Why the BBC Is Losing; If the Hutton Inquiry Vindicates the Today Programme, Tony Blair Is History. but the Calm of the Blairite Circle Suggests Total Confidence That the Judge Will Come Down on Their Side

By Cohen, Nick | New Statesman (1996), August 25, 2003 | Go to article overview

Why the BBC Is Losing; If the Hutton Inquiry Vindicates the Today Programme, Tony Blair Is History. but the Calm of the Blairite Circle Suggests Total Confidence That the Judge Will Come Down on Their Side


Cohen, Nick, New Statesman (1996)


Alastair Campbell is so much the creation of hostile journalists that it's tempting to put his name in inverted commas and wonder if he is a fictional character. He is everywhere discussed and reviled, but the public is no more likely to have heard him speak for himself than to have spent an evening with Harry Potter. It was therefore a shock to watch the monster of media imagination spend five hours giving unspun evidence to Lord Hutton at the Royal Courts of Justice and emerge at the end of the session as a calm, self-assured figure.

You could hear the same self-assurance in the voices of the other Blairite witnesses--Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's chief of staff, and Sir David Manning, his former foreign policy adviser. Anyone who believes the Hutton inquiry will be a British Watergate should read the transcripts of their evidence at www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk. What is striking is the absence of fear. Obviously, every witness has spent weeks checking what they did and didn't write in e-mails and memos. Obviously, too, they know that the frenzy which led to Dr David Kelly's suicide was, in retrospect, inexcusable. But there is no trepidation in their voices and few evasive notes in their answers. All stick with absolute confidence to a truth they hold to be self-evident: the BBC got it wrong. Alastair Campbell did not override the protests of the intelligence services to insert the false or highly questionable claim that Iraq could launch chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes.

The Blairites know they are on their own. Although the inquiry has heard details of dozens of meetings between combinations of Blair, Campbell, Powell and Manning (with Peter Mandelson popping up every now and again, as he invariably does), the Parliamentary Labour Party and the cabinet are absent. There is no minute that describes Blair discussing his strategy over a whisky with, say, Gordon Brown or John Prescott or David Blunkett. Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon are minor players, who are on stage simply because they happened to be in the Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence. The Hutton inquiry is an inquiry into Blair and his kitchen cabinet. And at the time of going to press, nothing in the mountain of internal Whitehall documents that Lord Hutton's staff have collected has wounded them. Perhaps, when you read this, the story will have moved on and the government's case will have fallen apart. Perhaps Tony Blair will have cracked under interrogation. Perhaps a killer e-mail will have emerged from the data banks of Downing Street. But for the moment, the government line is holding, and Blair and his supporters know it.

This knowledge explains their relaxed style. When Powell gave evidence, the court was full and an overspill marquee for excluded hacks was half-full. When Campbell gave evidence, both the court and marquee were packed as journalists from all over the world collectively willed him to fail, like a hostile crowd praying for a penalty-taker to miss. But Campbell, like all the other government witnesses, spoke as if only Hutton and James Dingemans, senior counsel to the inquiry, were in the room. There was no playing to the gallery, no propaganda points. In a memo to John Scarlett, the head of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which forms part of the government's defence, Campbell told the spy that the September dossier on weapons of mass destruction should be the work of the intelligence services. "The drier the better," he said. "Cut the rhetoric." Campbell and his colleagues have followed this maxim at the inquiry. They have answered questions, avoided elaboration and given every appearance of bending over backwards to help His Lordship.

To moderately curious British citizens, their openness is beside the point. They wonder why there isn't an investigation into how the public came to be told there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when there were none worthy of the name. …

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