Alastair Campbell turns on Murdoch press

Man who won over the Sun for Blair goes on the attack -- accuses Tories of shaping policy to suit mo

Alastair Campbell has a very interesting blog this morning, which has been picked up because of its attack on Andrew Marr for telling David Cameron today that he is "on a roll!".

But there is another, more important element: a full-frontal attack on the Murdoch media empire. This is significant because Campbell was key to Blair winning the Sun's support in the 1997 election.

And close watchers of Campbell since the Sun switched to the Tories last year might have noticed that he has held back from launching a full-scale assault on the Murdoch press, to which he ramains close. Today, however, he says this:

As the news bulletin made clear, the weekend polls indicate that the outcome is likely to be in hung parliament territory. Yet the tone of the coverage is all playing into the "unstoppable momentum" strategy for Cameron, led by Murdoch papers and TV. It is sad to see parts of the Beeb fall in behind, especially bearing in mind what is going to happen to them if they end up with a Tory government whose media policy has been shaped to suit the Murdoch agenda.

A piece I wrote in November about the Sun's relationship with Labour included this story, based on Campbell's diaries:

It was in the summer of 1995 when, ominously clutching a kettle full of boiling water, Neil Kinnock erupted in fury at Alastair Campbell. The old friends were holidaying in France and the former Labour leader had just learned of Tony Blair's decision to fly to Australia as part of his extensive campaign to win the support of the Sun and its owner, Rupert Murdoch. In his diaries, The Blair Years, Campbell recalls Kinnock saying: "It won't matter if we win as the bankers and stockbrokers have got us already by the f*****g balls. And that is before you take your 30 pieces of silver."

A victim of the Sun throughout his leadership of Labour, Kinnock spoke from the heart. "You imagine what it's like having your head stuck inside a f*****g light bulb then you tell me how I'm supposed to feel when I see you set off halfway round the world to grease him up," he said, referring to the tabloid's front page on polling day in 1992, which declared that, if Kinnock were to win, the last voter to leave the country should "turn the lights off".

When Campbell protested that he and Blair had given nothing to Murdoch, Kinnock countered prophetically: "You will. And he will take it. You will get his support and then you will get the support of a few racist b*******, and then you'll lose it again the minute that we are in trouble."

And so it came to pass. After an awkward 14-year interlude, the Sun has now returned to doing what it does best: bashing Labour.

Looking back at his diaries, even Campbell may now agree that Kinnock was right. But so is Campbell. Labour has learned that support came at a price. If the Tories win this week, they will learn the same lesson one day.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
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Like many others, Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was left in charge of a failing aircraft

Ony when enough hospitals shut down, and do so often, will those with true responsibility properly resource the NHS. 

The day Leicester trainee paediatrician Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was struck off by the High Court for her involvement in the death of six-year-old Jack Adcock, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt posted a tweet expressing his deep concern about possible unintended consequences of the ruling. He was referring specifically to the impact on patient safety.

At a stroke, efforts to build a culture of open learning – a cause Hunt champions – had been set back decades. You don’t get people to talk honestly about critical mistakes by threatening them with prison and professional ruin.

There may be other consequences that Hunt didn’t anticipate. Comparisons with another safety-critical industry – aviation – are instructive. On the day Jack died, from undiagnosed sepsis, Bawa-Garba was functioning as would a first officer on an aircraft. The plane’s captain was elsewhere, training other pilots on a simulator in a different city. The chief steward had failed to report for duty, so Bawa-Garba was expected to oversee cabin service as well as fly the plane single-handed.

The aircraft’s IT systems had gone down, meaning one of the stewardesses was permanently occupied looking out of the window to ensure they didn’t collide with anything. Another stewardess was off sick, and her replacement was unfamiliar with the type of plane and its safety systems. And Bawa-Garba herself had just returned from a year’s maternity leave. She’d done quite a lot of flying in the past, though, and the airline clearly believed she could slot straight back into action – they arranged no return-to-work programme, dropping her in at the deep end.

Not one of us would agree to be a passenger on that flight, yet that kind of scenario is commonplace in hospitals throughout the country. Critically ill patients have no awareness of how precarious their care is, and would have no choice about it if they knew. Since the Bawa-Garba ruling, doctors have been bombarding the General Medical Council (GMC) for advice as to what they should do when confronted with similarly parlous working conditions.

The GMC’s response has been to issue a flowchart detailing whom medics should tell about concerns. But it has failed to confirm that doing so would protect doctors should a disaster occur. Nor does it support worried doctors simply refusing to work under unsafe conditions. This is akin to telling the first officer they must inform the airline that things are bad, very bad, but that they still have to fly the plane regardless.

Jeremy Hunt has responded to the crisis by announcing an urgent review into gross negligence manslaughter, the offence of which Bawa-Garba was convicted. This is welcome, and long overdue, but it still serves to retain the focus on individuals and their performance, and keeps attention away from the failing systems that let down doctors and patients daily.

An action by the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin is, arguably, more important than Hunt’s review. The organisation has written to Leicestershire police requesting that they investigate Bawa-Garba’s hospital trust for alleged corporate manslaughter. I sincerely hope a prosecution follows. I’m no fan of litigation, but change is only going to come when those who manage the NHS know that they are going to carry the can when things go wrong.

We need clear statements of what constitute minimum acceptable staffing levels, both in terms of numbers, and training and experience. When departments, or even whole hospitals, fall below these – or when unexpected problems such as IT failures occur – managers, faced with the real prospect of corporate lawsuits, will close the unit, rather than keep operating in unsafe conditions, as routinely occurs.

Only when enough hospitals shut down, and do so often, will those with true responsibility – Jeremy Hunt and the rest of the Conservative government – finally act to resource the health service properly. 

This would be an unintended consequence from the Dr Bawa-Garba case that would be welcome indeed. 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist