Who is the more trustworthy: Alastair Campbell or Black Rod?
Tony Blair is taking the London Evening Standard, the Mail on Sunday and The Spectator to the Press Complaints Commission after all three publications refused to retract their stories that the Prime Minister sought to inflate his role in the Queen Mother's lying-in-state. This is a sensational development. Though Downing Street has previously complained to the FCC about other newspaper stories, I don't believe that three titles have ever before been bundled together on so important a matter. I must declare an interest not only as a media columnist for this magazine but also as a columnist for the Daily Mail, which is a sister paper of the Evening Standard and the Mail on Sunday.
On 13 April my colleague Peter °borne published a column in this magazine which alleged that Downing Street had tried to persuade an official at the Palace of Westminster' that Mr Blair should have a more important role than had been accorded him during the Queen Mother's lying-in-state. Specifically, according to Mr °borne, it was felt that Mr Blair 'should be present at the north door of Westminster Hall to greet the Queen when she arrived ahead of the coffin'. The request was declined, and this was accepted by Downing Street with good grace. Mr Oborne's story was vehemently denied by Downing Street. But the next day, Friday 14 April, he returned to the fray in the Evening Standard. Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Willcocks, KCB, Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, was identified as the recipient of the Downing Street telephone call after his press spokesman had distanced him from Mr Obome's account in The Spectator. Mr °borne also reflected on 'the strained and nervous relations that have existed between the Blair government and Buckingham Palace from the beginning'.
Two days later, on Sunday 16 April, Simon Walters published a substantially similar article in the Mail on Sunday. Black Rod was placed more explicitly at the centre of this account. Mr Walters revealed that Clare Sumner, the Prime Minister's private secretary and 'one of [his] most trusted aides', had telephoned Black Rod, Sir Michael Willcocks, and 'asked if the Prime Minister would be able to meet the coffin and the royal family when they arrived at Westminster Hall'. According to Mr Walters, 'Black Rod insisted on sticking rigidly to the protocol which stipulates how state ceremonies should be handled in Parliament — and Mr Blair was left out of the picture.' Black Rod, it should be remembered, is a servant of Buckingham Place, not of Parliament or the executive.
Alastair Campbell, director of communications at No. 10, was now heating up. Letters flew from his office to the editors of the three publications involved demanding a retraction. If I say that the editor of the Mail on Sunday was accused of 'malicious invention' — a possible slander, I would have thought — you will get the drift of Mr Campbell's invective. He spoke on the telephone to Boris Johnson, editor of this magazine, who jokily said he might publish a correction if Mr Blair wrote an article in The Spectator about his recent trip to America. But in fact none of the three editors published a retraction, and the more they looked into the matter, the more convinced they became that events had unfurled exactly as had been described.
Mr Campbell then confided in his old friend, Roy Greenslade, my revered colleague who writes a media column for the Guardian. Readers may remember that I have teasingly called Roy Mr CampbellGreenslade on account of his occasional tendency to echo with eerie exactitude the views of the director of communications at No. 10. In his column on Monday he played this role, suggesting the stories were part of a conspiracy of right-wing 'editors who wish to dislodge Blair from office and are willing to publish almost anything which undermines him'. Perhaps more significantly, Mr Greenslade implied that Black Rod — or someone 'so close . as to be indistinguishable from him' — had been the source of the stories. He suggested that Black Rod had either got the wrong end of the stick — as it were — or 'wilfully misinterpreted' what Clare Sumner had said to him. Somewhat absurdly, he cautioned against relying on a single source such as Black Rod, though he appears to have done exactly that in the case of his friend Alastair Campbell.
I have attempted to be as neutral as possible, offering an account which I hope all parties can agree upon. But now I must offer a judgment. It is an article of faith with me that political editors of the calibre of Peter Oborne and Simon Walters — I know the first a little, the second not at all — do not invent stories. I would say the same thing with equal and total confidence
about the political editors of the Guardian and the Daily Mirror. Of course editors spin stories, and columnists, who mix fact with opinion, are capable of pushing the boat out too far. But I repeat: political editors on national titles do not make up stories, and it is a serious slur on the part of Alastair Campbell, himself a former political editor, to suggest they might.
But, setting aside for a moment what for me is an incredibly powerful argument, there is the scarcely less important question of the veracity of Black Rod. Mr Greenslade virtually identifies him as the source, and invites us to prefer the version of Mr Campbell, who was not directly concerned in the telephone call. It seems highly unlikely that a former general in the British army should have been so half-witted as to misunderstand what Clare Sumner said to him. But equally I find it almost inconceivable — nay, inconceivable — that such a man, who has served his country in Germany and the former Yugoslavia, should tell an outright lie. Mr Greenslade is asking us to choose between the word of Sir Michael Willcocks, KCB, and that of Alastair Campbell, a former pornographer, a master spin doctor by trade, a man once described by a High Court judge as by no means 'a wholly satisfactory or convincing witness', and someone who — let us put it kindly — has misled the press on several occasions.
Why, if its case is so weak, is Downing Street taking the matter to the Press Complaints Commission? In a sense it is incomprehensible: I am told that Black Rod has himself assured both Downing Street and a senior commissioner of the Press Complaints Commission that he has no quarrel with the Mail on Sunday story. But perhaps the complaint can be understood in the context of Alastair Campbell's buccaneering, reckless and sometimes unstable character. Perhaps, too, Downing Street simply cannot bear the charge that it tried to interfere in what Mr Campbell has described as 'a remarkable unifying event'. The PCC will have to assess the evidence in its own way, but I hope no one will be misled into believing that this is a fight between a few right-wing titles and Downing Street. It is an assault on the freedom of the newspapers to report freely; and, in blackening the names of reputable journalists and even a senior civil servant, it seems that Downing Street knows no limits.