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14 June 2007

It takes one to know one

Tony Blair denounces the media for manipulation - while still denying his own addiction to spinning.

By Martin Bright

There were moments during Tony Blair’s speech to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, about the media’s corrosive effect on the conduct of public life, when I half expected one of his aides to rush in and pull him aside like a drunk in a pub brawl and say: “Tony, don’t bother, mate, they’re not worth it.” Such was the intemperate tone of the lecture that I even wondered whether there are any advisers left in Downing Street at all, or whether the PM wanders the corridors alone, raging to himself about the injustice of it all.

But like it or lump it, every time Blair makes a public appearance he will be asked about the war in Iraq and the manipulation of the media and parliament that preceded it. Whether he is speaking on the US lecture circuit, or attempting to resolve religious conflict at the head of the Blair Foundation, that will be his fate. This is not because the media are “feral beasts”, as he declared, but because the conflict has become a running sore, with profound national and global consequences.

Nor is it the fault of journalists that Britain’s political institutions remain deeply damaged by the abuse of intelligence by those in Blair’s sofa-government in the shameful days of autumn 2002. In fact, the real media scandal remains the journalists who were complicit in justifying the spurious intelligence on behalf of the government and presenting it as fact to an unsuspecting public. Collectively, the profession failed in its duty by being too credulous in the weeks leading up to the war. Too many journalists who should have known better became willing collaborators in the government’s propaganda machine, rather than holding the government to account. In this sense, the media and politicians are indeed equally culpable. The full extent of the media’s complicity in reproducing the “official story” is still to be told, although a forthcoming book by the Guardian‘s investigative reporter Nick Davies will name and shame some of the key players. The public is best served by an inquisitorial and sceptical press and too often in recent years it has fallen short in this duty.

But this is not what Blair meant. He suggested that the Independent acts as a metaphor for everything that is wrong with modern journalism in the way that it blurs the division between news and comment and shamelessly promotes itself as a “viewspaper”. Be that as it may, the Iraq dossier on WMDs remains a symbol of a far more sinister attempt to manipulate information for public consumption.

This is why I chose to raise the issue of the dossier with the Prime Minister in the question session that followed his lecture. I pointed out that it was neither politicians nor journalists who had got to the real truth about the dossier, but an ordinary member of the public. Chris Ames, a charity researcher from Surrey, has doggedly pursued the government over an early draft of the WMD dossier that remains to this day secret. Throughout a series of inquiries, the government has claimed that the dossier was essentially the work of the intelligence services, with government spin doctors brought in simply to advise on presentation. However, through a series of Freedom of Information requests, Ames has already established that an early draft of the dossier was, in fact, written by a Foreign Office press officer, John Williams. In total, he has shown, four government spin doctors were involved in the drafting process. Last month, the Information Commissioner, who presides over the FoI process, ordered the release of the document, but the Foreign Office has appealed and the draft remains under lock and key.

I asked Blair whether he believed the draft should be released in the spirit of openness. He said he knew nothing about the details of the Ames case. But he and his press spokesman did promise to look into it and get back to me. At the time of going to press they have not done so, but the NS will inform readers of their response as soon as they do. As Ames has shown, the public is no longer a spectator to the troubled relationship between the government and the media. There are signs that a combination of the internet and the government’s own Freedom of Information legislation is permitting non-journalists to question the official narrative told by politicians in ways never before possible. For example, readers can turn to the website, www.iraqdossier.com, for regular updates on Ames’s battle with officialdom.

Conspiracy everywhere

But credit where credit is due: my question would have been impossible before the Freedom of Information Act brought in by this government. Blair has also brought in on-the-record lobby briefings, monthly press conferences and was the first prime minister to present himself for scrutiny by the select committee chairs. For all this he should be congratulated. He is also right that the media must take some of the responsibility for the public’s growing disillusionment with politics.

There is, as Blair suggested, a tendency for journalists to find conspiracies everywhere they look. As Blair said: “It is not enough for someone to make an error. It has to be venal. Conspiratorial.” But what happens when journalists reveal genuine issues of public concern? The recent stories broken by the Guardian and BBC’s Panorama programme about the British government’s dealings with Saudi Arabia over the £43bn al-Yamamah arms deal make people cynical about politics because of the ministerial conduct they reveal, not because the media is seeing conspiracies where there are none. And even the Prime Minister admits that he should not have kept secret the loans the party received from wealthy backers in the “loans for honours” affair. There may turn out to have been no crime involved, but there was certainly a conspiracy to keep the existence of the loans from the public.

The political class in the post-Blair era is beginning to recognise that serious mistakes have been made in the way new Labour bullied and manipulated the media and parliament. Blair seems alone in not recognising this. Rebuilding public trust after the fiasco of Iraq has been one of the consistent themes of the deputy leadership campaign. All six candidates have sold themselves on how straight they will be with the public. It should be sobering to Blair that in recent days it was not the media which revived the issue of the Iraq dossier and argued that it was wrong to misuse intelligence to make the case for war. It was Gordon Brown.

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