Campbell defends Labour relationship with Murdoch

Tony Blair’s former spin doctor has defended the Labour party’s dealings with Rupert Murdoch.

Recalled to the Leveson Inquiry to discuss relations between the press and politicians during his time at Number 10, Alastair Campbell said that the News Corp boss was “certainly the most important media player, without a doubt”.

The Murdoch-owned Sun famously switched its political allegiance and backed Labour in the 1997 general election, which the party won in a landslide victory.

Approaching Murdoch titles as well as the press more generally was part of a New Labour “neutralisation” strategy, Campbell said, to ensure the party had a level playing field”. He said the Sun was a “significant player” among British newspapers.

Campbell, arguably Britain’s most iconic spin doctor, was Tony Blair’s spokesman when he became Labour party leader in 1994 and went on to be Downing Street press secretary and director of communications after the party came to power.

He asserted that Labour did not win because of Murdoch’s support, but rather the media mogul supported the party “because we were going to win”. Campbell refuted the idea of the perceived power of newspapers being key to winning an election, noting that current prime minister had press backing and failed to win a majority in 2010.

Campbell said he had no evidence to suggest there had been a deal between Blair and Murdoch to support New Labour, and also downplayed the three phone calls between them in the eight days prior to the Iraq war in 2003.

He also sought to downplay the influence of spin — “journalists aren’t stupid and the public aren’t stupid,” he said — and claimed that politicians, rather than newspapers, held real power.

He conceded that the New Labour approach to the media (former prime minister Blair famously dubbed the press “feral beasts”) may have given newspapers “too much of a sense of their own power”.

During his previous appearance at the Inquiry in November, Campbell slammed the British press as “putrid”, and singled out the Daily Mail as perpetuating a “culture of hate” for its crime and health scares.

Campbell was not optimistic about the appetite for change in Westminster. “I don’t think Cameron particularly wants to have to deal with this [the Inquiry],” he said. “It would be very difficult not to go along with the recommendations [that the Inquiry produces], but I don’t think there is much appetite.” He also suggested a speech made by education secretary Michael Gove which alluded to the possible “chilling effect” of the Inquiry on the press “may be part of a political strategy” to ensure the Conservative party would not lose media support.

Campbell speculated that some of the more negative media coverage Cameron received might be “revenge” for his setting up the Inquiry in the wake of the phone hacking scandal last summer.

Meanwhile he stressed what he saw as the importance of the Inquiry, praising groups such as Hacked Off, Full Fact and the Media Standards Trust as representing “genuine public concern about what the media has become”.

Also giving evidence earlier today was former cabinet secretary Lord O’Donnell, who oversaw the vetting process for David Cameron’s former communications chief, ex-News of the World editor Andy Coulson. O’Donnell said that Coulson had not been subject to rigorous developed vetting (DV) checks upon entering Downing Street in 2010, and instead went through a more rudimentary “security check” process.

O’Donnell confirmed that DV checks would have involved Coulson signing a form that would disclose any shareholdings that might amount to a conflict of interest. During his evidence last week, Coulson told the Inquiry he held shares in News Corp worth £40,000 while working at Number 10, which he had failed to disclose properly.

O’Donnell told the Inquiry that a “form was signed, but it didn’t disclose shareholdings, and it should have done.”

Leveson said it would be worthwhile to compare the vetting process undergone by other media advisers, “only to demonstrate that there isn’t a smoking gun”.

The Inquiry, which is currently examining the relationship between the press and politicians, will continue tomorrow with evidence from Sky News political editor Adam Boulton and Conservative party politician Lord Wakeham.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Newspapers "too big" to take on, Leveson Inquiry told

A former police officer told the Leveson Inquiry today that his bosses at the Information Commissioner’s Office warned him the press was “too big” to take on over private investigators.

Alec Owens, who was a senior investigator in Operation Motorman, an ICO-led investigation into allegations of data protection offences by the British media, revealed he had found notebooks in private investigator Steve Whittamore’s home with 17,500 entries identifying each reporter and newspaper who had commissioned a task. The “Pandora’s box” of information also included invoices to and payments from newspapers, criminal record checks, car registration checks and ex-directory telephone numbers.

