17 OCTOBER 1998, Page 30


Nice Mr Rusbridger sets that rough Camilla on us again


My column last week about the Guardian contained an error which I shall come to. Let me first describe what hap- pened while I was writing it. I received a telephone call from Camilla Nicholls, head of press and corporate affairs at the Guardian. Readers may remember that on a previous occasion Ms Nicholls wrote a threatening letter to the editor of this magazine.

Her purpose in telephoning me was to defend the Guardian's editor, Alan Rus- bridger. I had rung him about an hour ear- lier to ask why his newspaper had published a false account of the outcome of the libel case involving the Independent and Kojo Tsikata, close friend of Victoria Brittain, deputy foreign editor of the Guardian. This was the subject of my column. Mr Rus- bridger was, as always, polite and helpful. He denied the suggestion that Ms Brittain had had a hand in the inaccurate article exonerating Mr Tsikata. He had inter- viewed everyone concerned and could tell me with total confidence that she was inno- cent of any involvement. It was a straight- forward cock-up.

An hour later Camilla rang. She did not offer much in the way of pleasantries. She was ringing, she said, because Mr Rusbridger was concerned that I had not believed his explanation. I replied that naturally I took his word, though it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that his enquiries were incomplete. I added that others to whom I had spoken persisted in believing that Victo- ria Brittain might have been involved. One source had been told this by a Guardian journalist. It was surely my duty to report that there were those — misguided souls, no doubt — who did not wholly accept Mr Rus- bridger's version of events.

It was at this point that Camilla's lid blew. She said that it was a fact — yes, a fact — that Victoria Brittain had had noth- ing to do with the article. It was not a mat- ter of opinion but a simple fact, repeat fact, that this was an innocent cock-up. There were no 'ifs' or 'buts' because it was a fact — OK? Well, I said, I took Mr Rus- bridger's word, but there were those who thought. . . . It didn't matter what they thought, said Camilla, because it was a fact. And the author of the piece, Nick Hopkins, was so distressed to have heard about my earlier telephone conversation with Mr Rusbridger (how had he heard?) that he had written a letter stating it was a FACT that he alone was responsible for the arti- cle's pro-Tsikata inaccuracies. Mr Hopkins, a milder soul than Camilla, confirmed this.

Discerning readers may gather that I have a sneaking regard for the formidable specimen of womanhood that passes by the name of Camilla Nicholls. She would be a useful person to have by your side during a pitched battle or an earthquake or a meteor storm. But I wonder whether her tech- niques are so well honed for the more deli- cate arts of public affairs. Camilla explained in a subsequent telephone con- versation why she was so bellicose on Mr Rusbridger's behalf. When recently on holi- day in the West Indies, she had met some Spectator readers who expressed their con- dolence upon learning that Mr Rusbridger was her editor. Evidently they had picked up some bad impressions from reading Paul Johnson's effusions about him.

I happen to think that Mr Johnson has sometimes been unjust to Mr Rusbridger. But, since she has chosen a career in public relations, Camilla had better know that it is an inevitable concomitant of public life that some people somewhere will always think badly of you. Politicians know this, but, in my experience, grand journalists rarely do. They can't stand criticism, though they dole it out in spades. I have spoken to many politicians over the years and I can't remember any of them behaving as Camilla, a newspaper executive, does. They know that you cannot convince a journalist that something is true merely by repeating it. In politics, absolute truth is difficult to deter- mine. So it is in newspapers.

I think it unlikely that Victoria Brittain had a hand in the article which showed her friend Kojo Tsikata in such a falsely flatter- ing light. However, there are others, on the Independent's side, who do not share my belief. It is certain that the Guardian inflict- ed grave damage on the Independent's jour- nalists with its piece. This was the point I was making in my final peroration last week, whose last line was mysteriously dropped. Had Victoria Brittain slipped into the Spectator's offices to undermine the effect? Had Camilla legged it down from Farringdon Road?

No, it was a simple cock-up. They do happen. 'How could the paper [i.e. the Guardian] have done this after everything that has gone before?' I wrote, before the gremlins intervened. 'It is a travesty which no correction can put right.' I still believe that. The Guardian was gravely at fault. While defending her boss, it never occurred to Camilla to say she was sorry.

Lst Friday a short article appeared in the Express about its chief executive, Lord Hollick, under the headline, `Hollick backs euro'. Lord Hollick was 'giving up his job as special adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry to head a business-based cam- paign pressing for Britain to join the Euro- pean single currency'. Fair enough, you might think. Lord Hollick is a well-known Eurofanatic. His friends say that as a busy businessman he couldn't do both jobs, and anyway there might have been a conflict of interest if he did. The government is not yet officially committed to the euro, and Lord Hollick's championing of it might be a little embarrassing were he still an adviser.

This interpretation of events may be cor- rect. However, there is another one. Read- ers may remember the case of James Hughes-Onslow, recently sacked by the Express. This slightly obscure journalist is an old and close friend of Tony and Cherie Blair — a fact almost certainly unknown by Lord Hollick when Mr Hughes-Onslow was sent packing. Mr Hughes-Onslow has creat- ed an awful stink about Lord Hollick's employment practices, engaging to act on his behalf his friend Cherie, who has been in correspondence with Lord Hollick. The Prime Minister has telephoned Mr Hughes- Onslow at home, and expressed concern.

When Lord Hollick was associated with large-scale sackings during an earlier incar- nation at the Mirror, Mr Blair was Labour's employment spokesman, his press secretary Alastair Campbell was a union militant, and Cherie was an employment lawyer. All of them have observed Lord Hollick over the years, and now Tony and Cherie have been given a blow-by-blow account of his activities at the Express by their old friend Mr Hughes-Onslow. Cherie is involved in other cases of dismissed Express journalists. I believe we can say with some certainty that Mr Blair is not too upset to see the back of Lord Hollick as a government adviser. As to whether he actually pushed a man who, after all, still controls a newspa- per group, readers will have to make up their own minds.