi was the main inspiration for his character in The Dictator. Why would Mitchell and Webb not be able to do the same when they’ve made even less effort on fictionalisation?)”

    Cohen lampoons everything and everyone. But his satire would carry a lot more weight if he would include Israel.

  • craig Post author


    Baby Cow have lapsed the rights precisely because Big Talk are doing it.

    Jon Taylor

    “I vaguely remember reading about you in the newspaper but had never heard of your play or your book. I think a stretch to assume that anyone involved in this show had heard of it,”

    I certainly do not dispute this account of your ignorance. However as Big Talk invited me to their offices in 2007 to discuss whether they might take out an option on the book, their claim not to have heard of it is rather difficult. It sold some 40,000 copies in this country, which is very good indeed for non-fiction. It was also serialised over three weeksa in the Mail on Sunday (readership 6 million) and was the biggest audience Saturday Play on Radio 4 for years, due to the David Tennant/David Hare combination (audience about 2.5 million). So while you may be supremely ignorant, to assume everybody else in the production is as thick and uninterested as you is a bit of a stretch.

  • Arbed

    Hi Ben,

    Actually, they are already obligated by law, but both the UK and Sweden are ignoring that, hence I guess the need for Garzon to take the matter to the European Court.

    This is my understanding of the legal principles involved (cut and paste from something I posted elsewhere):

    Yes, your first sentence is absolutely true, but the fact is that – because of the absolute supremacy of the concept of non-refoulment in asylum/refugee law (which trumps extradition law, btw – completely logically, if you think about it) – Sweden is obliged under umpteen different international law treaties to give guarantees against refoulment to anywhere a political refugee is in danger of persecution.

    A brief outline of the principles involved:

    I got into an argument with someone on that other site who tried to claim that non-refoulment only meant not returning an asylee to their country of citizenship (and when that argument didn’t work, they changed it to not returning them to their place of origin, ie last country of residence). It doesn’t – it means not returning (or sending) a refugee to the country where the danger of persecution exists.

  • crab

    Jon Taylor “That’s the point where I burst out laughing”

    You feel alright declaring that? –you laughed at the worries of a man who was crushed by the same institution involved in influencing this production, which by all appearances parodies Craigs character location and circumstance, with no consultation or recognition to him. And he was crushed by the institution for giving some representation to the tortured people and enslaved children in the t-zbekistan dictatorship.

  • Jon Taylor

    Being told that not having heard your play makes me ‘thick’ has provided the second big laugh of the day. Narcissist much?

    ‘Mary’: I didn’t hide my identity, so I don’t know why you’re so proud of the detective work. Thanks for the ad hominem insult, too.

    Oh well, I tried. Go back to your wild theories about a programme none of you has seen and which hasn’t yet been made.

  • craig Post author

    Jon Taylor,

    For an ordinary member of the public not to have heard of my book by no means makes them thick. But for the writer of a series about the British Ambassador to Tazbekistan (which the instructions to cast members make even more plain is Uzbekistan) not to have discovered that there was a recent well-known book by the British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, would make him very thick indeed.

    Except, of course, that you are lying about not having heard of it.

  • Jon Taylor

    Um, I’m not the writer of anything of the sort. I have no connection with this show at all. I know Rob and David socially and worked on their sketch show.

    And I’m not lying about never having heard of your play. Why would I? I really am done with this now, but you need to withdraw the accusation of lying.

  • Anon

    Jon Taylor,

    Perhaps you could (as a tv “insider”) give us your interpretation of Kenton Allen’s tweet. What exactly do you think he meant by “off to the Foreign Office for an historic read through”?

  • craig Post author


    Mary wrote that you were the writer and you congratulated her on her detective work. As you now make plain you are not the writer, I apologise to you for calling you a liar.

    But I do not doubt for one moment the writers of this have not only heard of but have used my book. Perhaps you might ask them.

    I am a great supporter of the Medical Foundation, and have done fundraising events for it. If Webb’s wife used to work there, she is well placed to explain to him why he is being a tosser over this cooperation with the FCO over Uzbekistan. In fact, you remove from him the defence of ignorance.