Owens said, “we could identify the newspaper, the journalist, Whittamore, who he used, the blaggers, the corrupt people, and we had a paper chain right the way up and down.”

However, a “shocked” Francis Aldhouse, the then deputy information commissioner, told Owens the press were “too big” to take on.

Owens said that no journalists had been questioned or charged in Operation Motorman, adding, “I wish we had the opportunity to look at all this.” He contended that the evidence found was “strong enough to stand on its own” to prosecute journalists, noting that some were using Whittamore 300 or 400 times.

Owens also revealed that the mobile phone number of abducted schoolgirl Milly Dowler and her family’s ex-directory telephone number were featured in Whittamore’s notebooks, as well as the names of other victims of phone hacking at the News of the World.

Operation Motorman, carried out in 2003, investigated the use of a private investigators by the media to obtain personal information. In 2004, Whittamore was arrested and given a conditional discharge. In September of this year, Owens gave a disk of his files on the operation to the Independent newspaper, revealing previously unpublished details of the scale of the press use of private investigators. Just weeks before coming to the Inquiry, Owens’s home was raided under a warrant by Cheshire police, in an operation he described as a “fishing trip.”

Earlier in the day, former Number 10 director of communications Alastair Campbell called for media reform, labelling the British press “putrid”.

In his three-hour testimony, Campbell described a “culture of negativity”, with the Daily Mail being the most “relentless” for its crime and health scares. He said parents whose children have had measles should blame negative coverage over the MMR vaccine, and cited social workers as only ever being defined negatively in the tabloids, which he said impacted on recruitment, morale and the services they provide. He said the press’s treatment of the Dowlers and McCanns was “not atypical” but rather something that happened to anyone who became a “news commodity”.

He went on to say the paper was “utterly the product of one person”, and questioned editor Paul Dacre’s assertion that he had never published a story based on illegal information. Campbell argued that editors may genuinely not know “that the law is being broken left, right and centre”.

Of journalists, he said, “they are the spin doctors. They are the ones deciding what the line is…The line then gets reported as public opinion.”

While stopping short of accusing the Mail of phone hacking, Campbell said he was “unprepared” to say the paper had “never done anything untoward”.

He said that during his time at Downing Street he was “very concerned” about how many stories about Cherie Blair and her life coach Carole Caplin were getting out to different parts of the press. While admitting he had no evidence of hacking, Campbell said in his witness statement that it was “at least possible” that this is how stories were revealed.

Campbell claimed that those who argued loudest for freedom of the press were “terrified” of regulation, but that the majority of journalists had nothing to fear. Those who were terrified, he said, were scared of losing “the ability to do this sort of journalism they have been doing over the last decade or so.”

He agreed with Guardian journalist Nick Davies that a public interest advisory body should be introduced to help guide reporters. He also argued in favour of a new regulatory body that would not have current media representatives sitting on it. He advocated a US-style system of fact-checking on newspapers as well as league tables to see which papers adhered to the code of practice.

Also speaking today was Mark Lewis, a solicitor for victims of phone hacking. He described the surveillance carried out on him and his family by News of the World private investigators as “truly horrific.” In an impassioned testimony, he went on to say that News International sought to “destroy” his life and “very nearly succeeded”.

Lewis also refuted claims in a dossier compiled by NI lawyers that he had leaked information to the Guardian, accusing solicitor Julian Pike and News of the World lawyer Tom Crone of “complete arrogance and idiocy”.

The hearing continues on Monday, when we will hear from Francis Aldhouse, the former ICO investigator on Operation Motorman, solicitor Charlotte Harris and author Peter Burden.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson.

Strategic communications: a force for good?

The best and the brightest of the men and women tasked to spread the word in favour of military-humanitarian missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and other well-known western policy disaster areas gathered in London this week.

Scores of senior spokespersons, convened by the UK media development consultancy Albany Associates, met to discuss “Strategic Communications in Countries Emerging from Violent Conflict” and hear from the maestros of the trade — Blair-era spinmeister Alastair Campbell and Kosovo war NATO spokesman Jamie Shea among them.

