Byline: ROD LIDDLE
POOR Alastair Campbell.Forced to leave the battlefield-just before the moment of perhaps his greatest ever triumph of news management. It must be galling for him.
Because, you have to say, as far as the media seems to be concerned, he has won hands down. For ten weeks public attention has been focused upon issues of the most staggering mundanity and utter lack of relevance. Minutiae so remote from the point as to be almost surreal.
Did Andrew Gilligan get a word wrong in his broadcast at seven minutes past six on May 29? What was said in the email sent by the BBC's 'Kevin Suit' to his senior colleague 'Richard Suit' on June 8? We even had an eminent Palm Pilot expert from a Department of Palm Pilot Studies examining Gilligan's electronic notebook to see if he touched it after May 21.
So what if he did, you might be asking yourself. What's that got to do with anything? More pertinently, what's it got to do with the invasion of Iraq and, more specifically, this Government's determination to wage war despite the manifest lack of a need to do so?
This has been Alastair's last, and greatest, victory. His own war against the BBC, and Andrew Gilligan in particular, has had precisely the effect intended.
Please don't doubt for a moment that Downing Street's wrath at the BBC was anything other than confected and opportunistic. A week after the crucial Gilligan broadcast, Campbell met senior news executives from the BBC - including Richard Sambrook and the editor of the Today programme - and said not a word about the Gilligan report. It was only much later Downing Street decided to get really angry about it - just as the press, public and Parliament started asking serious questions about the process which led us into the unjustifiable Iraq war.
The outrage was bogus and intended to divert attention away from the real story - a story big enough to bring down not just Campbell and Geoff Hoon, but Tony Blair too.
Luckily, evidence is growing that the British public has cottoned on.
Shortly after appearing before Lord Hutton for the latest in a series of gruelling inquisitions, Gilligan repaired to a local restaurant to recuperate. When he came to pay the bill the manager said 'you're Andrew Gilligan, aren't you? In which case, mate, there's no charge. How could we charge you?' There is more: various taxi drivers have declined to accept payment from the mild-mannered reporter, saying it is their honour to ferry him around for nothing. Strangers have been approaching him in the street to shake his hand. And if Gilligan turned up in my local pub he'd be cheered to the rafters by locals who, when you mention the word 'Campbell' or, increasingly, 'Blair', grimace, sneer or spit.
It is probably too early to say we're about to witness a nationwide outbreak of Gilliganmania, with hysterical women prostrating themselves in front of him.
But there is not much doubt where public sympathy lies.
Because even if you don't trust the anecdotal stuff, check out the astonishing result from the Brent East by-election - a Labour majority of 13,000 ripped away by some unknown Lib-Dem moppet.
AND then there are the latest opinion polls. Alastair Campbell may have managed the news: but he has not managed public opinion.
Maybe that is because we now know for certain - had we ever been in any doubt - that Campbell was instrumental in 'sexing up' the September dossier about the nature of Iraq's threat to the west. A dossier which we now know for certain - had we ever been in any doubt - was commissioned retrospectively to provide spurious justification for a decision which had already been taken by the Prime Minister months previously. …