Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

The Leopard and the Fox – Tariq Ali and the BBC

In 1985, while Pakistani dictator General Zia-ul-Haq was still in power, the BBC drama department commissioned dramatist Tariq Ali to write a three part drama on the circumstances behind Zia’s coup in 1977. The resulting three part series, The Leopard and the Fox dramatised the conflict between elected prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Zia that resulted first in Bhutto’s house arrest, and later his execution. It’s a gripping piece of drama, to read. To read, because the piece, though commissioned by the BBC, presumably in full knowledge of the kind of piece Ali, a noted activist and author, was likely to produce, has never been televised. Shortly after the finished drama was submitted to the BBC, and while casting was going on (there was talk about casting Angelique Huston as Benazir Bhutto), proceedings were halted, and it was made known to Ali that the play had become controversial within the BBC hierarchy.

General Zia in 1986, it should be remembered, was one of the West’s staunchest allies in the cold war. Pakistan was fundamental for the funneling of funds and training to Mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan, where just two years later the USSR would admit defeat in its own type of Vietnam. Unsurprising then, perhaps, that the British Government might look poorly on a drama that effectively accused an ally of having organised the judicial killing of an elected prime minister. What might surprise, though is that the B.B.C. – the symbol of ethical broadcasting – would slavishly follow an official line in support of a vicious dictator.

Twenty years later, and the drama has been published by Berg along with a fascinating introduction by Ali that details how this thoroughly British style of self-censorship occured. He was first approached by a senior BBC correspondent and told that one particular passage, that suggested the Americans knew in advance and supported Zia’s hanging of Bhutto, would have to be removed in order for the drama to go ahead. Ali refused, suggesting that any senior military officer would confirm that Zia would have consulted the American embassy before taking such a momentous decision. Having failed to convince Ali to modify the play, lawyers were introduced to argue the case that, were the drama to be screened, the BBC would leave itself open to libel proceedings from the various generals involved in the Pakistani coup and killing of Bhutto.

When told that the project was off due to libel concerns, Ali asked the BBC solicitor what of the dramas that appeared regularly on the BBC libeling the Soviet Politburo. “Do you think a British judge would award damages to the Soviet Politburo?” was the response. But to a military dictator, albeit an ally, with blood on his hands…

Tariq Ali was kind enough to agree to an email interview with Three Monkeys Online to discuss some of the issues raised by this drama, and its treatment by the BBC.

What do you think of ‘faction’ as a genre? In the case of The Leopard and the Fox it works well as an ‘unofficial’ history lesson. In the hands of a playwright with less integrity, though, the genre has the potential to be a highly effective propaganda tool – imagine for a moment a faction that depicts as real Tony Blair and George W.Bush uncovering a heinous plot by Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden.

It depends. Sometimes it can work very well especially if it’s highlighting materials that have been hidden from history. Its use as a propaganda tool is automatically circumscribed. It Never really works. In the hypothetical case you cite it would have been seen for what it was.

Let’s talk for a moment about your representation of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in the play. It’s a complex portrayal of a complex man. You don’t shy away from unsavoury aspects (for example vote-rigging, and elitism) of his political career, but he is very much the tragic hero of the play – a man who, through his own hubris, offends the Gods (or C.I.A), and is doomed, but for whom the audience is rooting. Isn’t this one of the limitations of the form, when using real-life characters, that one has to have heroes and villains for a drama to work?

I don’t think so. In this case Bhutto was portrayed as a victim of a brutal military dictator which was a fact. It would be perfectly possible to have a play that centres on a meeting between Hitler, Mussolini and Franco discussing the invasion of the Soviet Union. Brenton and Hare’s satirical play PRAVDA had the villain (Murdoch) as the anti-hero. He dominated the play. There are many other examples.

