Friday, July 25, 2003

A small clarification-

On re-reading my post below it seems to me that I sound critical of Dr Kelly. I'm not. I think he had an absolute right to talk to the press if he so chose- especially if he had real concerns about intelligence.

What I find ludicrous is that the media should then get on their high horse about the MoD revealing the name. If they thought it was so morally objectionable, why were they phoning up the MoD to get the name?

The tragedy of Dr Kelly is not that he spoke to the press, but that the reporting of what he said varied so widely and was so controversial.

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Whither Spin?

I’ve made my views pretty clear that I regard the original BBC charge against Alistair Campbell as unjustified, his rebuttal as tough but reasonable, the evidence as being on Campbell’s side and the likely outcome of any enquiry as being his clearance. I still think he should stay on.

But there’s always a but.

When Charlie Whelan resigned, he summed up the death knell for PR’s, Spin-doctors and flacks. If you become the story, you’re finished. If today’s reports are to be believed- and I hope, but with no confidence, that they are not- Mr Campbell has decided this rule also applies to him.

In a way, it is an entirely unfair state of affairs. Why should defending your reputation, or being accused of things that are untrue, or even, as seems occasionally to be the case today, just the sense of the pack that you are weakened and ripe for the kill, mean you should quit? After all, It doesn’t apply to journalists, or ministers, or Managing Directors.

The argument is essentially that if you become the story, you can no longer be effective in transmitting another agenda. Ideally, you should be quiet, in the background, unnoticed forever.

But why? We live in a media world. Spokesmen and women are as close as we get to celebrities in politics. The ability to communicate the government’s message is a vital task and those who practise it are exposed to the media on a daily basis. It is inevitable that they eventually become the story if there is any controversy and politics abut what they say.*

So here’s a modest proposal. At the moment there is a weird imbalance in politics. Politicians are expected to go on TV shows, parrot pre-agreed lines, be caught out and made to look like fools by the pack. Flacks and advisors sit in the background looking powerful and near omnipotent. Since they are not questioned, nor forced to do ridiculous 12 word sound bites, the power relationship between the spokesperson and the politician appears to be reversed.

Let’s change that. Instead of ministers dealing with the incessant demands of the media, let’s have a corps of on the record spokespeople, trained and only used for media work, especially the 24 hour news with the 10 second story. Ministers can return a little more to Olympian detachment, coming down only for serious interviews, election campaigns and the like.

This happens already- Israel uses it most effectively in it’s dealings with the foreign press for example, and no-one ever claimed that Ari Fleischer was the malignant genius behind Bush- but it could be extended usefully to the UK. Instead of the continuous feeding of junior MPs and ministers into the media meat grinder, why not get Flacks out in the open, while ministers get on with governing?

So here’s my solution. Don’t hide Campbell (and the proto-campbell’s that will follow, whoever is in power) from the story, make him the story. Put him, and a host of deputies on TV shows in place of ministers. It’s the only way of dealing with the fact that the Media, self referential and obsessed as it is, will always want to report on the activities of whover gives them news. It wil also have the benefit of giving ministers the respect and authority that comes from distance.

*Civil Service rules notwithstanding. Before Ingham (Thatcher's Press Sec), it was more or less possible for Press Officers to be their master’s voice by staying entirely anonymous in a much less inquisitive media environment. I suspect we will see Ingham as a turning point in Government commuications. If Hague had won the last election Amanda Platell would surely now be by his side in Downing Street.

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Film Critic as War Correspondant?

Here is an article in the Telegraph by a New York Post reporter based in Iraq about how, contrary to media stereotype, American soldiers in Iraq are as decent at peacekeeping as their British counterparts. It's a useful contrast to the spate of articles we've seen recently about the nature of the US occupation.

However, I was rather surprised to see that the person the New York post chose to embed in Iraq was their film critic.

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Thursday, July 24, 2003

You're not going to find them here...

Anthony Cox, creator of the WMD 404 Not Found page, hot frontrunner for this year's "web-joke most likely to be e-mailed round the office" award, blogger, chemist, entrepeneur and all around top british intenet chap, has kindly plugged Harry, Stephen and myself on his T-Shirt site. Go on, buy his t-shirts and mugs. It's the least you can do for the best Iraq war satire yet produced.

