Campbell’s compelling nuclear secret

Hidden away in the diaries of Blair's right-hand man is a revealing admission a key components of th

As a journalist, Alastair Campbell never knowingly broke a news story. As he would freely admit, even when working for the Daily Mirror, he acted as a propagandist, not a reporter. As such, it should come as little surprise that nearly 800 pages of his diaries have produced little new other than the odd piece of tittle-tattle - Tony Blair saving Gordon Brown from a locked toilet, Bill Clinton and Kevin Spacey showing up at McDonald's in Blackpool, Campbell flirting with Princess Di - all very diverting, but not so much as a peep of a real revelation. Or was there?

Look again at Campbell's diary entry for 19 September 2002. It is on page 638. This was an intense time for Blair's sofa government, which was then feverishly preparing a dossier for public consumption on the status of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. As the diaries state, most of Campbell's work during this period was on the dossier. You would need to be an obsessive student of the details of this document to spot it, but there is a single phrase that leaps out. Reflecting on his satisfaction that the dossier is finally coming together, he writes: "Nuclear timelines just about sorted."

To the untrained eye, it may seem a harmless enough statement. After all, adapting intelligence assessments for public consumption was fraught with difficulty. The diaries capture well the frustration as Campbell and his team struggled to render the nuances of the spooks' official language into easily digestible English. At the beginning of the process, he had said that the dossier would have to be "revelatory". When the intelligence people had done their work, he knew the dossier would demand a "media-friendly editorial job". The nuclear issue proved particularly tricky.

As the NS reported in May, the claim that Saddam could develop a nuclear weapon in "a year or two", which appeared in the final dossier presented to parliament and the public, was not borne out by the intelligence. It was a piece of spin. The Campbell diaries confirm how tirelessly Blair's chief spin doctor worked towards this outcome.

Throughout September, Campbell pressurised John Scarlett, then head of the Joint Intelligence Committee and now head of MI6, to improve an insufficiently worrying assessment of Saddam's alleged nuclear programme. Campbell's admitted "bombardment" of Scarlett, which was backed by Blair, resulted in the tentative assessment of the intelligence services being replaced with a more compelling one.

The assessment of the JIC, the body that acts as the bridge between ministers and the intelligence services, was clear. We know what it said because it appeared in a draft of the dossier produced on 16 September 2002 and later disclosed to the Hutton inquiry. This draft contained the claim that Saddam could produce a nuclear device in "a year or two". But it also included a paragraph, numbered 18, setting out the JIC's view, which did not mention this alarming timescale: "If sanctions continued, Iraq would not be able indigenously to produce a nuclear weapon. If they were removed or became ineffective, it would take Iraq at least five years to produce a weapon. This timescale would shorten if Iraq succeeded in obtaining fissile material from abroad."

The JIC had insisted that the dossier should cite its standing assessments separately, so that readers could judge for themselves the interpretations put on them by the government. But the nuclear assessment was just not frightening enough. The publication of the assessment would also show that the one-to-two-year timescale did not come from the JIC. So Campbell wrote to Scarlett on 17 September passing on Blair's comments on the draft: "He like me was worried about the way you have expressed the nuclear issue particularly in paragraph 18."

Initially Scarlett stood his ground, writing on 18 September: "I have retained paragraph 18, which factually summarises the JIC position." But a factual summary of the JIC position was the last thing Blair and Campbell wanted. Campbell sent Scarlett "another dossier memo" and told him he had given someone in his office the latest draft and the nuclear section had left her "thinking there's nothing much to worry about". He wrote: "Sorry to bombard on this point."

The next morning Campbell bombarded Scarlett some more. He asked him to "delete par 18" and for a single paragraph to combine a new account of the JIC assessment, with the one-to-two-year timescale suddenly attributed to the JIC. Campbell provided a proposed text, in which the JIC's post-sanctions timescale was "up to" rather than "at least" five years. It was then stated that "the JIC assessed in early 2002 that [with fissile material from overseas] they could produce nuclear weapons in between one and two years".

Under this pressure, Scarlett agreed to delete paragraph 18 and combined the JIC timescale and Campbell's version in a single paragraph, so that it was no longer clear where one ended and the other began. This rewrite took place on 19 September. As Campbell wrote in his diary: "Nuclear timelines just about sorted." His influence on Scarlett, at Blair's insti gation, had achieved the required effect. The reference to the nuclear threat was now "nothing to worry about".

