Tucker Eskew: American spin doctor in London

A key aide of George Bush, has been in England, helping Alastair Campbell to spin the war. That has meant five months with a close-up view of the UK press, and, he tells Donald Macintyre, it hasn't always been pretty
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The Independent Online

If anyone still doubts how closely the Bush and Blair administrations have worked together since 11 September, the past five months of Tucker Eskew's career should be the clincher. He speaks with an easy South Carolina drawl. He has been a loyal Republican since he worked on the 1984 Reagan election campaign while still in college. He was the public voice of the George Bush team down in Florida for those nail-biting weeks when no one knew for sure who was going to become President – "the most intense political experience of my life". As director of the Office of Media Affairs at the White House, he is the No 2 to Karen Hughes, the President's chief press spokesperson...

And since November he has been working not in Washington but in the Foreign Office in London. His name is barely known here. But he has met with Alastair Campbell every morning to plan media strategy and a good deal more besides for the war against terrorism. Until he returned to Washington last week, as unobtrusively as he arrived her in the first week of November, this Bush trusty had the kind of access to the heart of the UK government that most British civil servants only dream about.

He has some trenchant views on the British press. But he leaves – inevitably, perhaps, in view of Tony Blair's unflinching support for the Bush strategy in Afghanistan – a pronounced Anglophile and admirer of the British Prime Minister as a "persuasive leader" of the coalition. "I can't have a conversation of five minutes with someone in the US embassy here without discussing the vivid, anecdotal reminders of the support expressed here [in the aftermath of 11 September] for my country, at Grosvenor Square, Buckingham Palace, town halls, churches and all the other gathering-places around this beautiful isle," he told me, in the only interview of his low-profile, five-month trip.

But for all Eskew's old-world, Southern courtesy, his visit has been a good deal more than a love-in. What brought him to London was a joint media and propaganda operation, little publicised in Britain and unprecedented, even in the Second World War. Within days of 11 September, Campbell warned Karen Hughes that in the war in Kosovo the allies had frequently lost the initiative in a battle for public opinion dominated by reports of inaccurate bombing and civilian casualties. He quickly acquired a sense of déjà vu when several hours elapsed without a response from the US after one of Osama bin Laden's televised messages. Campbell's anxiety intensified as the Taliban began holding well-attended news conferences in Pakistan. As Hughes told The Wall Street Journal last December, the time-zone problem made life especially difficult in London: "[Campbell] felt he was getting hit with things the Taliban were saying while we were still asleep in Washington."

Campbell and his No 10 communications colleague Phil Bassett went to see Karen Hughes in Washington in early October. The trip gave birth to the Coalition Information Centre, a three-pronged rebuttal and publicity operation based in Washington, London and Islamabad. Representatives of nine coalition countries have worked in the CIC. But it is mainly driven by the US and UK. When Blair made his post-11 September trip to Washington, Campbell was shown a copy of the President's speech to the joint houses of Congress, before it was delivered. He discussed with the White House the line that Blair would be taking on Larry King Live, just as, later, the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, spoke to the CIC people in London about his interview with the BBC. In London, Eskew was shown the Prime Minister's statement to the Commons after the Taliban lines had been finally breached; after consulting Washington, he succeeded in having a few of the more triumphalist lines toned down, and Blair referred to the Taliban "collapse" rather than to an allied "victory".

Such extraordinarily close co-ordination apart, Eskew says he is taking home from London a "greater appreciation", among other things, of the way the US is seen in Europe and of the importance of the – in many cases London-based – Arab and Islamic media. He has worked with the Government's little-publicised Islamic Media Unit to get the allies' case across to "publics", especially in the Middle East.

Having been fully exposed to a range of coverage here, some of it highly critical of Washington, in a way that it hasn't been in the US, he was much more taken aback by some of the news reporting than by the commentary. Eskew, whose father was a reporter for United Press International, said the British media had been an "education" for him. "It is different from the US – more print-focused. I love and respect newspapers. I have ink-stains on my hands from daily devouring any number of your national newspapers. Sometimes I am absolutely shocked by the degree to which point of view directs coverage – and I know I'm painting with a broad brush here; your paper deservedly calls itself The Independent – but there is a great predilection toward point of view in news coverage that to a non-Brit is a cause for head-scratching sometimes.

"There have been examples of really outrageous jumping to conclusions, and I think the most vivid example would be the completely unfounded criticisms of the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. There was an utter failure to grant the slightest benefit of the doubt to a government, a nation that has a 200-year-plus history of devotion to the rule of law. We've made our share of mistakes. But it was unfortunate, unfounded, and now proven to be wrong, to assume there was some kind of torture. That was absurd." By way of compensation, he thinks, "large elements of the public put a discount factor on the more extreme elements of the coverage."

If Eskew has in mind the surprisingly hostile coverage of Guantanamo by the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday, less predictable than in liberal newspapers, he isn't saying. He wouldn't dare, he says, name specific papers. At the same time, he was surprised at how a press-driven cause célèbre such as the case of Rose Addis, the elderly woman whose family complained she had been ill treated at the Whittington Hospital, could so dominate the media and political agenda. "The degree", he says, "to which a top official of government can be held to account for any one person's treatment by a public service in this way is surprising to me as a non-Brit."

But he has praise for some British press coverage. Though it is gradually changing in the US, and with the obvious exception of the major metropolitan newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times, British coverage of foreign affairs tends to be "way, way more thorough" than in the US, both in terms of resources devoted to it and the experience that British reporters bring to it, he says.

Having seen the relationship at first hand, he insists that the Blair–Bush axis is a two-way street and that the friendship can withstand candour where there is disagreement – though, again, he politely refuses to discuss specifics: "I can assure your readers that we have a mature relationship. We hope to be persuasive towards [the British government], and the Prime Minister is towards us as well." He is proud of the CIC's successes, among which he counts "rebutting" Taliban claims about civilian casualties and the idea that war in Afghanistan "was becoming a Vietnam-like quagmire", while shining a harsh spotlight on the Taliban's record in human rights and the treatment of women.

The job, he likes to say, is to "impede great lies and propel great truths." Not everyone will be so sanguine about the extent to which the two governments are now interlocked in their war propaganda effort. But the doubters should brace themselves for more, particularly if and when the allies begin military action against Iraq – including a CIC close to the theatre of war, on the model of the one in Islamabad, which took the longest to set up. "One of the lessons learnt, I hope," he says, "is that we can move even more swiftly and be even better equipped and better staffed the next time there is a need for a rapidly deployed rapid-response team."