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BBC highs and lows

Before some of my more sensitive and left wing readers think I've turned into some kind of proto-hitchens, railing profitably at left wing shibboleths, let me attack the BBC for being too right wing.

During the BBC's "Asylum day" yesterday, the BBC carried a Panorama programme by a John Ware, whose thesis was that the asylum system was in chaos. In order to support this idea, he used that much loved undercover gambit of a cjournalist showing how easy it is to claim benefits and defraud the system without being deported. Except, umm, he forgot to mention a relevant fact. as Home secretary David Blunkett points out in the Guardian:-

" the undercover journalist posing as an asylum seeker in his programme was detected by the immigration authorities. She made two asylum applications, and our new fingerprinting system showed up a match. She was told that she was about to be detained and removed from the country, at which point she owned up to being a journalist."


To be fair to the BBC, while all this was going on, BBC4 beginning it's broadcast of all thirteen hours of Alistair Cooke's wonderful "America- A personal history." I plan to enjoy another two hours tonight. If you get the chanc,e I hope you join me.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Ok, I’ve had enough.

I was worried by some of the events that surrounded David Kelly’s sad and untimely death. The implication that a civil servant had killed himself because of pressure from Number 10, the MoD, politicians, the Media or the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee was unnerving, to say the least.

The more I’ve read, the more the media has been almost slavering over the “consequences” of Dr Kelly’s death, the more I have been convinced that there are only two relevant truths in all this for the British government. Sadly, they cannot say either for being swamped by a tidal wave of sanctimony.

The first is that whatever the source of Andrew Gilligan’s story- his own imagination or Dr David Kelly, the story was wrong.

The second is that once the accusation was made, the government had every right to defend itself, even including revealing the name of the leaker.

For the first, we can now be reasonably certain that Alistair Campbell did not “sex up” intelligence and did not insert information into the report not supplied and approved by intelligence agencies. The British government had not been told by the intelligence agencies that the 45 minute claim was false and decided to insert it anyway. No-one seems to be claiming that the allegations in Andrew Gilligan’s original story were true.

Since a serious allegation had been made (the Government publishing information they know to be false is about a serious as it gets), the government had every right to defend itself robustly. Remember that David Kelly came forward to the MoD and admitted breach of contract and talking to journalists. Now, I completely understand why the BBC would defend the anonymity of its source, or Dr Kelly would want to defend his anonymity, but why should the government be so bound? Sanctimonious talk of "bringing an innocent man into a political whirlwind" is nonsense. The man had voluntarily gone to talk to a journalist about the most important isue of the day and had given wrong information. It wasn't the government who put him in the middle of a storm)

Previous governments have not only named but also prosecuted leakers, which breached not only their anonymity but their freedom. Dr Kelly, although dealing with intelligence matters, was not, as far as I am aware, threatened with prosecution or even with the sack. So why, in this case, is it the duty of the MoD to defend the anonymity of a civil servant who talks to journalists? Journalists wanted his name. They were prepared to list candidates, speculate on candidates, run through lists of possibilities- all because they knew that the leaker was probably the only person who could verify the BBC’s story. If the Guardian had him as their third possible name, how long do you think it would have been before his name was placed in the public domain?

The stark truth is, that Dr Kelly spoke to journalists and the result of one of these conversations was an unsubstantiated attack on the Government’s honesty on a issue of national importance. Dr Kelly then told the MoD that he had NOT said the things that the source in the story was alleged to have said. Once the BBC had confidentially refused to agree that Dr Kelly was their source, and so any attempt to get Dr Kelly’s rebuttal of the BBC story on the record anonymously was dead, the government had two choices. First do nothing and give the allegation that it lied with credibility, or name Dr Kelly, which, given media interest, was likely to happen anyway.

So, I think they acted responsibly and reasonably. There is no case for Campbell to answer.

