Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

After all the pre-publication hype that Alastair Campbell’s diaries would provide "a fuller and more complete truth" about political life in Britain, the upshot three months later seems to be the reverse: his book’s superficiality has been equalled only by its apparent irrelevance.

Campbell was likewise wide of the mark in his over-blown claim that The Blair Years would become "part of the historical record of a fascinating period in British and international politics" and his belief that "millions of words will be published and broadcast…about TB, his leadership and his legacy".

Again the opposite seems to be the case. Apart from the ongoing nightmare over what to do about the tragic trauma of the Iraq war, the relevance of the Blair decade appears to be disappearing over the political horizon at a rate of knots. When contrasted with the repercussions of the far-reaching changes of the Thatcher decade -- whether their impact was ultimately thought to have been for good or for ill -- the checklist of achievements for Tony Blair during the ten years he was in office bears no comparison.

No wonder at his first televised news conference in Downing Street (4.9.2007), Gordon Brown avoided any reference to the legacy of his predecessor and declared instead that he admired Margaret Thatcher for having seen the need for change and for having been "a conviction politician…I am a conviction politician like her".

Perhaps it was the ultimate shallowness of New Labour, the lack of conviction in the Blairite elite and the doubts now about the durability of their accomplishments which explained why Campbell’s diaries were subjected to so little detailed scrutiny.

A sense of disenchantment, even indifference, might explain why so few journalists could be bothered to take Campbell to task over the ethical stance of his media regime in Downing Street or the trail of damage which he left in his wake.

On the odd occasion he was probed about his role in hastening the creeping politicisation of the government’s information service, or when he was asked to justify why he had cashed in so promptly after promising not to publish his diaries during the lifetime of the Labour government, he was able to brush the questions aside with effortless ease; follow-up challenges were even rarer.

And, despite having consistently condemned the media for being obsessed with personality politics, there was no hesitation on his part in lacing his book with gossipy asides and private, even intimate, information. Surprise, surprise, as he knew full well, it was the trivia which dominated most of the coverage and grabbed the headlines.

If I had been given a chance to try putting him on the spot during his round of promotional interviews, and if, which is even more debateable, he had deigned to given me a reply, the issue I would have wanted to return to was his assertion that when it came to the dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, his role had simply been to "help" prepare the document for publication. Time and again he had insisted that John Scarlett, chairman of the joint intelligence committee, had always retained ownership of the contents of the document.

What Campbell has purposely skated over, and the point on which he failed to get challenged, was whether Blair should have ever given him the authority in the first place to chair meetings in Downing Street to oversee the presentation of intelligence material.

To his credit, immediately after succeeding Blair, Gordon Brown promised in his constitutional statement, The Governance of Britain (3.7.2007), that he would legislate to make sure that never again would a political appointee like Campbell be allowed to have the power to give instructions to civil servants.

On a visit to Baghdad the previous month (11.6.2007), the Prime Minister in waiting went even further, giving a pledge that future analysis by the security and intelligence services would be kept independent of the political process; party spin doctors would not be allowed to get involved; he would ensure that the assessments of the joint intelligence committee were reported direct to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, rather than to the Prime Minister.

However, nothing further has been heard from Brown about how the undertakings he gave in Baghdad are to be implemented and his failure so far to take action underlines why the chance to highlight Campbell’s culpability was such a sorely missed opportunity.

Another point on which he should have been held to account was the way in which his unprecedented power had the effect of encouraging similar excesses by the other political advisers under his control.

Their ability to pull the strings and politicise the work of civil service information officers was exposed in Jo Moore’s infamous email telling staff in the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions that 9/11 was "a very good day to get out anything we want to bury".

Again, to be fair, Brown was on the ball in his constitutional statement promising that in his first Parliamentary session as Prime Minister he would bring in legislation to enshrine in law the "core principles and values of the civil service".

Here again was another missed opportunity to test the corrosive influence of the Downing Street press office. Tucked away in the odd diary entry in The Blair Years, Campbell has provided, perhaps unwittingly, some chapter and verse illustrations of his Rambo-like behaviour towards senior civil servants and his disregard for the code of conduct for special advisers.

Sir Richard Wilson, cabinet secretary for most of Campbell’s stint in Downing Street, was effectively sidelined both by the Prime Minister’s and his director of communications. In a series of gloating asides Campbell describes how he stamped on Sir Richard’s wretched attempts to claw back a degree of control for the civil service.

Campbell’s unprecedented power to instruct civil servants, which he shared with Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, was authorised by an order in council approved by Wilson’s predecessor, Sir Robin Butler. Amid the euphoria following Labour’s 1997 general election victory, Butler was anxious to be as accommodating as possible towards the new Prime Minister, believing that over time the civil service would regain any lost authority.