At the Hutton inquiry into the death of the weapons scientist Dr David Kelly, the essence of the BBC's allegations was described by the government's own counsel in the following terms: "that the government was guilty of political interference with the presentation of intelligence in the dossier, that it had presented as the advice of the intelligence services material which did not in fact reflect that advice".

In the case of the nuclear threat from Saddam, this now seems incontrovertible and Campbell's own diaries help prove it.

John Kampfner reviews the Campbell diaries, Books, page 56

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Tweeting terror: what social media reveals about how we respond to tragedy

From sharing graphic images to posting a selfie, what compels online behaviours that can often outwardly seem improper?

Why did they post that? Why did they share a traumatising image? Why did they tell a joke? Why are they making this about themselves? Did they… just post a selfie? Why are they spreading fake news?

These are questions social media users almost inevitably ask themselves in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy such as Wednesday’s Westminster attack. Yet we ask not because of genuine curiosity, but out of shock and judgement provoked by what we see as the wrong way to respond online. But these are still questions worth answering. What drives the behaviours we see time and again on social media in the wake of a disaster?

The fake image

“I really didn't think it was going to become a big deal,” says Dr Ranj Singh. “I shared it just because I thought it was very pertinent, I didn't expect it to be picked up by so many people.”

Singh was one of the first people to share a fake Tube sign on Twitter that was later read out in Parliament and on BBC Radio 4. The TfL sign – a board in stations which normally provides service information but can often feature an inspiring quote – read: “All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you.”

Singh found it on the Facebook page of a man called John (who later explained to me why he created the fake image) and posted it on his own Twitter account, which has over 40,000 followers. After it went viral, many began pointing out that the sign was faked.

“At a time like this is it really helpful to point out that its fake?” asks Singh – who believes it is the message, not the medium, that matters most. “The sentiment is real and that's what's important.”

Singh tells me that he first shared the sign because he found it to be profound and was then pleased with the initial “sense of solidarity” that the first retweets brought. “I don't think you can fact-check sentiments,” he says, explaining why he didn’t delete the tweet.

Dr Grainne Kirwan, a cyberpsychology lecturer and author, explains that much of the behaviour we see on social media in the aftermath of an attack can be explained by this desire for solidarity. “It is part of a mechanism called social processing,” she says. “By discussing a sudden event of such negative impact it helps the individual to come to terms with it… When shocked, scared, horrified, or appalled by an event we search for evidence that others have similar reactions so that our response is validated.”

The selfies and the self-involved

Yet often, the most maligned social media behaviour in these situations seems less about solidarity and more about selfishness. Why did YouTuber Jack Jones post a since-deleted selfie with the words “The outmost [sic] respect to our public services”? Why did your friend, who works nowhere near Westminster, mark themselves as “Safe” using Facebook’s Safety Check feature? Why did New Statesman writer Laurie Penny say in a tweet that her “atheist prayers” were with the victims?

“It was the thought of a moment, and not a considered statement,” says Penny. The rushed nature of social media posts during times of crisis can often lead to misunderstandings. “My atheism is not a political statement, or something I'm particularly proud of, it just is.”

Penny received backlash on the site for her tweet, with one user gaining 836 likes on a tweet that read: “No need to shout 'I'm an atheist!' while trying to offer solidarity”. She explains that she posted her tweet due to the “nonsensical” belief that holding others in her heart makes a difference at tragic times, and was “shocked” when people became angry at her.

“I was shouted at for making it all about me, which is hard to avoid at the best of times on your own Twitter feed,” she says. “Over the years I've learned that 'making it about you' and 'attention seeking' are familiar accusations for any woman who has any sort of public profile – the problem seems to be not with what we do but with who we are.”

Penny raises a valid point that social media is inherently self-involved, and Dr Kirwan explains that in emotionally-charged situations it is easy to say things that are unclear, or can in hindsight seem callous or insincere.

“Our online society may make it feel like we need to show a response to events quickly to demonstrate solidarity or disdain for the individuals or parties directly involved in the incident, and so we put into writing and make publicly available something which we wrote in haste and without full knowledge of the circumstances.”

