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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Calum Kerr on Governing the Digital Economy

With the publication of the UK Digital Strategy we’ve seen another instalment in the UK Government’s ongoing effort to emphasise its digital credentials.

As the SNP’s Digital Spokesperson, there are moves here that are clearly welcome, especially in the area of skills and a recognition of the need for large scale investment in fibre infrastructure.

But for a government that wants Britain to become the “leading country for people to use digital” it should be doing far more to lead on the field that underpins so much of a prosperous digital economy: personal data.

If you want a picture of how government should not approach personal data, just look at the Concentrix scandal.

Last year my constituency office, like countless others across the country, was inundated by cases from distressed Tax Credit claimants, who found their payments had been stopped for spurious reasons.

This scandal had its roots in the UK’s current patchwork approach to personal data. As a private contractor, Concentrix had bought data on a commercial basis and then used it to try and find undeclared partners living with claimants.

In one particularly absurd case, a woman who lived in housing provided by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation had to resort to using a foodbank during the appeals process in order to prove that she did not live with Joseph Rowntree: the Quaker philanthropist who died in 1925.

In total some 45,000 claimants were affected and 86 per cent of the resulting appeals saw the initial decision overturned.

This shows just how badly things can go wrong if the right regulatory regimes are not in place.

In part this problem is a structural one. Just as the corporate world has elevated IT to board level and is beginning to re-configure the interface between digital skills and the wider workforce, government needs to emulate practices that put technology and innovation right at the heart of the operation.

To fully leverage the benefits of tech in government and to get a world-class data regime in place, we need to establish a set of foundational values about data rights and citizenship.

Sitting on the committee of the Digital Economy Bill, I couldn’t help but notice how the elements relating to data sharing, including with private companies, were rushed through.

The lack of informed consent within the Bill will almost certainly have to be looked at again as the Government moves towards implementing the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation.

This is an example of why we need democratic oversight and an open conversation, starting from first principles, about how a citizen’s data can be accessed.

Personally, I’d like Scotland and the UK to follow the example of the Republic of Estonia, by placing transparency and the rights of the citizen at the heart of the matter, so that anyone can access the data the government holds on them with ease.

This contrasts with the mentality exposed by the Concentrix scandal: all too often people who come into contact with the state are treated as service users or customers, rather than as citizens.

This paternalistic approach needs to change.  As we begin to move towards the transformative implementation of the internet of things and 5G, trust will be paramount.

Once we have that foundation, we can start to grapple with some of the most pressing and fascinating questions that the information age presents.

We’ll need that trust if we want smart cities that make urban living sustainable using big data, if the potential of AI is to be truly tapped into and if the benefits of digital healthcare are really going to be maximised.

Clearly getting accepted ethical codes of practice in place is of immense significance, but there’s a whole lot more that government could be doing to be proactive in this space.

Last month Denmark appointed the world’s first Digital Ambassador and I think there is a compelling case for an independent Department of Technology working across all government departments.

This kind of levelling-up really needs to be seen as a necessity, because one thing that we can all agree on is that that we’ve only just scratched the surface when it comes to developing the link between government and the data driven digital economy. 

In January, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the New Statesman convened a discussion on this topic with parliamentarians from each of the three main political parties and other experts.  This article is one of a series from three of the MPs who took part, with an  introduction from James Johns of HPE, Labour MP, Angela Eagle’s view and Conservative MP, Matt Warman’s view

Calum Kerr is SNP Westminster Spokesperson for Digital