Magazine article The Spectator

Why Did Alastair Attack Me So Ferociously? and Why Doesn't the BBC Employ Him as an Interviewer?

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Did Alastair Attack Me So Ferociously? and Why Doesn't the BBC Employ Him as an Interviewer?

Article excerpt


Threatening letters on 10 Downing Street-headed notepaper are scary and I admit taking fright. My autobiography, Chance Witness, was on the verge of publication, and I was heading for the Grapes in Narrow Street for lunch with a Foreign Office friend when my mobile phone rang. Would I call my editor's office urgently? I did. They read me a letter from the Prime Minister's press office, signed by a member of staff there in the name of Alastair Campbell, and faxed through to the Times for publication. As I listened to the letter my blood ran cold.

Its more gratuitously abusive remarks did not survive the negotiation which sometimes occurs in these cases, so I will not quote all of what, on 26 September, the Prime Minister's director of communications and strategy intended for publication. What did finally appear concerned an excerpt from my book which had just appeared in the Times. I had described sharing a car with Alastair during the Labour leadership elections in 1994, when he (then assistant editor of the now defunct Today newspaper) and I were going to BBC Millbank to interrogate Tony Blair for Breakfast News. We discussed questions for the interview.

I recall (I wrote) Alastair's persuading me to doubt the professional wisdom of tackling Mr Blair on why, as an opponent of opt-out schools, he had sent his son Euan (I say) to the elite London Oratory. Alastair (I report) advised me that personal questioning on a family matter would be thought unprofessional and below the belt. His advice impressed me. I cannot recall (I wrote) whether I tackled Blair on schooling while toning down the personal side, or dropped it altogether.

That, at least, is what was in my book. But Campbell's letter looked devastating to this account. It pointed out that at the time Euan still had a year's primary schooling ahead. He could not possibly have been at the Oratory. I must have dreamed up the whole episode. Oh - and PS: would the editor mention to me that Campbell would be in touch separately with my publishers, Penguin-Viking?

Robert Thomson, my editor, sounded relaxed. I was not. Alastair would surely have checked his facts, so how could I possibly have had the conversation I seemed to remember so clearly? Had I just fantasised? Was I muddling this with a later conversation? I was wrong on a key fact. The legalistic side of me whispered that even if the claimed example were dud, it did not defame a known ruthless operator to depict him as a ruthless operator, but the human side replied that nothing makes it right to publish something which is not true. Hands trembling, I walked into the Grapes. At lunch with my diplomat friend I tried to take a genial interest in Pakistani politics. I tore straight back to my flat afterwards and dived for the bookshelf.

John Rentoul's Tony Blair (Little, Brown) caught my eye. To the index first, then page 418:

It was during the leadership campaign that the Daily Express first reported that Tony and Cherie were 'poised' to send their elder son Euan to the London Oratory .... Euan, then aged ten, found himself at the centre of a national controversy .... The seeds of doubt sown during the leadership campaign were reaped after the Blairs' decision was confirmed in December.

I paged back to the beginning of the campaign:

... a glossy leaflet [was produced by the Blair camp] called Principle, Purpose, Power.... The text was written by Alastair Campbell, then still Assistant Editor of Today newspaper. …

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