Alastair Campbell -- overcome by emotion? Really?

It is difficult to take the former spin doctor's emotional outburst at face value.

Alastair Campbell showed his sensitive side on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show this morning, getting emotional as he denied that Tony Blair had misled parliament over claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Marr asked the former communications director to clarify his answer to the question put to him at the Chilcot inquiry: if the original evidence did not support the view that there was clear and unambiguous evidence that there were WMDs, did Tony Blair mislead parliament?

The notoriously bullish Campbell had to take a minute to compose himself, breathing deeply as if to hold back tears. "Tony Blair is a totally honourable man," he declared, his breath catching in his throat. He apologised for his emotional state. "I'm a bit upset at this constant vilification . . . I don't think people are interested in the truth any more, people are just interested in settling the score."

It was a strange tack for the man who has batted off sustained criticism for the past seven years, and who defiantly endured five hours of questioning at the Chilcot inquiry two weeks ago without so much as a dampening of the eyes. Given his intimate understanding of the media, it will be difficult for many to believe that this was a genuine, uncontrolled display of emotion.

We are familiar with anger from Campbell -- think of his impromptu appearance at the Channel 4 newsroom in 2003 -- but not this openness about his hurt feelings.

The Tory shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, another guest on the show, made an arch comment: "Many people are upset [about the Iraq war] in different ways, but that must not stop us from debating it."

It's a good point. When he had composed himself, Campbell took issue with the fact that the question was being asked, rather than answering it definitively:

I'm not saying it's not an important question . . . what I'm saying is that the reason people are going over it again and again is that those who disagree with the judgement Tony Blair made don't want to see the other side of the story.

Of course, it is entirely possible that what we saw this morning was genuine: Campbell probably is sick of being asked the same questions. But perhaps saying that he feels victimised is a tactic to close off debate, while showing the humanising "authenticity" that, as he pointed out, the public wants.

 

Evasion is the name of the game

Campbell was not the only one to be evasive. Hague was typically obfuscatory on the question of Lord Ashcroft's tax status.

He gave a very clear statement on Conservative policy -- that all peers will have to pay tax in the UK -- and said that it will not pose a problem for Ashcroft. However, his refusal to give an outright "yes" or "no" shows continued Tory discomfort with the deputy chairman's current tax status.

 

UPDATE (3.30pm):

Alastair Campbell has blogged on his appearance on the BBC this morning, saying that it is "frustrating" to be asked the same questions, and that Marr's agenda "was exposed in the way he casually threw in a highly disputed figure about casualties". He says:

So if I appeared lost for words, it was perhaps because there is nothing more to say, and if I had said what I was really thinking about the way the media [have] been covering the inquiry, and the way they cover public life more generally, I might have regretted it. So I let my mind race for a while, controlled the emotions surging around, then carried on.

. . . I do sometimes feel that people in public life are now treated by the media as though somehow they are devoid of humanity, do not have feelings, do not really care about anything.

 

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Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.