  • Mary

    Glad I got the correct one!

    Why not do one of your funnies about Bradley Manning who has just spent his 1,000th day in prison. Or about Julian Assange holed up in Hans Crescent. Where is your humanity? Does not that photo of the man that Karimov had boiled alive revolt you or even upset you?

    I don’t know about Comic Relief but we do need some relief from the ‘comedians’.

    Was it ‘Oh what a spiffing idea. Let’s shaft Craig Murray’? None of them can compare to him in terms of moral courage or bravery.

  • Mary

    Sorry about misleading you on that Craig. I should have made it clear that Jon Taylor was a writer on the Mitchell and Webb Sound, as it said on that link.

  • craig Post author

    Thanks Mary and Anon – my fault for being over-hasty. The horribly smug Jon Taylor got under my skin in a way I should not have allowed. This smarmy superior set of BBC linked media people should try actually meeting victims in Uzbekistan. They might find it less funny.

  • Ben Franklin -Machine Gun Preacher (unleaded version)

    Arbed; Greenwalds response to Green is lengthy, but succinct….

    “He (Green) said that this is so in part because “any final word on an extradition would (quite properly) be with an independent Swedish court, and not the government giving the purported ‘guarantee’.” He then cited a British lawyer (notably, not a Swedish one) who made the same claim:

    “[I]t appears that if the extradition is contested as it would be in Assange’s case then it is a matter for the court not the government to decide if he is extradited.””

    Greenwald; “This is completely and unquestionably false. It is simply untrue that it is Swedish courts, rather than the Swedish government, who are the final decision-makers in extradition requests. It is equally untrue that the Swedish government has no final decision-making power regarding extradition requests that are legally sanctioned by the Swedish judiciary. These are not matters for reasonable debate. The law is clear. Green’s claim is false.”

    “Extraordinary rendition provoked a diplomatic crisis between the United States and Sweden in 2006 when Swedish authorities put a stop to CIA rendition flights.[136] In December 2001 Swedish police detained Ahmed Agiza and Muhammad al-Zery, two Egyptians who had been seeking asylum in Sweden. The police took them to Bromma airport in Stockholm, and then stood aside as masked alleged CIA operatives cut their clothes from their bodies, inserted drugged suppositories in their anuses, and dressed them in diapers and overalls, handcuffed and chained them and put them on an executive jet with American registration N379P. They were flown to Egypt, where they were imprisoned, beaten, and tortured according to an extensive investigate reports by Swedish programme “Kalla fakta”.[137] A Swedish Parliamentary investigator concluded that the degrading and inhuman treatment of the two prisoners violated Swedish law.[138] In 2006 the United Nations found Sweden had violated an international torture ban in its complicity in the CIA’s transfer of l-Zari to Egypt.[139] Sweden imposed strict rules on rendition flights, but Swedish Military Intelligence posing as airport personnel who boarded one of two subsequent extraordinary rendition flights in 2006 during a stopover at Stockholm’s Arlanda International Airport found the Swedish restrictions were being ignored.[136] In 2008 the Swedish government awarded al-Zery $500,000 in damages for the abuse he received in Sweden and the subsequent torture in Egypt.[136]
    [edit]United Kingdom
    After claims by Liberty that British airports had been used by the “CIA for extraordinary rendition flights, the Association of Chief Police Officers launched an investigation in November 2005. The report was published in June 2007 and found no evidence to support the claim. This was on the same day the Council of Europe released its report with evidence that the UK had colluded in extraordinary rendition, thus directly contradicting ACPO’s findings. Liberty has challenged the findings and has stated that its original claims were based on “credible evidence”.[140]
    In July 2007, the government’s Intelligence and Security Committee released their Rendition report, detailing U.S. and U.K. activities and policies.[141][142]
    On 21 February 2008, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband admitted (despite previous government denials) that two U.S. extraordinary rendition flights had stopped on Diego Garcia in 2002, a U.K. territory.[143] When questioned as to whether the government had deliberately misled the public over rendition, the Foreign Secretary apologised and stated that the government had simply “made a mistake”. His statement also laid out the current UK Government view on Extraordinary rendition;
    Our counter-terrorism relationship with the United States is vital to UK security. I am absolutely clear that there must and will continue to be the strongest possible intelligence and counter-terrorism relationship with the US, consistent with UK law and our international obligations. As part of our close co-operation, there has long been a regular exchange with the US authorities, in which we have set out: that we expect them to seek permission to render detainees via UK territory and airspace, including Overseas Territories; that we will grant that permission only if we are satisfied that the rendition would accord with UK law and our international obligations; and how we understand our obligations under the UN Convention Against Torture.[144]”
    —David Miliband

