Poor Mo, she took it all to heart

Observations - Dirty politics

Political journalists are supposed not to reveal their sources, but on this occasion there should be no problem. The source herself, Mo Mowlam, has been lamenting her fate all week in the Daily Mail and will be doing so again shortly on Channel 4.

Let me provide a small piece of historical context to Mo's travails. We were sitting in the upstairs bar of the Stakis Hotel in Blackpool. It was the Tuesday evening of the Labour Party conference of 1998, and the Great Leader had just made his speech.

We had arranged our drink the previous weekend. I was looking forward to it much more than the usual formal lunches and dinners in conference week; first, because we always seemed to have a jolly time. (I remember one meeting at the Northern Ireland Office, when she took me, bodyguard in tow, on a walk into the Victoria Gardens, where she bought me a "99" ice cream plus Flake). Second, because I assumed that on this evening, she would be in particularly good form.

But it wasn't to be. She was uncharacteristically quiet. I congratulated her on what had already been dubbed her "Movation" - the standing ovation she had received when Tony Blair had mentioned her name in the course of his keynote address. "That will be the end of me," she said.

Mowlam went on to explain her fears of a whispering campaign she believed was being orchestrated by her three chief detractors - Jonathan Powell, who thought he was doing her job; Peter Mandelson, who wanted her job; and Alastair Campbell, who thought she wasn't doing a very good job.

I thought long and hard about whether to do a piece for the Today programme, for which I then worked, and if so, how. The BBC was particularly jittery around that time, obsessed with "balance". I had never seen any point in engineering a specious equilibrium within each item - those "Labour says this, but the Tories say that, and as for the Liberal Democrats . . . " lines that were the norm.

I waited a day or two for cover, then did a piece explaining how some in the cabinet suspected that Blair and those around him did not enjoy it when others superseded the Prime Minister in terms of popularity. There were complaints, but it didn't take long for others in and around Downing Street - not the three alleged culprits - to corroborate my version.

These "stories" are a journalistic minefield. The most common piece of small talk with a minister, special adviser, even civil servant at the start of those ubiquitous lunches, which provide most political hacks with their stories, is the discussion about who's up and who's down.

It is not the conversation that is pernicious, but the use to which both sides put it. I lost track of the number of "briefings" I received. They were variations on similar themes. There was the "Jack Straw's lost the plot on law and order", and the "Alan Milburn is using his elbows a bit too much" (both of which coincided with the subject concerned enjoying a brief rise in popularity). Then there was the kicking the man when he's down variety, such as the "we have to keep John Prescott as far away from the action as possible".

Do these merit airtime? Sometimes, but only if the source is privy to actual new information, rather than recycling gossip. Either way, it is the nexus of journalism and politics at its most malign. The emergence of "real" stories since 11 September has put all this somewhat into abeyance, but it will not disappear. It is, after all, the lifeblood for so much political journalism.

What distinguished Mowlam from her colleagues was not her treatment, but that she took it so much to heart.