15 JUNE 2002, Page 10

It is time for Alastair Campbell to go


verybody seems to know why the government has withdrawn its complaint to the Press Complaints Commission about articles that appeared during April in this magazine, the Mall on Sunday and the London Evening Standard. The reason is that Black Rod, aka General Sir Michael Wil!cocks, KGB, had intimated to the Commission that he was unable to corroborate the government's version of events. His testimony would have supported the stories which had appeared in these titles alleging that civil servants acting on behalf of Tony Blair had tried to persuade Black Rod that the Prime Minister should have a bigger role in the Queen Mother's lying-in-state than had been accorded to him. Indeed, it seems that Sir Michael was ready to elaborate on what had already been published. Numerous telephone calls had been made to him. In one it was suggested that Mr Blair might walk from Downing Street to Westminster Hall to bask in the adulation of the adoring crowds.

In the face of Sir Michael's refusal to kowtow to its version of events that no such favours were sought, Downing Street had no alternative but to withdraw its complaint. A fudge was prepared by the craven Press Complaints Commission — but a fudge that could not disguise the truth, which is that the government has capitulated. It was said that all three titles now accepted that the Prime Minister had not personally been involved in the overtures made to Black Rod. Quite so; but no one had ever suggested that he had. It beggars belief that Professor Robert Pinker, the acting chairman of the Commission and a respectable academic, could have associated himself with such casuistry. But more important than that, more important even than the explanation behind the government's withdrawal, are the reasons which led to its making the complaint in the first place.

Seven weeks ago Downing Street set out to destroy the reputation of a journalist — my colleague Peter Oborne — and to blacken the reputations of the three titles I have mentioned. In the scope of its ambitions it was prepared to go further than any previous government ever had. Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's director of communications, had long conceived an animus against Mr Oborne, who is his not particularly sympathetic biographer, and is known to be preparing a pamphlet about New Labour lies. Mr Campbell also nurses

a particular hatred for Associated Newspapers, publisher of the government's chief tormentor. the Daily Mail, of which the Mail on Sunday and the Evening Standard are sister papers. Readers may need little persuading that he is not the greatest admirer of this magazine. He was like a hunter who miraculously finds his most detested quarries grouped together in his sights. As on many previous occasions, he turned to his old friend Roy Greenslade, media editor of the Guardian.

Loyal soul that he is, Roy obliged. In a column written for the Guardian's website, Roy suggested that Mr Oborne was 'stark, staring bonkers' for suggesting that a civil servant had tried to engineer a bigger role for the Prime Minister. The story was 'utterly false' and Mr Oborne was finished as a journalist. Roy then published another column in the Guardian proper. Though rude about Mr Oborne and the three titles concerned, this version was noticeably toned down. After writing his draft for the website, Roy had spoken to, among others, Peter Wright, editor of the Mail on Sunday, who had told him that the source of his own paper's story was rock-solid. (It was, in fact, Black Rod.) I like to think that at this point the scales may have begun to fall from Roy's eyes, and for the first time the thought may have crept into his mind that he had been used by his chum Alastair.

Mr Campbell meanwhile pressed on, showering letters to the editors in which the word 'malicious' was liberally repeated. He had already demanded, and failed to secure, apologies as well as, in the case of this magazine, a donation to charity. A couple of days after Roy's second piece appeared, Mr Campbell officially complained to the Press Complaints Commission. He must have known from reading Roy's column, and indeed from talking to him, that Black Rod was the source of the Mail on Sunday's story. which substantially corroborated Mr Oborne's previous articles in this magazine and the Evening Standard. Why did Mr Campbell not pick up the warning signals? Possibly because Black Rod had issued a limited denial to Mr Oborne's original Spectator piece which may have encouraged him. Possibly because he supposed that Black Rod could be always suborned in the end. And my guess is that, in the passion of the chase, considerations as to what had really

happened, and to what he might be able to prove, were pushed to the margins in Mr Campbell's agitated mind.

He did, however, insist in letters to all parties that it was the Prime Minister, not he himself, who had decided to make the complaint to the Press Complaints Commission. Some have seen the hand of Cherie in this — she shares all of Mr Campbell's dislike of the right-wing press — but I will leave others to speculate. The Prime Minister must, of course, have approved the referral, though whether he knew all the facts is open to doubt. But the distinction is not an important one. Whatever Mr Campbell does is done in Mr Blair's name, whether Mr Blair knows about it or not. In this case Mr Campbell has wrongly briefed a credulous journalist, wrongly accused editors of malice and lies, and wrongly attempted to twist the truth. Only the evasions of the Press Complaints Commission have spared him the complete opprobrium he deserves.

One good thing may have come out of all this. When Downing Street decided to put up the white flag, whom did Mr Campbell contact to spin his version of events? Why, our old friend, Roy Greenslade. And yet Roy's story, which appeared on the front page of Tuesday's Guardian, was not spun very far in Mr Campbell's direction. There was even a suggestion that the three editors might be justified in feeling that they were right to publish their original pieces. A sense of something like weariness was discernible in Roy's account. Some time ago I gave him the moniker of Roy Campbell-Greenslade, for obvious reasons. I like to think that recent events may lead him to drop the Campbell part, and to return to being plain old Roy Greenslade, a journalist who trusts the integrity of colleagues and does not swallow whoppers from the government's chief propagandist.

As for Mr Campbell, he must go. He has done the Prime Minister great damage — and I wouldn't be surprised if the Mail on Sunday were to reignite this story in its next issue. A government director of communications who is at war with a considerable part of the press, and who is prepared to go to any lengths in pursuit of his vendettas, is a liability. If this turbulent and destructive character is moved on, I cannot promise Mr Blair happy relations with the press; but they would undoubtedly be far better than they are now.