The line between presentation and policy is growing thinner by the day

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Indy Politics

The p-word, "presentation", was the key word when John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, emerged from the shadows to give evidence to the Hutton inquiry yesterday.

When Lord Hutton asked him about the "distinction between intelligence and presentation", Mr Scarlett insisted that Alastair Campbell and his team advised only on the "presentational aspects" of the Government's dossier on Iraqi weapons. "As long as I was in charge I was happy," he said. "In fact, I should add I found it quite useful to have presentational advice."

So that's all right then: spooks and spinners were doing their own thing and everyone was happy. The reality is more complicated. We have already had plenty of evidence of how Mr Campbell and the press officers and special advisers working under him made a whole host of suggestions about the dossier. Crucially, some went much wider than mere presentation.

Danny Pruce, a No 10 press officer, wrote a memo to Mr Campbell about one draft with three headings - "content", "presentation" and "mechanics". In another e-mail, Mr Pruce called for "some drafting changes". Tom Kelly, one of Mr Blair's official spokesmen, told Mr Campbell: "The weakness, obviously, is our inability to say that he [Saddam Hussein] could pull the nuclear trigger any time soon."

The line between presentation and policy is thin. Under the Blair government, it has got even thinner. Indeed, many Labour critics, including Clare Short, would argue that it has disappeared, and the presentation has become the policy.

The Hutton inquiry has provided grist to their mill. The flurry of e-mails and memos as the dossier took shape reveal a near-obsession inside No 10 with how the document would play in the media.

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff, asked Mr Campbell what the headline would be in the London Evening Standard, which often sets the agenda on breaking stories for the next day's national papers. Mr Campbell replied that it would be about the "45-minute warning"; he was proved right.

Ministers and their advisers often slip into their own version of Newspeak. They bemoan the lack of a "narrative" for the Government's second term. They appointed a "head of story development" for their the Communications Information Centre on Iraq.

Perhaps this is the only way a modern government can handle the endless demands of the 24/7 media. But there is a growing sense among ministers that it has all gone too far; that this obsession led Mr Campbell to prolong his battle with the BBC long after he should have quit. In one telling e-mail, Sir David Manning, Mr Blair's foreign policy adviser at the time, reminded Mr Campbell that he had been "exonerated" by the Foreign Affairs Committee, which cleared him of inserting the "45-minute" claim.

Mr Scarlett's unprecedented public appearance yesterday will certainly bring some relief to Mr Campbell and worry his chief adversary, the BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan. Mr Scarlett rejected the correspondent's specific claim that Downing Street had added the warning that Iraq could deploy chemical and biological weapons within 45 minutes.

But there was also evidence to support Mr Gilligan's general charge that the dossier had been "sexed up". Another e-mail spoke of No 10's desire for the document to be "as strong as possible" and led to a final trawl among the intelligence agencies. This fits the emerging picture at the inquiry: the dossier may well have been hardened up, but not in the specific way alleged by Mr Gilligan. So you could argue that the thrust of his report was right but that he chose the wrong example to illustrate it. Does that make the story wrong? It is a grey area.

The fact that the intelligence services were in charge of drawing up the dossier was itself a piece of "presentation". Mr Campbell told Mr Scarlett in a letter: "The first point is that this must be, and be seen to be [my emphasis], the work of you and your team, and that its credibility depends fundamentally upon that." Here again, it is very hard to distinguish between presentation and policy.

To be fair to Mr Scarlett, he stood his ground in his negotiations with Mr Campbell. He wanted it in writing that he would be in charge of writing the dossier. He refused to issue a public statement saying that Mr Gilligan's report was wrong. And, perhaps fearing that No 10 would spin like a top, he asked Mr Campbell to "continue to refrain from public references to its content". So the traffic between the spinners and the spooks was not all one way.