(For intelligent and lucid expositions of differing views- check out Gregg, Chris B and Calvin on the comments section on the previous posts on this issue. I disagree with them, but their comments are well worth a read)

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Interesting Moral Question

I have written a post about Dr Kelly, the BBC the MoD an anonymity of sources. Now, before I publish it, I wondered whether it would be hypocritical for me, as an anonymous blogger to suggest that the government had every right to expose a leaker and defending the government.

Thinking it though, I can see different sides. Before I publish the piece, I'd wecome your views.

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Tuesday, July 22, 2003

The Story in full

Befuddled by all the twists and turns in the Kelly/Gilligan/Campbell imbroglio? Confused between dossiers, lunches, enquiries and press officers? Not sure who to blame, or for what? Worried that other, better informed political obsessives will kick sand in your face at drinks parties? Sit back and let me explain what's been happening and what will happen next.

Andrew Gilligan and at least two other journalists had meetings with weapons expert Dr David Kelly, during which he allegedly expressed some concern over certain evidence in the dossier produced in the run up to war. Two of the journalists subsequently reported Dr Kelly (as an anonymous source) as having doubts over the absolute certainty of the evidence, but didn't suggest he said the top levels of government had been dishonest in any way. Instead he seems to have expressed concern that the government had been supplied evidence, had picked up on it, and stressed it in a way which he, Dr Kelly, found unfortunate.

Andrew Gilligan, on the other hand, reported Dr Kelly as saying that senior figures in Downing street knew the certain intelligence claime were probably false and yet insisted in inserting them into the dossier in order to “sex it up”. This is the famous 45 minutes allegation. All this was done at the behest of the dark lord of the Sith (sorry, I mean Alistair Campbell).

Downing Street got very upset over this accusation of personal dishonesty (though not by the lesser suggestion that the evidence supplied and picked up on by them was unreliable- as that was hardly their fault) and demanded an apology. They do not get one. The BBC says that Gilligan’s story is reliable- That is, a senior source knowledgeable about WMD claims that the government knew claims in their intelligence dossier were false and put them out anyway.

Mr Gilligan then writes an article for the Mail on Sunday describing his source and giving more details of the conversation, such as where it happened, who said what and so on.

At this point Dr David Kelly allegedly tells superiors at the MoD that he may be the lunch companion that Andrew Gilligan refers to, but that he doesn’t remember saying the things attributed to him by Mr Gilligan.

After some tussling, the MOD tells the BBC that it knows who the source is, presumably because by getting confirmation of the source, they can make clear that the BBC’s Gilligan report is suspect (presuming that the main source denies its accuracy).

The BBC refuses to confirm to the Government privately that Dr Kelly is the source, which rather spikes the governments desire to refute the story by use of the sources denial.

At some point after this the MoD makes the decision to “allow” Dr Kelly’s name to reach the media. While the BBC refuses to comment, it becomes clear that it isn’t exactly protesting a huge miscarriage of justice.

As all this is being investigated by a House of Commons committee, Alistair Campbell, Andrew Gilligan and David Kelly all give evidence. Alistair Campbell and Andrew Gilligan more or less asserted their already known views. Dr Kelly, on the other hand said that while he did meet Andrew Gilligan, he didn’t recognise Andrew Gilligan’s account of their conversation, and therefore assumed he could not be the main source. The MP’s believed this assertion, and decided Dr Kelly was being used as a fall guy by the MoD and Mr Gilligan had another source.

Two days later Dr Kelly committed suicide.

The BBC then confirmed that Dr Kelly was indeed their source for the Andrew Gilligan story. Howeer, there is occassional mention of a new “Downing Street” source.

Depending on who you listen to, this is the fault of Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell, Andrew Gilligan, Richard Sambrook or Andrew McKinley and senior figures at the BBC, No 10, the MoD or all three should resign.

So, that’s all cleared up then.

A Law Lord will now investigate.

I hereby predict where all this will go. The Law Lord will discover that the key question is whether Andrew Gilligan correctly reported what was said at this lunch. If he did, then Dr Kelly was lying to the House of Commons committee in his evidence, would in all likelihood be exposed at some point, and as he had tried to deceive the government as to what he said, would lose his, job, his reputation and his pension.

