How the Blairs landed a holiday in 'The Sun'

The worst-kept secret in Fleet Street has made for an innovative style of investigative journalism
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The Independent Online

Instead, we have "silly season stories" such as Michael Buerk's surrender to womankind. And the silliest one of all, the Blairs' "mystery holiday". One tried and trusted way of filling the August vacuum is to publish stories about where the rich and powerful are holidaying. In the case of the Blairs it can be hyped into an unconvincing scandal (it is merely distasteful) since the first family are well-known for tapping up wealthy acquaintances with villas in exotic places to avoid having to read the travel brochures or make much use of the credit card. Prince Girolamo Strozzie (Tuscany), Sir Cliff Richard (Barbados) and Silvio Berlusconi (Sardinia) have all been obliging in the past.

But this year we have not been told where the Blairs are unwinding. Before they set off for who knows where (actually the whole of the media knows) the Prime Minister's communications director, David Hill, wrote to editors asking that "for security reasons" the holiday location should not be disclosed until the first family was safely back home. That request, to a certain and decreasing extent, has been respected because in the unlikely event of anything happening to the Blairs no editor wants to be the one who broke ranks.

The result, however, has been silliness of the highest order as newspapers have employed every trick in the book to tell without telling. We have had the crazy situation of journalists purporting to be trying to find out what they already know. Investigative journalism should always be this easy!

Just as serious newspapers and the BBC follow up tabloid scandal stories by focussing on the privacy implications of the story that they then repeat, so stories have been run about the legitimacy of Hill's request, hinting at the location that must not be disclosed. Stephen Glover wrote such a piece in The Independent, and wrote it again the next day in the Daily Mail. Alice Miles did so in The Times, suggesting a location, but adding "I don't know".

London-based correspondents from overseas, such as Mary Jordan in The Washington Post (syndicated around the world) wrote a "where's Tony?" story with a seven-word quote from "engineer John Costello", whoever he might be, saying, "I bet he is in the Caribbean." The Sun was the first paper in this country to suggest this region.

Meanwhile pictures were appearing, most extensively in the Mail, and cropped to reveal only the Prime Minister's midriff, a lot of blue water, some swimming shorts in an unpleasant shade of green, and a group of people chatting on a boat. Clues: the sun was shining and the Blairs had access to the sea. Downing Street said it didn't mind because the geographical location of the water was undisclosed.

Only, somebody took the pictures, and presumably the photographer knew where he or she was at the time. They were provided by an international news agency called Splash which concentrates on celebrity stories. It has offices in London, Los Angeles, New York and Florida. Press Gazette, the media industry magazine, interviewed Splash's Florida bureau chief David Leigh, a former Daily Express man. He claimed to have been "there" when first Cherie and later Tony arrived. They had flown in on commercial flights accompanied by lots of fellow Brits who, had they stayed at home, would not have been allowed to read in their papers where the Blairs were.

By Thursday, the Mail's frustration was growing. It ran two pages of "speculation" about the location, ranging from Afghanistan, Norfolk and the Caribbean to Iraq and Ibiza. The papers also offered a prize of a free holiday in the Blairs' destination to any reader guessing the truth. Even more enjoyable has been the way the Mail has slipped in clues. On Friday its Ephraim Hardcastle column contained a celebrity item carefully constructed to tell those who already knew where the Blairs were relaxing.

In fact a simple web search quickly provides the information. The local radio station in the mystery location reported on 4 August that the "family of British prime minister Tony Blair arrived this afternoon..."

So why this farce? Of course the Prime Minister and his family must be provided with maximum protection in these dangerous times. They are. But spurious invisibility is something different, and no other world leader tries it. Is it something British? We were the only country "protected" from the news of Edward VIII and Mrs Simpson's affair, which led to the abdication. Or is it just that in this silly season the Blairs are sillier than most?

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield