The Spin-Doctor: Implications of the Phone-Hacking Scandal

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Alastair Campbell is a writer, communicator and strategist best known for his role as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s spokesman, press secretary and director of communications and strategy. Still active in Labour politics, he now splits his time between writing, speaking, charitable fundraising, politics and campaigns.

 

The marmite of British politics, the man who masterminded consecutive Labour landslides and infamously, the man alleged to have distorted the facts in order to make the case for war in the ‘dodgy’ Iraq dossier. Alastair Campbell is no ordinary individual. I, for one, am no supporter of his political agenda. However, he has been at the centre of the British political arena for near-on two decades, decades that have been dominated by a groundbreaking Third Way of which Blair, Brown and Campbell pioneered. So, when the spin-doctor speaks, love him or loathe him, you better listen. More often than not he has something worthwhile to say.

As the phone-hacking saga rumbles on in the Westminster bubble, the analysis from political commentators seems to get evermore apocalyptic. The repercussions of what is being dubbed by some, ‘Britain’s Watergate’, may well take some time to come about, but Campbell, with his usual degree of impartiality (*cough*), told me that he honestly thinks this could be the beginning of the end of Cameron’s tenure at Number 10.

“The Prime Minister's judgment really has been called into question. If he learns the lessons, he can recover. But the signs are he hasn't really and I think there could be a fault-line emerging here – a self-confidence that becomes arrogance under pressure means you stop analyzing issues on their merits and instead seek only to justify past decisions. It also means people will be less inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.“

Hardly a surprising analysis from Blair’s closest ally. Of course, if Labour were able to build momentum towards a possible resignation at the very top of the Cabinet, the coalition would most likely fall. Amidst sluggish growth figures, a stuttering conflict in North Africa and Ed Miliband finally finding some leadership qualities in the last month, however small they may be, Campbell and his colleagues may feel they have a sniff of returning to power, less than two years after they took a battering at the hands of the British electorate.

I went onto grill Mr. Campbell on a much more delicate matter in relation to this story; that of his own party’s dealings with the Murdoch empire and crucially, Miliband’s new Director of Communications, Tom Baldwin.

“If he was in London for a few days, the chances are he would come in,” he said of Rupert Murdoch. “I could not say how many times he met with Tony, but it would be a small number per year.”

Sensing the implied accusation of hypocrisy on my part with regard to his own previous attack on Cameron’s relationship with Murdoch and Brookes, a staunch defense of his time at Number 10 was set out.

“I think people should realise that if we were beholden to them as people like to say, we would not have pursued the pro Europe policy we did. My diaries record instances of real disagreement but they do not fit the current media prism. It is true that in opposition we set ourselves the goal of minimizing the damage the right wing press could do to Labour and we succeeded in that.”

 Lest I be struck down by the devil, I asked him about the PM getting stick for appointing Andy Coulson. Could the same not be said for Miliband and Baldwin?

 “No I don't think they are comparable at all. The Tories are trying to run the line that we are all as bad as each other. The problem is Coulson was editor of a paper where criminal activity was known and proven when Cameron and Osborne hired him, and when anyone with an ounce of media and political judgment could see the story was not going away.

“The Tories, the police and News International were willing it away but there were too many questions unanswered. This is not hindsight. Someone said on my website last week I had done more than 30 blogs on the 'Coulson disaster waiting to happen' theme.”

 Forgetting the notably bulging ego of the man, he does have a fair point. Why, oh why, did Cameron and co. take the risk on Coulson? Like Campbell, he was an exceptionally fine operator, unbelievably talented at what he did, but nevertheless, it does seem a mistake was made. Even Cameron acknowledges that fact now, whilst citing promises made by Coulson back in 2007 that he was not aware of illegal practices at the News of the World, promises repeated in a court of law.

Let’s not forget, these revelations and investigations into the workings of the press will not just have an impact politically, but may also have widespread implications for the Metropolitan police, News Corporation’s presence here and abroad, and the media at large.

 “For the police, a lot now depends on the second investigation into hacking being thorough and matched with integrity,” he told me.

 “A lot also depends on the leadership of the new Commissioner, but if extensive bribery by journalists and private eyes is exposed, they have a real long term reputational management problem.”

 The resignations of the Met Commissioner, Sir Paul Stevenson, along with the Assistant Commissioner and Head of the Anti-Terror division, John Yates, sent shockwaves around Scotland Yard last week. Their replacements will have the unenviable job of not only handling the London Olympics next summer, but also repairing a stained reputation.

 “For News International and the Murdoch brand it will take a long time to recover. Policy makers will be wary of them and their influence will decline. For the rest of the press a lot depends on what emerges as the police investigate their use of private detectives and also on what the judicial inquiry produces. But I think good journalism should welcome all this. It is bad journalism that is under threat.”

It is interesting that Campbell comes to that conclusion. For sound journalists and lovers of democracy, the big worry is that widespread regulation of the printing press as a result of this scandal will create impotent newspapers unable to play their crucial role in what is at the moment, a free and democratic society.

 “Indeed it is proper investigative journalism – dogged, patient, reporters given time, all within the law so far as anyone can tell – that has produced this story in the first place. Nick Davies will probably win every award going. Good journalism exposing bad. Surely good journalists should welcome that.

 “The 'proper investigative journalism' papers like The Sun and The Mail fear is under attack is actually in the main about the sex lives of celebrities. It cannot be put in the same category as the journalism which exposed what went on at the News of the World and will doubtless go on to expose wrongdoing elsewhere.”

 If Alastair Campbell has ever said anything that I agree with, that was it – right there. A journalist’s job is to investigate where the evidence leads, in the public interest and within the confines of the law. It is what every student journalist should aspire to; fair, probing and worthy commentary, within the legal framework. Claims that it was only News International that engaged in illegal practices will, I’m sure, be unfounded also.

Looking at the wider picture, News International isn’t the real problem in my book. It is the BBC that dominates broadcast and online news, whilst Murdoch’s holdings are only a substantial part of a diminishing market, especially in light of News of the World’s axe. Don’t get me wrong, concerns about News International are valid and Campbell and others are right in saying that it must be scaled back, but it is our beloved ‘Beeb’ that is the root cause of Britain’s disenchantment with its media enterprises and therefore needs radical reform.

Back to Alastair Campbell; he is a man whom I oppose politically, a man that angers me for resorting to spin and sleaze, a man who I despise for distracting attention away from the legitimate reasons for Iraqi regime change; but pivotally and above all else, he is a man whom we should all hold a great deal of respect for.

A remarkable person with fascinating insight and know-how; and when it comes to hack-gate, once you’ve stripped away the party political point scoring, he has some excellent points to make.

 “I don't know (where this will end up). I hope it ends up with an improved media-politics settlement in which politicians do their job without fear or favour and journalists do theirs without fear or favour. The beneficiaries of that would be the public.”

 Labour stalwarts will love that closing quote. Tories may be calling for a sick-bag. Everyone else? Well, they may doubt his motives for seeing the back of Murdoch, but they probably will think he is right.

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