The joke

Arguably the most condemned behaviour in the aftermath of a tragedy is the sharing of an ill-timed joke. Julia Fraustino, a research affiliate at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), reflects on this often seemingly inexplicable behaviour. “There’s research dating back to the US 9/11 terror attacks that shows lower rates of disaster-related depression and anxiety for people who evoke positive emotions before, during and after tragic events,” she says, stating that humour can be a coping mechanism.

“The offensiveness or appropriateness of humor seems, at least in part, to be tied to people’s perceived severity of the crisis,” she adds. “An analysis of tweets during a health pandemic showed that humorous posts rose and fell along with the seriousness of the situation, with more perceived seriousness resulting in fewer humour-based posts.”

The silence

If you can’t say anything nice, why say anything at all? Bambi's best friend Thumper's quote might be behind the silence we see from some social media users. Rather than simply being uncaring, there are factors which can predict whether someone will be active or passive on social media after a disaster, notes Fraustino.

“A couple of areas that factor into whether a person will post on social media during a disaster are issue-involvement and self-involvement,” she says. “When people perceive that the disaster is important and they believe they can or should do something about it, they may be more likely to share others’ posts or create their own content. Combine issue-involvement with self-involvement, which in this context refers to a desire for self-confirmation such as through gaining attention by being perceived as a story pioneer or thought leader, and the likelihood goes up that this person will create or curate disaster-related content on social media.”

“I just don’t like to make it about me,” one anonymous social media user tells me when asked why he doesn’t post anything himself – but instead shares or retweets posts – during disasters. “I feel like people just want likes and retweets and aren’t really being sincere, and I would hate to do that. Instead I just share stuff from important people, or stuff that needs to be said – like reminders not to share graphic images.”

The graphic image

The sharing of graphic and explicit images is often widely condemned, as many see this as both pointless and potentially psychologically damaging. After the attack, BBC Newsbeat collated tens of tweets by people angry that passersby took pictures instead of helping, with multiple users branding it “absolutely disgusting”.

Dr Kirwan explains that those near the scene may feel a “social responsibility” to share their knowledge, particularly in situations where there is a fear of media bias. It is also important to remember that shock and panic can make us behave differently than we normally would.

Yet the reason this behaviour often jars is because we all know what motivates most of us to post on social media: attention. It is well-documented that Likes and Shares give us a psychological boost, so it is hard to feel that this disappears in tragic circumstances. If we imagine someone is somehow “profiting” from posting traumatic images, this can inspire disgust. Fraustino even notes that posts with an image are significantly more likely to be clicked on, liked, or shared.

Yet, as Dr Kiwarn explains, Likes don’t simply make us happy on such occasions, they actually make us feel less alone. “In situations where people are sharing terrible information we may still appreciate likes, retweets, [and] shares as it helps to reinforce and validate our beliefs and position on the situation,” she says. “It tells us that others feel the same way, and so it is okay for us to feel this way.”

Fraustino also argues that these posts can be valuable, as they “can break through the noise and clutter and grab attention” and thereby bring awareness to a disaster issue. “As positive effects, emotion-evoking images can potentially increase empathy and motivation to contribute to relief efforts.”

The judgement

The common thread isn’t simply the accusation that such social media behaviours are “insensitive”, it is that there is an abundance of people ready to point the finger and criticise others, even – and especially – at a time when they should focus on their own grief. VICE writer Joel Golby sarcastically summed it up best in a single tweet: “please look out for my essay, 'Why Everyone's Reaction to the News is Imperfect (But My Own)', filed just now up this afternoon”.

“When already emotional other users see something which they don't perceive as quite right, they may use that opportunity to vent anger or frustration,” says Dr Kirwan, explaining that we are especially quick to judge the posts of people we don’t personally know. “We can be very quick to form opinions of others using very little information, and if our only information about a person is a post which we feel is inappropriate we will tend to form a stereotyped opinion of this individual as holding negative personality traits.

“This stereotype makes it easier to target them with hateful speech. When strong emotions are present, we frequently neglect to consider if we may have misinterpreted the content, or if the person's apparently negative tone was intentional or not.”

Fraustino agrees that people are attempting to reduce their own uncertainty or anxiety when assigning blame. “In a terror attack setting where emotions are high, uncertainty is high, and anxiety is high, blaming or scapegoating can relieve some of those negative emotions for some people.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.