Alastair Campbell has rarely missed an opportunity to launch a demolition job on journalism and in the second round of his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry he was given free rein to go back onto the attack: he claimed David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband were all getting “disproportionately whacked” by the press in retaliation for having given their backing to Lord Justice Leveson’s investigation into media ethics.
All three party leaders were in the frame because journalists were getting in their “revenge” on the Prime Minister for having set up the inquiry. Campbell felt the motivation for such hostile reporting should not be overlooked: he feared that deep down among politicians there was not much of an appetite to follow through any recommendations which the Leveson Inquiry might make for tightening up press regulation. Therefore adverse press coverage could become a critical factor.
“I would not rule out the possibility of politicians thinking about how this might affect their own position vis-à-vis the next election; there is some appetite for change but I would not overstate it.”
There was a danger that the judge and the politicians might conclude that the whole issue of media ethics was so complicated and changing so fast that nothing could be done. “Too many parliamentarians want to turn away from this...they want this to go away.”
As he listened to the unfolding argument Robert Jay QC seemed nonplussed both by Campbell’s performance and by his own reaction: here was the inquiry’s legal counsel allowing a noted spin doctor to accuse journalists of habitually spinning a line yet at the same time Jay almost seemed to be encouraging Campbell to spin away about his own conspiracy theory on the motivation for the way the news media were reporting the collapse in the public’s respect for politicians.
If Jay was being marked on his theatricals, he deserved the full five stars for his latest appearance (14.5.2012). Fireworks were inevitable once the QC started goading Campbell over his infamous spat with the Spectator and the Mail on Sunday about whether or not Downing Street put pressure on Black Rod over Tony Blair’s role in the Queen Mother’s funeral in 2002.
A fulminating Campbell was soon in full flood: “All I know is the story is untrue”... “The story was untrue then and is untrue now.” At one point Lord Justice Leveson joined in the fun, with his own jibe: “Mr Campbell, don’t overdo it.”
Instead of setting off down the cul-de-sac of such an obvious non-story, Jay and the judge should surely have been following through the evidence they had heard that morning from Lord (Gus) O’Donnell, the former Cabinet Secretary.
O’Donnell was in no doubt that that on entering Downing Street in 1997 Tony Blair had made a mistake when he gave Campbell the unprecedented additional authority to instruct civil servants – a power Campbell shared with Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell.
This led to the accusation that civil servants were being forced to obey the instructions of politically-appointed special advisers such as Campbell -- that civil servants had become “politically biased” as O’Donnell put it. The former head of the civil service was in doubt that Campbell should never have been given so much power:
“I was glad it was abandoned. I advised it should be abandoned. I hope it won’t be tried again.”
But there were no follow-up questions: Lord O’Donnell was not asked to give an opinion as the former head of the civil service about Campbell’s role in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War; about the press secretary’s part in the preparation of the dossiers on weapons of mass destruction; the outing of the former weapons inspector Dr David Kelly as the source of Andrew Gilligan’s reports on the BBC’s Today programme; and Hutton Inquiry recommendations.
Similarly no attempt was made to question Campbell about his own conduct as press secretary during the Iraq War and what impact this might have had on relations between politicians and the media. But the Iraq War was on the inquiry’s agenda: Campbell told the judge he “could not remember” specific details about the three phone calls between Murdoch and Blair in the run-up to the US-led invasion.
Another glaring failure to follow through earlier evidence was O’Donnell’s account of own experience as an official spokesman for the Prime Minister when he served as John Major’s Downing Street press secretary in the early 1990s. His aim had always been to ensure that No.10 provided a level playing field for all political correspondents:
“I wanted to tell the same story to everyone at the same time, an important way of keeping it honest. I tried to offer a lobby briefing for all journalists and tell them: ‘this is what the government believes; here is our response to your questions; this is the definitive guide to what the government is saying’.”
Again there was no attempt to square O’Donnell’s definition of best practice with the record of Blair’s official spokesman and press secretary. Campbell was asked some questions about his modus operandi:
Jay: “Was the Sun fed stories by you?
Campbell: “Yeah, so were other papers...we were one of the prime sources for every newspaper in the country.”
Here before a judge was Campbell’s open acknowledgement of his collusive role as an information trader on behalf of the Blair government, only too happy to deal with favoured news outlets instead of following O’Donnell’s practice of offering a level playing to all journalists.
In the past Campbell has always been keen to point out that his policy when dealing with political correspondents was one of “divide and rule”. All the more the pity then that neither Jay nor Leveson asked Campbell how feeding stories to the Sun squared with O’Donnell’s time in Downing Street.
Campbell did not hold back in his own defence. The allegation that he bullied journalists was “nonsense”; there were some journalists he liked more than others and some for whom he had “complete and utter” contempt.
“I did thousands and thousands of stories and thousands of briefings and I would defend the accuracy and honesty of those against any journalist any day of the week...For sure we made mistakes but they were extraordinarily few in number given the pressure we were under...I never told them lies but sometimes I didn’t tell them everything I knew.”
Campbell denied there had ever been a deal between Blair and Murdoch in return for the support of his newspapers. “The Sun backed us because we knew we were going to win, we didn’t win because the Sun backed us...I don’t think on policy anything was traded with Murdoch or any other media owner...There are lots of areas where you would be hard pressed to say the Murdochs were getting a good deal out of the Labour government.”
He listed Blair’s “biggest decisions” to prove his point that there had been no deal: the Labour government approved the rise in the BBC’s licence fee; established the broadcasting regulator Ofcom; blocked Murdoch’s attempt to take over Manchester United; and gave the go ahead for digital television.
When Jay asked whether it was correct that six months after the 1997 general election, Blair had dropped the party’s previous policy for restricting cross-media ownership, Campbell said Blair changed his mind because he wanted to “open up the market” and feared that changes might led to the closure of newspaper titles.
But Jay did not raise with Campbell a list of those decisions which had worked in Murdoch’s favour: the Blair government turned a blind eye to the all-important development of BSkyB’s near monopoly in televising Premier League football matches despite widespread concern in Britain and the European Union; the Labour government also rejected attempts in the House of Lords to restrain predatory pricing by News International titles such as The Times and the Sun.
Again Jay did not follow through the evidence of earlier sessions: when Murdoch gave his own evidence to the inquiry, he was challenged by John Hendy, QC for the National Union of Journalists, about the loophole in the 1999 Employment Relations Act designed to protect a company union such as News International Staff Association.
As a former political editor of the Daily Mirror – and subsequently an assistant editor of Today a previous News International title – Campbell was well versed in the fall-out from Murdoch’s dash to Wapping and Blair’s acquiescence in News International’s operation of a non-unionised printing plant.
Robert Jay seemed to have based most of his questions to Alastair Campbell on a rather limited reading list of the spin doctor’s own diaries and books by Lance Price, Andrew Marr and Peter Oborne. Perhaps a closer perusal of inquiry transcripts of earlier evidence might have yielded more fruitful lines of inquiry?
Illustrations: The Independent, 1.5.2012; The Sun 18.3.1997.