Like other precarious prime ministers in the past, Tony Blair finds himself abroad when a huge crisis erupts at home. Whenever John Major left the country a domestic storm erupted that wrecked his foreign tours. Each time he returned home a weakened prime minister. Blair finds himself in the Far-East this weekend as the dead body of a Ministry of Defence adviser makes waves in a way that reduces Major's various crises to minor irritants.
Dr David Kelly was not only an MoD adviser. He was also a BBC journalist's source, possibly even a source for several correspondents from the corporation. Now that source has died. Was Kelly "the source" or just "a source" for Andrew Gilligan? The way the BBC and other journalists report politics has also become an issue.
Most immediately, the situation is critical for Blair, a Prime Minister who is no longer trusted, viewed with the same suspicion that kept previous Labour leaders out of power for 18 years. More worrying for him is the number of Labour MPs and influential figures who are calling on him to resign. We should not underestimate the significance of such public statements. At this phase of Margaret Thatcher's prime ministerial career there were plenty of private mutterings from her own side, but not a single public demand from a Tory MP for her to resign.
Last week Clare Short, the former Secretary of State for International Development, repeated her call for Blair to go, making allegations far more damning than those hurled at Thatcher and Major by their former ministerial colleagues. This weekend it is the turn of Glenda Jackson and Bob Marshall-Andrews, who echoed a New Statesman editorial demanding Blair's political scalp. All of them are known critics of Blair, but it is still quite a leap for them to come out and call for him to actually go. With the war against Iraq, Blair pushed at the boundaries of how far a leader could act against the wishes of his party. Since then everything has gone wrong, almost as if Blair sensed on one level that he had gone too far.
But the issue of trust works both ways. Journalists depend on being trusted as much as politicians. The use of the term "source" invites us to trust the journalist on several different levels. The source must trust the journalist, and the readers or listeners have no choice but to do the same. There are times when we are all in the hands of the journalist.
As I argued three weeks ago, the problem for the BBC is that the details of its story were wrong. According to Gilligan, a senior source told him that "Downing Street" had "sexed up" the weapons dossier, specifically inserting the allegation that Saddam had weapons ready for use in 45 minutes, against the wishes of the intelligence agencies. This was a sensational allegation, made all the more credible by its crafted presentation on the Today programme. Since then the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee has denied this story. Robin Cook, who is opposed to the war, has doubts about the details of Gilligan's story. Most members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who have seen the relevant intelligence material, do not believe the story.
So, in this case, whom do we trust? Should the BBC have given the story such prominence? Could not the corporation have reported Gilligan's conversations with some more qualifications about the centrality and motives of its source? Was the BBC guilty of sexing up the undoubted worries of the intelligence agencies? If the BBC made mistakes, should we believe it again? I note that while much of the media has rushed to blame Blair and Alastair Campbell, the journalist Tom Mangold, a friend of Kelly's, and Robert Jackson, Kelly's local Conservative MP, have both raised serious questions about the corporation.
The reason why the BBC has got away with it so far is that Blair has got an even bigger problem over trust. We need to be clear precisely why. It is not that he or Campbell sexed up the intelligence material. The intelligence material existed more or less in the form it was presented. The question hanging over Blair is why he chose to believe this material with such passion. His unquestioning advocacy of the intelligence, presented with no qualifications, was the mirror image of the BBC's report of its "senior source".
Cook saw much of the intelligence. So did the French and German governments. They took the view that much of it was unreliable. I would not be surprised if Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, had his doubts too. Most intelligence is speculative, not least in Iraq where there appear to have been few spies on the ground. Did Blair know that the intelligence he was presenting to a wary electorate might be unreliable? Did he still proceed to present that intelligence with a passion because he had already told President Bush he would back a war? In the days leading up to war when Blair proclaimed he was "working flat out for a diplomatic solution" did he really mean that he was working tirelessly to get the UN to legitimise military action? Can we trust him again?
These are the biggest questions of the lot, and they would be hovering over the Government even without Friday's tragedy. Even so, they inevitably become intertwined. A film-maker of genius would have been hard-pressed to come up with a more theatrical juxtaposition of images from Thursday night: the ecstatic standing ovations for Blair in Washington; a dead body in the Oxfordshire woods.
All these seething issues and breathtakingly emotive images feed into the broader perception that Blair and his entourage are obsessed with spin. Part of the perception stems from a wilful naivety on the part of some in the media. To declaim: "It's all bloody spin" sounds daring but does not get us very far. In reality, the role of Campbell and other spin-doctors is clear and transparent. They are employed by elected politicians with a very precise brief: to present those politicians and their policies in the best possible light.
The BBC has a press office to serve the same purpose on its behalf. If you want a candid conversation about Blair's faults you do not go to Campbell. That is not his job. If you want to find out about overstaffing at the BBC you do not contact the corporation's spin-doctors. We know this. So, what is the fuss about?
The problem lies in the fact that this is no longer a rational area. Because these semi-public figures function behind the scenes - what Short described in a famous interview with me as "acting in the dark" - the media is mesmerised. Some assume that these people possess almost satanic powers. Lacking a clearly defined media presence, the so-called spin-doctors are demons partly defined by the imagination of journalists or voters who have never met them or seen them play a familiar role on the television.
This is partly a wider phenomenon in an era of 24-hour rolling news. There is a mystery about any national figure that does not appear on the media. Would Bob Dylan be the source of such awesome fascination if he gave interviews?
So how to restore trust, now even more deformed by a terrible death? The BBC must become leaner and clearer as to its purpose. I write this as an admirer of much of the output - but this is a matter of urgency if it wishes to survive in its present privileged form, financed by the licence payer. Equally urgent, the Government needs to demystify spin. No doubt Campbell will make his cathartic departure at some point, but that will not be enough.
The people in the dark must come out in the open. Lobby briefings must be on camera. Press secretaries should be available for interviews. The media will be obsessed with these people until they perform in front of the media - at which point the BBC and newspapers will lose interest very quickly. Ironically, Campbell has done a fair amount to open up the system. Downing Street lobby briefings are now summarised accurately on the internet. Blair has his monthly press conferences. But he - or his successor - must go further to undo perceptions about spin.
In the mid-1990s, New Labour acted drastically to purge its old Labour past. Now it has to do something much harder: New Labour has to purge its own immediate past. Can Blair do it? He has a massive majority and presides over a relatively successful economy. The opposition is weak and incoherent. He will be able to stagger on. It was the war against Iraq that weakened him. The drama of the past few days merely reinforces the sense that there will be no more clear and bright sunny days.
But this is much bigger than a single politician, even the Prime Minister. The turnout at the last election was depressingly low and might well be lower still next time. Membership of political parties is puny. Assorted extremists and eccentrics across the land rub their hands with glee. A government machine that functions in the dark, a bloated BBC, a Prime Minister who took us to war on uncertain grounds: all of them have contributed to a hugely overblown sense that no one in democratic politics can be trusted. There are terrible dangers if that perception persists for much longer.Reuse content