If, on the other hand, Andrew Gilligan had hmm.. let’s say “interpolated” certain comments, Dr Kelly may have been concerned that he could not disprove the suggestion that he said these things, the BBC would never confirm who its' source was. As he was not absolutely definite in his denials, he was now presumed to not be the main source, but had none the less talked out of turn.

Either case could produce intolerable stresses.

The Law Lord will not be able to work out what really happened at the infamous lunch, but will hint at whose account he finds more credible. It is likely to be Kelly’s.

He will focus on whether the MoD and the BBC acted properly in their dance over who the source was and whether the MoD put undue pressure on Dr Kelly to knock down the Gilligan story.

I predict he will find that both the BBC and the MoD behaved poorly over the revelation of the source, as they should have agreed who the source was, and allowed him to give evidence without revealing his identity. He will clear the MoD of improper pressure on Dr Kelly unless there is direct evidence.

We will never know exactly what Kelly said to Andrew Gilligan. It will be broadly accepted that Alistair Campbell did not try to "sex up" Iraq evidence, but that Dr Kelly’s concerns about the dossier as expressed to the other BBC reporters were broadly accurate as the information was known to him.

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The unremarked pleasures of having an online audience..

One of the obsessions that has resulted from the slowly increasing popularity of this blog is the increasing variety of readers I have.

As one of those signed up to the estimable sitemeter service, I am able to see the IP details of those that read my blog. I usually smile with pleasure when I see or addresses appear in my list of readers (In my heart I know it's researchers on skivvy wages and civil servants, but I can dream of MP's, ministers and advisers passing along my missives as the latest must reads by the masked genius of politics).

However, dear researchers and civil servants, the cachet of your addresses has faded. Today I recieved my first visitor with a IP address. Oh, the glamour.

So If you're a reader with a story to tell, or have a cool ISP, please let me know. It makes me happy.

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Monday, July 21, 2003

Another criticism of the BBC....

Why, oh Why is there no British equivalent of ABC News's The Note?

I luuurve the note. Insidery, horseracy and cynical it may be, but at least it's honest about it's gravity, and because it's an insiders guide, it actually tells you things you didn't know (instead of repeating things other people have said already every fifteen minutes).

Come on Guardian online, BBC online or even nascent lobbying company gunning for some mojo from the political elite. It's time for a very British Note.*

* and yes, dear readers, I am available for the piffling sum of £40k/annum (negotiable dependent on contract length)

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Et tu, Peter? Or... Alistair Campbell is innocent

Peter Mandelson's attacks on the BBC have been well covered. His loyalty and stridency in defence of the Prime Minister are once more, vital to the denizens of Number 10.

So, then, how to interpret this article in the Telegraph by Mr Mandelson's stoutest defender, closest ally and occassional alter ego, the auther Robert Harris?

Mr Harris pulls no punches in his lengthy diatribe on Alistair Campbell

"like the reformed heavy drinker that he is, Mr Campbell just cannot resist reaching for the bottle - not liquor, but rather the bottle labelled "publicity". "

"what Mr Campbell is indubitably responsible for is the Government's communications and strategy, both of which now lie in ruins. For that alone he should go, and go at once"

Why so vicious a tone? Ah, here's the nub.

"If that sounds unjust, it is no harsher than the treatment Mr Campbell has meted out himself in the past, for example to Peter Mandelson, who was subsequently cleared by an official inquiry of any wrongdoing - although much good it has done him in the febrile world of assassination-by-headline in which Mr Campbell has moved so happily, and which he now excoriates."

Old demons and Schadenfreude haunt this article. Judge not, lest ye be judged.

Mr Harris's advice is wrong. Alistair Campbell is no evil genius, no Rasputin. He is no more the dominating brute over a cowering Prime Minister than Peter Mandeslson was the svengali, Oz-Wizard or puppeteer of the lefts more febrile imaginings.

Alistair Campbell must not resign. To even consider his resignation would be to admit that the government has acted improperly.

