'Poisonous' Campbell provoked cynicism, Mail editor tells MPs

The editor of the
Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, launched a highly personal attack on Alastair Campbell yesterday, accusing him of engendering a "poisonous" culture of spin within the heart of Government.

The editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre, launched a highly personal attack on Alastair Campbell yesterday, accusing him of engendering a "poisonous" culture of spin within the heart of Government.

He accused the Prime Minister's former communications director of being a "red-top newspaper propagandist" and said he should never have been appointed to the post.

Mr Dacre, whose newspaper has been among the most vociferous critics of the Blair government, rounded on Mr Campbell for his "triumphalist" reaction to the findings of Lord Hutton into the death of the weapons expert David Kelly.

Mr Campbell's reign brought relations between No 10 and the media to a new low, said Mr Dacre, saying that the former spin doctor was "almost unhinged" in his attitude towards the Mail.

In a session before a Public Administration Committee inquiry into the Phillis review of government communications, the Mail's editor-in-chief called for a new relationship between journalists and the Government, with no more leaks to "Labour-friendly" newspapers.

When Labour first came to power in 1997, the Mail was not unsympathetic to the new government, but Mr Campbell's "spin machine" created an atmosphere of distrust among the media, Mr Dacre told MPs.

"The making more cynical of the government publicity machine by Mr Campbell and others provoked a cynicism from the media," he said.

"I think Alastair Campbell's departure has drained quite a lot of poison from the No 10 media operation. Since his departure there has been an improvement in the situation."

In a reference to Mr Campbell's previous career as political editor of the Daily Mirror, Mr Dacre attacked the decision to put "Labour flag-waving Mirror journalists in charge of government press machines". He said: "You shouldn't appoint red-top political editors, who are propagandists on their own paper, in charge of civil service press machines." Mr Dacre was particularly scathing about Mr Campbell's handling of the events leading up to the death of Dr Kelly, which he described as a "very cynical regime to try and break the BBC."

"It's part of Campbell's policy that if you don't support the Government you have got to be broken and demonised," Mr Dacre added, describing the aftermath of the Hutton inquiry as a "terrible, terrible tragedy" for the BBC.

He seized on Mr Campbell's diaries in particular, saying he thought some people would "find it offensive that, every night, the head of communications was going home and writing a diary - presumably breaking confidences - which will make him millions of pounds, while Dr Kelly was hounded out by the Government for talking to journalists".

He added: "I was also quite horrified and shocked with the triumphalist press conference Mr Campbell gave following Hutton, as were many members of the public. As I was with the tour which he has taken around the country on the back of Hutton, while a widow grieves with quiet dignity."

Dr Tony Wright, the committee's Labour chair, suggested that Mr Dacre had a "pathological hang-up" about Mr Campbell.

However, Mr Dacre was more complimentary about the new Downing Street press chief, the former Labour Party director of communications Dave Hill, who replaced Mr Campbell last year, describing him as "a much more honest and straightforward person to deal with".

He criticised the appointment of Howell James, formerly political secretary to John Major, to the new post of permanent secretary in charge of government communications. "Here is a man who is deeply involved with friendships in No 10. It was recommended somebody with a Civil Service background come in and you tell me it's hunky-dory for a professional spin doctor to do it?"

Sir Christopher Meyer, the chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, and John Major's former press chief, also gave evidence to the committee, saying he disagreed with most of the recommendations of the Phillis report.

* Godric Smith, one of Tony Blair's two official spokesmen, is to become head of strategic communications and will withdraw from the twice-daily briefings for journalists after Easter.

CAMPBELL ON DACRE

"If I were chief executive of the Albanian tourist board, I would put an ad in the 'Mail' every day, saying, 'Come to Tirana, it must be better'," Mr Campbell on the opening night of his one-man show in the Customs House Theatre, South Shields, on 30 January, where he branded the 'Mail' "a poison in our media culture".

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