In terms of dialogue, we get a keen insight into Bhutto’s thoughts – with,for example, large slices of his defence speech used. Zia, on the other hand, remains largely elusive. Most of his dialogue is transparently false (for example, when he suggests that public office doesn’t interest him at all), and he remains ever elusive as a character. And yet his decision to betray Bhutto changed Pakistan’s history. Did you consider giving him more stage time, as it were?

Yes, when there were three one-hour scripts, Zia’s character was given more space, but compressing it into a 90 minute play meant that some things had to be sacrificed. At one point I had thought of writing it with Zia as the main character cold-bloodedly planning the rape of a country by using religion as a central pillar.

As a novelist, playwright, and political activist, what do you think of libel laws, in Britain in particular, and more generally? Do public figures have a right to privacy, or should figures and events in the public interest be open to journalistic and artistic hypothesis in the absence of provable facts? How can public interest be defined, and by whom? Or is the concept of libel outdated/invalid?

I don’t believe in libel laws. They have usually been used to impose a censorship. The US is much better than Britain in this regard. I think all libel laws should be put in the dustbin together with the laws on blasphemy.

You’ve written convincingly that censorship often helps art to flourish. When requested by the BBC to modify your play, to remove the section that implicates the United States in the death of Bhutto, couldn’t you have resorted, like many authors subject to censorship, to ambiguity and coded reference? What was your thinking behind the absolute refusal to modify the play?

It was an outrageous request given what the play was arguing. Nothing serious happens in Pakistan without the knowledge and approval of the US Embassy. The request was an assault on a writer’s integrity.

The play was commissioned in 1985, while Margaret Thatcher was in office (and coincidentally, while in America Oliver Stone was working on Salvador). In the twenty-odd intervening years, how do you think the BBC has changed in relation to governmental pressure. Has Tony Blair left, as part of his legacy, a BBC that would have no problems broadcasting a similarly controversial play?

The BBC is much worse today than in Thatcher’s time. It has been New Labourised. The self-censorship that followed the appalling Hutton Report is a disgrace. The BBC TV News on most days is pure propaganda and often worse than Sky News. The fact that Blairite sycophants awarded Newsnight an Orwell Prize beggars belief.

How could satire ever deal with that. On a more structural level what the ghastly John Birt did was to managerialise and marketise the BBC by taking away effective control from Heads of Departments. Once this was done the BBC, with some exceptions, became more and more bland, running away from risks and blunting the creativity of its own workforce. The use of ‘trustworthy’ independent companies led, in most cases, to a further degeneration.

Has the play been made available in Pakistan? What kind of reaction has there been to it? You write in the preface to the Berg published edition that since its commissioning one episode has been dismissed as incorrect – that Bhutto was hung whilst already dead. Does that mean that the rest of the drama holds up as factually accurate?

Yes. It was reviewed and extracted and has done very well. It holds up well as an account of a ghastly episode in Pakistan’s history. A theatrical adaptation by Alter Ego productions will go on stage in New York in October this year.

You’ve written admiringly about the governments of both Cuba and Venezuela, describing them – along with the government of Evo Morales in Bolivia – as an axis of hope for the world. One element of both the Cuban and Venezuelan administrations that gives cause for concern to many, though, is their clampdown on non-governmental media. Are there situations when censorship is in the public interest, and couldn’t it be argued that this was the case with The Leopard and the Fox (occurring as it did during the Cold War)?

There is a vast difference between Cuba (media is state-controlled) and Venezuela (90 percent is privately-owned and viciously hostile to the elected government). The RCTV station actively supported a miltary attempt to topple an elected government, broadcast racist obscenities against a non-white President, etc. Its proprietors could have been charged with serious offences. Instead their terrestrial licence was not renewed. Big deal. Cuba is very different and my detailed views on this contradictory society can be explored in ‘Pirates of the Carribean: Axis of Hope‘.

The Leopard and the Fox by Tariq Ali is published by Berg.

Tariq Ali’s latest book is Pirates of the Carribean: Axis of Hope, published by Verso

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