    The past behaviors might have embarrassed the Swedes, but that doesn’t make the courts independent from the government. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice…..

  • Mark Golding - Children of Conflict

    Well done Mary – good research.

    Maybe ‘Frazer’ is right:

    “I think a few commentators here are right…This could be a great opportunity for you to jump in and grab the spotlight…I would wait for the first episode to air and then blitz the newspapers with a media campaign of some sort…maybe create your own “Our Men” alternative website ? Sure some people on this blog could help you on that..with some forethought and a lot of devious planning this could be a great opportunity to knee the FO and the BBC straight in the balls !”

    Let’s hold a mirror up to the ugly sister!

    Craig is welcome to host ‘ourmen’ (omen?) on my server free gratis. The domain is available 4 a fiver.

  • Michael Culver

    I have n’t seen enough of either Mitchell or Webb to comment on their comedy I.Q .What is truly disgusting is that the Brainwashing Corp: even thinks that such a ‘Stan’ is a suitable subject for humour,however when one learns that the”Fuck’em and Castrate’em” Office is complicit all is clarified.Lest anyone object to this renaming of the F&C Office I would direct them to the recent trials in the High Courts of the elderly Kenyans who were suing the Government over their appalling torture. Regrettably all lessons learned at Nuremberg are now forgotten,torture is just one of those things people do and hey we might as well have have a laugh about it. Or better still let’s point the finger at a drunken ambassador to distract from the very real horrors that you Craig have outed to the public.The bill currently before Parliament will establish totally secret courts when necessity and/or undue publicity dictates but the public will know nothing.Indeed the bill gives carte blanche to the security services. Bye bye Habeus Corpus, trial by jury all that irritating stuff, hello the fascist neo-liberal corporate world, Geneva conventions? Yes indeed they have many and a good time is had by all.It is difficult to know how to proceed in the face of such a systematic retreat into barbarism,oh well we’ll have to learn!?

  • Anon


    Further – Jon Taylor has been immersed in the tv world all his life. Check out and then linked father Don Taylor. Everything from “Z Cars” to “Churchill’s People”. Mother has an entry in IMDB as well. A very strange sense of humour this upbringing seems to have resulted in.

  • Arbed

    Ben, 5.25pm

    Greenwald; “This is completely and unquestionably false. It is simply untrue that it is Swedish courts, rather than the Swedish government, who are the final decision-makers in extradition requests. It is equally untrue that the Swedish government has no final decision-making power regarding extradition requests

    Indeed. I’ve just posted this in the John Bolton thread:

    Possibly relevant to the above is Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt’s present deafening silence but busy travel schedule.

    Following his recent trip to South America to lobby CELAC, he is meeting today, 19th February, with William Hague in London, after which he will be travelling to Australia on Sunday, 23rd.

    Any bets on whether “L’Affaire Assange” will be on the agenda of Mr Bildt’s discussions?

    I’m pretty sure there’s some relationship between your quote, my quote and Correa’s remarks in that RT interview which explains Mr Bildt’s hectic schedule.

