Is Tony Blair really Britain's busiest hack?

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The Independent Online
EAT your heart out, Paul Johnson. Find another outlet for your engaging prose, Guardian columnist Simon Hoggart. The real star of the public prints over the last year is Tony Blair, Prime Scribbler and word- merchant for the tabloids and broadsheets alike.

His output is prolific. It covers every conceivable field, from Ulster to football, from Europe to the problem of drugs. Since 1 May 1997, he has written for more papers than the versatile writer Keith Waterhouse could ever have imagined. Today the Sun, tomorrow the Times; at the weekend, the News of the World and perhaps the Sunday Mirror. His choice of titles is eclectic. If the voters buy it, Blair of Whitehall, the one-man features agency, will write for it.

A swift trawl through the database signals an article-count over the last year of around 100, a respectable figure for any freelance writer, and a truly astonishing one for the country's top politician. If, that is, he actually wrote them.

The truth is that his articles, like his speeches, are written by others. In the past, it was a team effort by Alastair Campbell, his press secretary, and Tim Allan, who now works for Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB. In recent months, the work has devolved on the recently established Strategic Communications Unit based in Downing Street, and in particular on two former journalists, David Bradshaw, ex-political correspondent of the Mirror, and Philip Bassett, ex-industrial editor of the Times, and husband of Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, the Foreign Office junior minister. They have inherited a word factory founded by Campbell that thrives on high productivity. The election was barely over before Tony Blair's picture by-line began to appear. On 1 June last, he "wrote exclusively" for the middle-class-readership Mail on Sunday on his "meeting of minds" with President Bill Clinton. Two weeks later, he appeared in the Sun, the most recent and most important convert to the cause of New Labour, fulminating on drug abuse, under the headline "My Drugs Czar will fight this tide of evil".

Thereafter, the tide of copy never faltered. Judged by the spate of articles, Tony Blair had an informed opinion on everything under the sun. Why we should have a Welsh Assembly. Why schools must do better. Why we are no longer the workshop of the world, but have a chance to reshape Britain's image through our skill in design, film and music - this latter "think piece" appearing in the Guardian. On 24 July, he was given space in the Mirror to tell voters why he broke the convention that prime ministers are above the fray of by-elections to tell the punters of Uxbridge "Why I Need Your Votes Again".

They ignored his article, and returned a Conservative MP. It was his first reverse, but quickly forgotten in the torrent of propaganda thinly- disguised as articles asking voters to say "Yes" in the referendums in Scotland and Wales. Those battles won, he was writing for Britain on European Monetary Union - "The people will have the final say" - and the problem of social exclusion, a rare outing in the Independent.

A common thread emerges from this Stakhanovite penmanship. The writing is usually done to a formula that could fit tabloid or broadsheet. It is designed to be clear, precise and convincing. It is an extension of management politics rather than journalism of the ordinary kind that seeks to inform or entertain. When "Tony Blair" writes, an arm of government is at work. His office claims he "signs off" the articles. Insiders say this is nonsense. Campbell, or one of his team, approves the final version.

There are signs that the newspapers are finally tumbling to this truth. An article submitted to the News of the World a few weeks ago from the word factory was rejected on the grounds that it was boring - it was a predictable tale of the Blairs "living over the shop" at No 10. Another article submitted to the Sun was the subject of tortuous negotiations between Downing Street and Wapping to make it readable.

All of which raises a question. Don't the spin doctors realise that too many Prime Ministerial pieces devalue the currency? Time was when an article by the head of government was a coveted insight into policy, strategy and where the nation was heading. It was rare, and for that reason if for no other it counted for something. It wasn't hawked around the newspapers at frequent intervals like a public relations handout. Most certainly, it was not "Exclusive: Now We're On Course For A Thoroughly Modern Britain. This Week, TONY BLAIR Will Celebrate New Labour's First Year in Power. To Mark The Anniversary, Here is His Special Message For Sunday People Readers..." (the People 26 April). Nor, a few days later, "Labour's First Year : They say our new backers care only about money. But it's not true." (Guardian, 1 May).

The tide of copy has shown signs of slackening in recent weeks, perhaps because there is no big issue on which the voters as readers must be addressed. On past form, it will revive. When the Bernie Ecclestone pounds 1m gift scandal broke last November, Blair swiftly responded with an article for the Mirror on "The Truth Behind the Formula One Fiasco". George Orwell, whose real name was Blair, would have approved.

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