In subsequent years Butler has had the good grace to admit, at least in private, that he made a mistake, an error which rendered his successor powerless in the face of Campbell’s flagrant abuse of all the supposed safeguards against the politicisation of the Whitehall machine. The Blair Years constitute a compelling charge sheet for the way Campbell’s media strategies contributed to the steady erosion of trust in the political process.

While making no attempt to explain or even justify his behaviour, his insights give an indication of how it was that he and the Downing Street staff were able to get away with their misleading dossiers on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction; how he and the other political advisers had no inhibitions about leaking government decisions and other confidential information; how they paid lip service to the concept of parliamentary accountability; and were quite prepared, through their use of anonymous briefings, to spread poison about Labour Party members or public figures who fell foul of the Blair regime.

If confirmation was needed of his utter contempt of the ground rules for a special adviser like himself, a post which has the status of a temporary civil servant, the former Labour MP Oona King provides the evidence. In her recently published diaries she recalls the moment in November 1998 when she was summoned to No.10 and asked by Campbell to write an article saying that Ken Livingstone could not be trusted to become Mayor of London. (House Music, The Oona King Diaries).

Another insight into Downing Street’s skulduggery in attempting to block Livingstone’s attempt to win the Labour nomination for the Mayoral election leaps out of the pages of the diaries of Lance Price, one of Campbell’s assistants, who relates how No.10 were "hitting him quite hard" but "AC thinks we should go a lot further". (The Spin Doctor’s Diary).

What has to be factored in at this point is that Campbell’s orchestration of the anti-Livingstone campaign was in direct contravention of the personal undertakings he had given both to the Cabinet Secretary and the House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration. He had assured them that he would not use the Downing Street press office for party political purposes and that he could do his job of presenting the government’s case, "without frankly briefing against anybody".

Even before Oona King had her unnerving experience with Campbell and refused to get involved in blackening Livingstone’s reputation, Sir Richard Wilson had expressed his first doubts about Campbell’s disregard for civil service rules and regulations. After an earlier diary entry revealing how Wilson thought Campbell had been "brilliant" in putting Harriet Harman and Frank Field in their place (March 30 1998), Blair’s spokesman reveals that the Cabinet Secretary was "worried about his profile and how he was seen to be clearing everything we put forward". (September 18, 1998).

Wilson saw the 2001 general election as an opportunity to claw back the authority he had lost and rein in the political appointees. On election day Campbell discovered that the Cabinet Secretary had been "up to a few tricks" and had sought to reverse the order in council giving Campbell and Jonathan Powell their unprecedented power to instruct civil servants. "We would have to sort that". (June 7 2001).

Blair was resolute in insisting that the order in council remained in place but Campbell had marked Wilson’s card for "trying to retrench" and for having "wanted to clip our and my wings in particular". (June 8 2001).

Sir Richard Wilson’s feebleness in standing up to the likes of Campbell was pitiful to observe but for No.10’s media supremo it was opportunity to gloat. Shortly before the Cabinet Secretary’s retirement, Campbell observed that Wilson "seemed pretty down" and was concerned because of the way the government’s information service had "withered a bit" under Campbell’s weight (March 4 2002). An understatement if ever there was one!

Within weeks of Wilson’s departure, Blair and Campbell were deep into preparations for the Iraq War and in view of the demoralised state of the Whitehall mandarins, it was no wonder that John Scarlett, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, rolled over so easily when Campbell got his hands on the intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction.

What was Scarlett supposed to do when asked by Campbell to attend a meeting in Downing Street and when told that the Prime Minister’s director of communication was there to "help" with the preparation of the dossier? The Blair Diaries provide the answer: the Cabinet Secretary had failed to redress the balance, it was Blair’s spin doctor who was issuing the instructions.

Much was made by Campbell when promoting the diaries that Blair was the first Prime Minister to face the "relentless scrutiny of a 24-hour media". While it is true that the Blair decade coincided with the growing dominance of the continuous television news services, the pressures imposed by the media were not dissimilar to either the Major years or the Thatcher decade.

What so struck me about Campbell’s time in Downing Street was his failure to embrace the opportunities provided by the 24-hour news culture and the more open and accountable approach of online journalism. Instead of pioneering new ways to communicate via the internet and websites Campbell’s preferred channel of communication was the un-attributable briefing and his off-the-record conversations with newspaper editors and journalists.

So far Gordon Brown, like Blair and Campbell before him, has shown every sign of following the New Labour routine of doing all he can to maintain the closest possible relationships with newspaper publishers like News International and even, it seems, the Daily Mail group.

I am sorry to say it, but yet another missed opportunity...I would loved the chance to have cross-questioned Campbell about the importance of on-the-record, televised briefings and the desirability of using the internet to ensure all journalists receive the same information at the same time. That chance has come and gone, but what Campbell has done, however inadvertently, is provide a checklist of the abuses which need to be corrected if the flow of information from state to public is not to be politicised again in the way it was during the Blair era.

(Speech by Nicholas Jones to the National Union of Journalists, press and public relations branch, London, October 3 2007).