Alan Watkins: This is worse than the Tories

What Campbell used to denounce in the 1990s is tolerated today
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The Independent Online

Thank goodness, I have never been famous enough or notorious enough to be doorstepped, as the practice is known in the trade. Two of my present friends and former colleagues, Mr Simon Hoggart and Mr Donald Trelford, have not been so fortunate. It is not, by their accounts, a pleasant experience. If I were to undergo it, there would no comforting mugs of tea or coffee for the waiting reporters, as supplied by Mr Greg Dyke when he was being doorstepped after his sacking from the BBC. Indeed, I might have one or two nasty surprises of my own in reserve.

Long before Mr Dyke's time, the Corporation had come up with an additional refinement. This was the shouter. For years the chief shouter was an energetic young woman who would yell: "When are you going to resign, Mr Parkinson?", or whatever it might be. She later went on to work for the Labour Party. She has a successor, though the level of BBC shouting is not what it was.

Even so, the practice, as pursued by newspapers and broadcasters alike, strikes me as indefensible. It has nothing to do with the accountability of ministers or the freedom of the press. It is more a form of bullying, akin to picketing. It seems to possess all the ingredients of the old common-law offence of "besetting". I have never understood why it is not prosecuted, whether for that reason or under the laws relating to obstruction of the highway, which usually the police seem only too ready to employ.

Accordingly, my sympathies were wholly with Ms Tessa Jowell when she returned to her unbeautiful North-London house last Sunday, as they had been for the previous week and more. This, however, is very different from saying that the papers were wrong to pursue her by other means, as they did, though only up to a point.

As Mr Stephen Glover demonstrated in last Monday's Independent, Mr Rupert Murdoch's papers were, with the exception of The Sunday Times, notably indulgent towards Ms Jowell, which is what one would have expected; while the only traditional, old-fashioned ministerial pursuit was undertaken by the Daily Mail, which is also what one would have expected.

Labour apologists such as Ms Jowell's PPS, Mr Huw Irranca-Davies, were mistaken when, understandably enough, they claimed that the entire story was got up by the press. Not that I want to depreciate Mr Irranca-Davies. He deserves the Blair Medal for understatement under fire. But I kept being distracted by his name.

I come from more or less the same part of the world (for though he sits for Ogmore, he went to school in Gowerton). I have never heard of anyone called Irranca. Perhaps, I mused, his mother was a singer? For in South Wales a woman who sang semi-professionally would often place a fancy name, with or without the hyphen, before her perfectly ordinary surname, and top the whole performance off by calling herself "Madam" or "Madame" in addition. Carmarthenshire alone had more Madams living there than in the entire Pigalle area of Paris.

The estimable Mr Irranca-Davies seemed to have daily television encounters with another fellow countryman, Mr Nigel Evans, a Swansea boy. Mr Evans likewise is an agreeable performer. But he is not the kind of politician that Sir Max Hastings would describe as a heavy hitter. Mr David Cameron was probably right not to bring in the big lads, for their presence would have made Ms Jowell's survival even more likely. Mr Evans deserves a medal too, for services to broadcasting.

When Ms Jowell had finished her Commons questions on Monday, old parliamentary lags knew she was safe. Only the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards could now imperil her. But she echoed Marie Lloyd and sang: "Oh Philip Mawer, what a silly girl I am." It seems to have worked. And there was not the slightest realistic chance that the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, would reopen his cursory inquiry, as Mr Evans had asked.

Sir Gus was quite right. Mr Tony Blair should not have asked him to undertake the investigation in the first place. Sir Gus showed Mr Blair what he thought of the request through his short report and his correct conclusion that any decision about the future of Ms Jowell was for the Prime Minister to make.

The practice of asking the Cabinet Secretary to pronounce on the conduct of ministers was reinforced during the 1990s, when Sir Robin (now Lord) Butler used to be required to provide assorted villains with testimonials of good character and clean bills of health, as he duly did. It is welcome that Sir Gus has brought to an end a practice which should never have begun.

One of the odd features of politics is that what Mr Alastair Campbell would have denounced in the 1990s is tolerated today. One of the relics of that age is the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Its chairman is Sir Alistair Graham. Most people have now forgotten that he was the civil-service union leader who effectively and even eloquently opposed the Thatcher government over its scandalous elimination of trade unions at GCHQ, Cheltenham.

Now knighted, Sir Alistair wants his committee in on the act - to pronounce on whether a minister should keep his or her job. This has become a fashionable cry among the commentating classes, Labour and Conservative alike, almost what the Victorians called a hum.

Curiously enough, some of the people who would welcome this new external authority on the conduct of ministers and their fate are among the first to denounce the triumvirate of bureaucrats who suspended Mr Ken Livingstone from office on account of his insulting behaviour, or whatever. These critics take particular exception to the anonymity of the trio: "No one has ever heard of them."

Would they be any happier with a committee consisting, say, of Mr and Mrs David Beckham and Ms Abi Titmuss? And what makes them think that a committee set up under Sir Alistair's auspices would be any better known that the committee which pronounced to his disadvantage on Mr Livingstone?

The mischief would not lie in the committee's anonymity but in its function. With ministers, that function is best fulfilled not by another quango but by a parallelogram of forces: the Prime Minister, his cabinet colleagues, the parliamentary party and, not least, the press. With Ms Jowell, the first three forces proved stronger than the fourth.