Andrew Grice: All of us in the mad hothouse of Westminster village should share a collective sense of guilt

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David Kelly was a victim of the Westminster village, of the politicians and journalists who live in this increasingly mad hothouse. As an inmate of the village for 21 years, I fear Dr Kelly's death is the culmination of a long struggle between politicians and the media.

Both of us are to blame. As it happens, I did not unmask Dr Kelly. But I would have done if I had been tipped off that he was the BBC's source and the Ministry of Defence had confirmed his name. Therefore I feel a collective sense of guilt.

How could the politicians - and the media - lose all sense of proportion and elevate the Campbell vs Gilligan dispute into such a colossal event? Over the years, the daily battle between the politicians and the media has become more and more intense.

The politicians say they are merely reacting to the increasing demands of a more hostile, 24-hour media. But the media is right to be cynical about the ever more sophisticated attempts to manipulate it. The "spin" that worked so well for Labour in opposition is now ingrained in the Civil Service. Speeches and announcements that are briefed in advance sometimes bear little resemblance to what is delivered.

The mobile telephones, pagers, never-ending e-mails and faxes all speed up the game. The hours get longer, as the competitive pressures in both the media and politics intensify. Life in the village has a crushing impact on personal and family life. Godric Smith is quitting as the Prime Minister's official spokesman because he fears he will burn out if he stays much longer.

Of course, the village is a great place to work. You are at the centre of power. You are fed fascinating crumbs from the cabinet table. But the tragic events of the past few days have reminded us that the magic roundabout has spun out of control.

At one level, "spin" is just professionalism. But it is contributing to a downward spiral in public engagement with politics. Much of the coverage of Campbell vs Gilligan must surely have left ordinary people cold. Even some in the village were tiring of the story, yet Downing Street and the BBC kept fuelling it.

The gulf between the Westminster village and the real world can never have been wider. Ministers profess concern at the 59 per cent turnout at the last general election, yet they continue to play by the rules that resulted in it. Allowing people to vote by post will not reconnect them with politics. A cultural change is needed. What if the turnout drops below 50 per cent next time?

Sensible ministers, such as Charles Clarke and Peter Hain, have argued for a new relationship between politicians and the media. But their efforts to provoke a debate about a "new settlement" have not got off the ground.

Indeed, Mr Hain had recent first-hand experience of the political-media classes when he dared to raise the no-go area of taxation. All he wanted was a grown-up debate. Yet Downing Street and the Treasury went ballistic, and the media had a feeding frenzy. Again, the two sides mirrored each other.

As we recharge our flat batteries on the beaches this summer, all of us should think long and hard. We need a new culture and a new settlement. I am not optimistic, but there will never be a better moment. Ministers, spin doctors, editors and reporters must never forget how they felt when they learnt of Dr Kelly's death. Then, maybe, a crumb of comfort might come out of it.

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