The uniquely British system of self-censorship known as Chatham House Rules precludes the public linking of name to publicly stated opinion. But I am sure the veteran Sunday Times Afghanistan correspondent Christina Lamb, one of this week’s speakers, will forgive me for crediting her with the view that strategic communications is no more than spin for warfare.

My own view, from experience in Afghanistan and Iraq, is that at its worst it is little more than putting a little lipstick on a pig of a combat mission. The honourable purpose of this week’s conference is to establish if it can be more than that.

According to Albany Associates, strategic communications covers: “Integrated communications; public diplomacy; crisis communications; core narrative development; communications audits; media relations”.

To its most famous British exponent, strategic communications is not about spinning favourable coverage, or getting good press coverage, or manipulating the public agenda. Instead it is about giving policymakers and implementers the space they need to move from A to B.

Which is why, he said, policymakers should take the opportunity to fully incorporate communications into policy development and implementation from the outset.

As was very neatly illustrated by another speaker, on a chart tracking speed of response and effect of PR statements, al Qaida can often leave western officials behind in the dust while they verify reports of atrocities.

The pressure on western spokesmen to fill the void between local allegation and international rebuttal can tempt them into hasty, inaccurate or misleading statements. Without the online evidence produced by citizens in Afghanistan, for example, the true scale of recent civilian deaths during bungled US military air attacks would never have been revealed.

The threat to the moral integrity of strategic communications is that it exists side by side by with an ongoing effort by the US military to break down the traditional barriers between propaganda, strategic disinformation and traditional public diplomacy, the all-purpose phrase used in Washington for everything from student exchanges to US sponsored ballet company tours.

It also shares space with PR companies that believe that the techniques applied to defend the reputations of car manufacturers who make SUVs with duff brakes can be applied as easily in defence of nations that make wars with duff claims to legitimacy.

Or as one suit claimed, their familiarity with commercial brand management opened their eyes to “deconstructing” a “brand” like al Qaida and “understanding” its attractiveness. If you can build up a brand, he noted, you can bring it down. The US military call it Information Operations — central to the global counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy inspired by Iraq-Afghanistan commanding US army general David Petraeus.

Yet after years of hearing claims that strategic communications is more than just dull state propaganda, its promises to deliver everything from working drains in Mazar e Sharif to the defeat of global terrorism, it seems to have failed to deliver everything except the reinforcement of citizen journalism as a direct challenge to its workings.

Its acolytes argue that the problem is that we are just doing it wrong. Even they argue that good strategic communications cannot salvage bad policy. And it is hard not to be tempted by its siren song of simplicity; all you need is an objective, a strategy and tactics. Start with that and stick with it through hell and high water.

A speaker recalled a diplomatic conversation with former president Bill Clinton about Russian nuclear missile counts on the day the catastrophic Starr Report was published. Later he asked him how he managed to carry on?

Clinton told him. He had an objective (not to leave power in shame); a strategy (to do the job that only he as president could do); and tactics (to make sure people knew he was doing that job). And, said the speaker, visibly impressed, it worked.

Tempting indeed. You can survive a Lewinsky affair or a war started in the face of public resistance of a million or more voters, armed with no more than strategic communication’s 15 key rules of engagement.

But maybe free expression rights campaigners could put the same techniques to honourable use in pursuit of their own objectives. Albany Associates have deployed everything from street theatre to children’s clown shows in their work embedding communication in stabilisation and reconstruction programmes in Sudan.

The power of radio in post-conflict societies to advocate for peaceful dialogue and health and education rights for marginalised communities is well documented. The biggest challenge to rights advocacy groups today is to move beyond traditional statements of protest to direct engagement with opponents through new communications strategies, including those being discussed today in London.

Well I did say it was a siren song…

Rohan Jayasekera is Associate Editor at Index on Censorship. You can follow his tweets from the Strategic Communications in Countries Emerging from Violent Conflict Conference on #stratcomms. Details of the 24/25 June Albany Associates and Post Conflict People conference on