Hard News by Russell Brown

All the news

Having given John Campbell a mild sort of a serve on Sunday, it would be remiss of me not to note that he really has stepped up this week.

Campbell is very good at conveying a sense of event. In weeks like this he probably couldn't not look excited if he tried. Monday night's interview with the American ambassador was a classic.

Many Al Qaeda operatives have taken refuge in Bagdhad, said the ambassador, trying to make the frankly hopeless case that Saddam and Bin Laden have been in bed together.

Name one, said Campbell.

The ambassador could not oblige.

It was the Shipley interview all over again, only you would expect the country's senior American diplomat to have been more competently briefed. Asking a subject to provide an element of detail on a sweeping allegation is standard interviewing practice. "Name one," isn't exactly the Spanish Inquisition. But the ambassador couldn't, and it was not a very good look.

Anyway, the name the ambassador was searching for was that of Jordanian al Qaeda member Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who is believed to have received medical treatment in Baghdad after being injured in fighting in Afghanistan, and having been refused treatment in Iran. And that, frankly, is about it.

Mike Hosking could have tried something similar with John Howard last week, as the Australian PM was belting on about the terrible threat of weapons of mass destruction. He could have asked him:

"How many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including those known to have some association with terrorism, have these weapons?"

Howard, in all probability would not have known and might even have become amusingly flustered. (Other TV interviewers can avail themselves of the handy Hard News cheat-sheet on this question.)

Anyway, back to the news. While Campbell was flexing, his opposite (if you think of the TV news rivalry as a sort of cross between a rugby scrum and mixed doubles) Richard Long looked quite unnerved every time I flicked over, even fluffing his lines (did he have to do an interview or something?).

It was the same story with the foreign correspondents: Mike McRoberts was bounding around the Kuwaiti border, bonding with local army officers and getting exclusive pictures of sand, mostly. On the other channel, you could barely hear Ian Sinclair's piece to camera for the sound of his knees knocking. Perhaps TV3 could replace its current controversial campaign with: "3 National News: We promise not to freak out."

Anyway, the libertarian economic and social think-tank The Cato Institute has a very impressive collection of (largely) anti-war commentary here. And a story in Wired magazine suggests the aftermath of the use of depleted uranium in Iraq is going to be much worse than last time:

"Depleted uranium has a few drawbacks. It is 40 percent as radioactive as pure uranium and has a half-life of 4.5 billion years. In addition, the very volatility that makes it blaze like an atomic furnace upon impact converts a large percentage of the spent projectile into microscopic radioactive oxides that, when borne by the wind, may be inhaled by civilians miles from the battlefield."

According to the current chest-beating noises, most of this substance will be released in the first day or two, in the form of super-dense, bunker-busting warheads.

UPDATE: Hard News reader Carig Marshall says:

"I noted in your weblog of March 20 a quote from Wired Magazine regarding uranium weapons likely to be used in Iraq. The quote was I think rather misleading on a couple of accounts. Firstly, as it is noted, natural uranium decays with a half-life of about 4.5 billion years. That is a long time and it means that lump of natural uranium emits relatively little radiation. Depleted uranium emits even less radiation since the shorter half-life isotopes have largely been removed (and mostly used in nuclear reactors). Secondly, and more importantly, your quote contains the line "makes it blaze like an atomic furnace upon impact". This is just silly. What is an atomic furnace and how does it blaze? What happens is that the uranium burns, just like magnesium, producing much heat and light, along with the particles of uranium oxide mentioned in the article. Releasing such compounds in to the environment hardly seems to be a good idea, but the Wired article seems to want to make a connection with nuclear weapons that doesn't exist."

And he's quite right. I do understand the basic principle of radioactive half-life and I ought to have scrutinised the story more closely before posting the link. Fair cop.