Their is no evidence that it has done so. To accept that it has, one has to assume that the "honest and scrupulous" Dr Kelly was a liar, and even if you accept this, there is no evidence to support the accusation made in his name by the BBC. To place any guilt to Alistair Campbell you have to asume that not only is Dr Kelly a liar, but that the chiefs of the intelligence services are liars, that the head of the civil service is a liar.

In essence, the challenge being laid down is that Campbell should resign resign not because he is guilty, but because he is accused.

Robert Harris might be embittered that his friend was held to this standard, but he had a record. Campbell has none. Whatever accusations have been laid at his door, deception has not been one of them. He was accused, defended himself robustly, and as it now seems correctly.

Is correctly defending your reputation now a resigning matter?

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Sunday, July 20, 2003

A defining week for British politics

So, as it stands as of late on Sunday night, the coverage of the Dossier/Dr David Kelly/Spin/Gilligan story has once again swung 180 degrees. If I had been writing yesterday, the story would have been about how far the damage goes up government and which officials, ministers and special advisers would be harried into resignations. Now, following the BBC's announcement that the now deceased Dr Kelly was the main source for their hotly disputed story on the "sexing up" of intelligence reports, exactly the same questions are to be directed against officials, reporters and executives at the BBC.

Who knows where this will go next? Not I, though I have to admit the idea that the personal tragedy of an apparent suicide should be put fully at the door of politicians strikes me as bizarre. What are politicians supposed to do when their honesty is questioned, do nothing, on the chance that doing something might have tragic consequences?

Think about the political discourse of the last week over the Prime Minister. The left's most influential political magazine commissioned a piece that in all seriousness implied that the Prime Miniter suffered from a form of psychosis. The Mail on Sunday asked if he had "blood on his hands". This is not a new charge, the daily Mirror having made it on a front page headline some weeks ago.

Now, given their knowledge that this is the type of criticism the government will face:- abusive, irrational and blood-hungry, is it any surprise that those at the top choose to defend their reputations robustly and with absolute determination? We outside the highest levels of government might decry such harsh tactics, but knowing that without them governments are apt to be swept away by a media generated tidal wave of abuse, what else is open to them?

If the government had allowed the BBC's report to go unchallenged, the conventional wisdom would now be that the government accepted the allegation that they were liars and frauds. Instread they chose to fight the allegation as completely as they could. It now seems, with the available evidence, that the governments account of those events were right and the BBC's at least highly questionable. It is a victory of a sort, but a Pyrrhic victory, in the real sense of that much abused phrase.*

What can the government do now? It is accused, in some ethereal, undefineable way, of contributing to the death of Dr Kelly. My advise, perhaps impalatable, would be to concede nothing to this line of argument. Dr Kelly himself identified that he had met with Andrew Gilligan, and did not feel his conversation matched that Mr Gilligan reported. The BBC protected itself by refusing to confirm that Dr Kelly was its' source. If we had known that in fact Dr Kelly was the only source for the story, the pressure that Dr Kelly endured over the last days of his life would surely have been a great deal lesser. If this is the case, then the government has little to apologise for.

However, there is a wider issue. It is not about Dr Kelly, or the Dossier or Mr Campbell and Mr Gilligan, it is about a political and media culture which we like to think of as robust, incisive and direct, but far too often is about bluster, assertion and the instincts of the pack. The major news media are so obsessed by the mechanics of politics, they miss the purpose.

There are politicians who do not follow these currents, and journalists too, but they tend to be iconoclasts, rebels, not the leaders of opinion. I for one thought the government has made a huge effort to change the tone of politics through the Prime Minister's press conferences, Commons committee appearances, but clearly there is much the still need to do.

So here is my modest proposal. For British Politics to avoid the trivia, "cluster-fucking" and sensation devoid of seriousness that seems to charcterise it now, the mechanics of politics should be left to the deserved obscurity of websites and diaries. Let our political discourse focus on this, and perhaps, more pyrrhic victories can be avoided.

* I am open to correction on this, but my understanding is that King Pyrrhus, after actually winning a bloody victory against Rome, exclaimed "more victories like this and we will be finished"

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