Labour toned down Campbell criticism

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LABOUR MPs wiped criticism of Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's official spokesman, from an official report, it was confirmed last night.

The Public Administration Committee's inquiry on government press officers became a battleground as opposition MPs tried to insert attacks on Mr Campbell and Labour's other political appointees into the report.

Despite reports that the document had been completely rewritten, the comments consisted of two short statements and a paragraph comparing Mr Campbell's style with that of Margaret Thatcher's press secretary, Bernard Ingham.

Peter Bradley, Labour MP for The Wrekin and former opposition leader on Westminster council, led attempts to tone down the report.

He argued successfully that a call for more clarity on Mr Campbell's role should be removed, along with a factual statement that the Prime Minister's spokesman was, "unusually", a former journalist with a Labour Party background.

The only complete paragraph to be removed referred to an incident in which Mr Campbell sent a memo to Harriet Harman and Frank Field ordering them to stop briefing the press.

"Whenever the Prime Minister seems to be in difficulty, the press secretary will stand by him or her. Likewise there is a striking similarity between the briefing by Sir Bernard against Francis Pym (`Mona Lott') and John Biffen (`semi-detached') and Mr Campbell's memorandum to the Secretary of State for Social Security and the Minister of State," it said.

Conservatives moved a minority report calling for political advisers to be paid for by the Labour Party, as Peter Mandelson's aide Benjamin Wegg Prosser has been since the election. They also argued unsuccessfully for tapes of lobby briefings to be kept for 12 months, and for the report to criticise pre-briefing the press before announcements.

The final version of the report called for a new code for ministers and special advisers on contact with the press. The code should be attached to the guidelines for ministers in order to give it weight, it said.

The committee said it had seen no proof of a "White Commonwealth" of favoured journalists.

"We were given no clear evidence that Mr Campbell provides some journalists with special treatment. There are in any case procedures which can be implemented within the lobby to deal with any such allegations," it said.

The selection of heads of information should continue to be made on a basis that did not give rise to any suspicion of political interference, it said.

The lobby system under which Mr Campbell briefs journalists should be kept under review, but appeared to be working well since a recent reform changed "Downing Street sources" to "the Prime Minister's official spokesman".

The committee chairman, Rhodri Morgan (Lab, Cardiff W), said the appointment of Jack Cunningham as a cabinet "enforcer" with responsibility for spin doctors represented a success for the committee. Dr Cunningham would probably be called to give evidence in the next session, he suggested.

"I don't know whether it's the first time ever that a select committee has had a response to its report even before it's been published, but it has been made clear to me at the top level that the appointment of Jack Cunningham ... was a response to concerns that had swirled around our inquiry," he said.

Leading article,

Steve Richards,

Review, page 3