'Traditionalist' Labour aide resigns

Battle of the spin doctors: Demise of media chief blamed on in- fighting with the party's modernisers
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The Independent Online
JOHN RENTOUL

Political Correspondent

Tony Blair's critics in the Labour Party were handed more ammunition last night by the resignation of Joy Johnson, the party's media director - a case, some Labour MPs believe, of a traditionalist squeezed out by modernisers.

Ms Johnson, who took the job in February last year, fell out with Alastair Campbell, Mr Blair's press secretary, and Peter Mandelson, the Labour leader's close adviser.

Rival factions in the party were putting differing interpretations on her demise. Mr Campbell and Mr Mandelson are derided by traditionalist Labour MPs as "spin doctors" and accused of pushing a hidden agenda of ditching socialist policies.

Ms Johnson disagreed with Mr Campbell's attempt to bully the BBC by public fax into giving prominent coverage to Mr Blair's conference speech on the same day as the O.J. Simpson trial verdict. This was, however, more a personality clash than an ideological dispute.

Ms Johnson, while previously at the BBC, was in charge of party conference coverage and was credited with revolutionising the way they were presented. She obviously thought she knew more about how to get better coverage out of the BBC than Mr Campbell.

Meanwhile, some of Mr Blair's allies were suspicious of Ms Johnson because, as a party member, she voted for Margaret Beckett in the 1994 leadership election. She was also accused of devoting some of her energies to promoting the cause of Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor, rather than the party as a whole.

Her notes for the party's election conference guide last October were read by some as coded attacks on Mr Blair's aides. "I am not a spin doctor for the very good reason we won't win by spin. We will win by getting our policies right," she said, in what was taken as a reference to Mr Mandelson.

She went on, allegedly referring to Mr Campbell: "I don't come from the self-regarding media school which believes that press officers or communications specialists are terribly interesting people or that we deserve a profile at least as high as the politicians we serve."

However, Mr Blair approved her appointment last year, and she was for a time a trusted member of the inner circle. Virtually her first meeting in her new job was one that took place in the New Forest home of Chris Powell, head of the party's advertising agency and brother of Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff. It was this meeting which prompted a furious behind-the-scenes outburst from John Prescott, the Labour deputy leader, who was not invited.

She was also a member of the team which planned the strategy for the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election campaign. Labour's attack on the Liberal Democrat candidate as "high on tax and soft on drugs" was condemned as cynical and counter-productive by several Labour MPs, and blamed on Mr Mandelson, who was in charge of the by-election campaign.

The fundamental problem was not political, according to one friend yesterday. Ms Johnson realised she still wanted to be a journalist when she heard a political news story on her car radio recently: "Her first instinct was that she wanted to cover the story, not sort it out," said the friend.

But the decision to go was solely hers, the friend insisted: "She went because in the end she realised she was a journalist at heart."

Ms Johnson was a journalist for 16 years, first with ITN and then with the BBC, which she joined in 1990 as political news organiser. She was later promoted to political news editor.

Her BBC connections were the focus of repeated attacks from the Conservatives, both on the BBC and Labour. She was involved in the early decision to provide four hours of live coverage of Labour's special conference to revise clause IV of the party's constitution. After Tory protests that this was free coverage of a victory for Mr Blair on an issue of his own choosing, the programme was scaled down.

Ms Johnson's only known clash with Mr Blair was over a "saucy" Labour Christmas card showing a condom and a topless woman saying "spank me" - a dig at Tory scandals. The Labour leader ordered the cards to be scrapped.

The voices of New Labour

Peter Mandelson (left) - Age: 42. Salary: MP's pounds 34,000. Former Young Communist, became moderniser at Oxford. Appointed communications director 1985, elected MP in 1992.Now planning general election campaign.

Joy Johnson (above) - Age: 45. Salary: was pounds 34,000.

Head of campaigns, elections and media (was political journalist at both BBC and ITV before joining Labour.

Alastair Campbell (right) - Age: 38. Salary: about pounds 50,000. Enthusiastic propagandist for Labour modernisers both as journalist at Daily Mirror and Today, and, since 1994 conference, as Tony Blair's press secretary.

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