  • allen

    john taylor….straight to the point … …your third and fourth poiints…..third…..two things… dont have to be famous to be plagiarised…thats the thinking of somebody who accepts celebrity culture……the sort of idiot who only vaguely remembers reading about a man who blew the whistle on the british govts collusion in uzbekistan ….who in so doing knowingly gave up his pension……secondly you assume anyone associated with the show wouldnt be aware of either the book or the play…..surely somebody whos wife worked for several years at the medical foundation for victims of torture would probably be in a better position than most to have heard of uzbekistan…torture…..ambassador …whistle blowing …about TORTURE in……uzbekistan…………just thought i’d mention it.

    your fourth point……this will probably whistle over your head…..but…theres an old saying…the best kept secrets are on the bookshelves of the british library…just thought i’d mention it.

    go on off you go……i think there might be another series of the 10 o clock show on fairly soon……

  • John Goss

    Ben and Arbed, thanks for the discussion of JA and the possibility of getting justice in Europe. Unfortunately Barbar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan failed to get justice. My suspicions are at this level heads of state screw-pressure the judiciary like they did getting Justice Nicholas Phillips to preside over JA’s Supreme Court appeal against extradition. Theresa May is not even letting solitary judges get away with flouting her repatriation laws.

  • N_

    The barristers on the SIS payroll include judges, but SIS influence over the judiciary rarely gets talked about, any more than its influence over the media does, or its stock of medics, or whatever, and unfortunately, for the time being, the propaganda line that the judiciary isn’t part of the executive stands solid.

    Foreign news and foreign-based comedies at the BBC? State propaganda? Hold the front page! (joke) The BBC is a government propaganda ministry. The hell with judging regimes in the terms they apply to themselves – royal charters, executive agencies, all that crap.

  • Ex Pat



    I was surprised to (relatively recently) read, or hear, you say that of all those rendered to Uzbekistan by the US and UK, _none_ had ever been seen again.

    In other words, they were rendered to Uzbekistan by the US and/or the UK for extermination. A U.S and/or U.K ‘Nacht und Nebel!’

    I read it. Or heard it. Your words.

    I was amazed that this had not been mentioned for _years_ after the boiling alive became widely known.

    Unfortunately I did not at the time note where you said that.

    Do you perhaps recall it? An interview. An article. A blog entry. A link?

    With thanks.


    fwiw I have linked to that photograph many times. Eventually I started to feel a duty to include his name. Muzafar Avazov. As I use his iconic image he deserves that respect, I feel. fwiw.

    As he surely did not deserve to be the victim of such a totalitarian terror state.

    And the murdering swine – theirs. And ours.

    ‘Nacht und Nebel’ –

  • cotton wool

    Its sad to read that these two could be stooges, as I enjoyed their shows in the past: post modern and ironic, geeky and self deprecating. Anyway isn’t all publicity good publicity – not always true i grant you, but probably there will be a few (maybe just one) who will find the way from the programme to Murder in Samarkand, and that then may be a job well done; all depends on who it is who takes the step from the telly to the book and where it leads them.

    Its sometimes the case that a spot of embargo and ridicule can do wonders for sales and reputation.

  • Ben Franklin -Machine Gun Preacher (unleaded version)

    “I was fully prepared to get a letter saying no such file existed, after all Swartz was not really a criminal. Instead I received 21 pages out of a 23 page file the FBI had put together on one Aaron H. Swartz.

    Two of the 23 pages were not released, according to the FBI, due to; privacy (U.S.C Section 552 (b)(7)(C)), sources and methods (U.S.C Section 552 (b)(7)(E)) and, curiously, putting someone’s life in danger (U.S.C Section 552 (b)(7)(F)). Putting someone’s life in danger? TYPICALLY, THAT REFERS TO INFORMANTS {EMPAHSIS MINE}. Did someone close to Swartz provide information to the FBI on him or is the FBI just being really dramatic? Or is this standard justification for not releasing the Special Agent on the case’s name? I am honestly still confused by that box being checked off.”

    Carl Malamud, the online activist?

  • lysias

    Lubitsch could make a farce about the Gestapo and concentration camps, but that was permissible because it was the Nazis he was making fun of, not their opponents.

    As for state-sponsored satire, I can’t think of a single example where it really works. I’ve always found the Soviet Krokodil “humor” magazine supremely unfunny. And, if you read through issues of the German Simplicissimus of the 1930’s, you get a distressing contrast. Up to the Nazi takeover, it was very funny. But once it was coordinated with the rest of Goebbels’s propaganda machine, it altogether ceased to be funny.

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