Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Inaccurate speculation and the use of invented anonymous quotes were identified by Alastair Campbell as two of the greatest failings of political correspondents when he gave evidence to Lord Justice Leveson’s inquiry.

Tony Blair’s former spin doctor ranged far and wide in presenting a damning critique of media ethics but neither counsel for the inquiry, Robert Jay QC, or the judge asked Campbell whether his own approach to political public relations might have contributed to the very shortcomings he was complaining about.

Campbell made much of the fact that he was in Downing Street during a culture change in the news media which ended up “besmirching” the good name of journalism.

But this was also a pivotal moment in the development of New Labour’s spin techniques. Under Campbell’s direction, the rule book for government information was rewritten to give civil service information officers the authority to trail in advance – i.e. leak – future government announcements. It was also the period when Blair doubled and then trebled the number of special advisers – i.e. spin doctors – who reported to Campbell and who were encouraged to trade information with journalists on an anonymous basis.

In his written statement to the inquiry (30.11.2011), Campbell stressed that he was the Downing Street press secretary, who – to his great credit – decreed that the twice-daily official briefings to lobby correspondents should be conducted on the record and a transcript published on line.

But that was not the problem: by expanding the cadre of New Labour spin doctors able to brief journalists on an off-the-record basis, Blair and Campbell greatly encouraged the growth in stories based on anonymous quotes from Downing Street/Whitehall “sources” and “insiders”.

Similarly Campbell’s acknowledgement in his written evidence that the Blair government felt it had to do “a better job of setting the agenda than our predecessors” failed to spell out how the trailing of future government announcements – a practice deplored by successive Speakers of the House of Commons – has only fuelled the speculative nature of so much of today’s political reporting.

When questioned by Robert Jay QC Campbell reminded Lord Justice Leveson that as political editor of the Daily Mirror he had written speculative “Sunday for Monday” stories about the Budget when he “did not have a clue” as to what the Chancellor was proposing.

Campbell then cited speculation in the lead-up to the autumn spending statement by the current Chancellor George Osborne (29.11.2011) and suggested that much of the coverage had been made up.

In fact the opposite was the case as almost all of Osborne’s announcements were heavily – and accurately – trailed in advance as a result of copious Treasury briefings. Credit easing for small businesses, postponement of increases in fuel duty, lower than expected rail fare rises and a host of other measures had all been predicted by journalists with great precision during the weekend leading up to the autumn statement.  After all, Osborne was simply taking a leaf out of Gordon Brown’s highly-effective handbook on media manipulation.

Again while Jay quoted from Campbell’s written criticism of journalists’ reliance on “invented anonymous quotes”, he did not pursue the point when he questioned the former Downing Street press secretary about his role in the events which preceded the death of the weapons inspector Dr David Kelly.

Campbell maintained that Lord Hutton had concluded on the basis of the evidence at his inquiry that even if there been no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq the BBC’s story (by Andrew Gilligan) was untrue.

There had subsequently been “thousands upon thousands”  of broadcasts stating the story was “right” when the story was “not true” and the journalist who wrote it “utterly dishonestly”, who should have been “unemployable, has gone from strength to strength”, a symbol of the very culture which Campbell said he was complaining about.

But again Jay and the judge did not pose any follow-up questions about the way that speculation about the identity of Gilligan’s source – which led to Kelly being identified in several newspapers – had followed off-the-record conversations which Campbell had continued to have with “editors and senior journalists”. 

Campbell’s continuing role was revealed at the Hutton Inquiry during questioning by James Dingemans QC; Campbell had gone on talking anonymously to a select clientele of “editors and senior journalists” despite the fact that Campbell had been asked by Tony Blair to refrain from giving further briefings about the dispute over the BBC’s reporting of the dossier on weapons of mass destruction.

Campbell’s last word on the abuse of anonymous quotes was a word of advice for British newsrooms. He suggested that they follow the practice of leading US newspapers which employed fact checkers to inquire into the authenticity of anonymous quotes.

Again there were searching questions which could have been put to Campbell. It should perhaps not have gone unnoticed by the Leveson inquiry that one of the world’s leading news agencies – Associated Press – singled out Downing Street as one of the worst purveyors of anonymous quotes.

At a seminar in London (6.9.2011), Tom Kent, deputy managing editor and standards editor of Associated Press, said the only exception they made to their rule that anonymous quotes should not be used related to the off-the-record guidance issued by Downing Street.

Successive official spokesmen for the British Prime Minister had insisted on their names not being used when speaking to journalists and despite the continued objections of Associated Press and other news agencies, the practice had continued – a practice which Kent asserted was the “very enemy of accountability.”

“The fact is that in the UK we have two or three official spokesmen who often contradict each other and their ministers...but it is proper to know who was speaking in the first place. To have people speaking under a cloak of secrecy is pointless, secrecy for no purpose.”

 Nicholas Jones 30.11.2011.