The Week in Politics: Alastair may win this battle, but not the war

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The Independent Online

It was fascinating that both Jack Straw and Alastair Campbell cited the demands of the "24-hour media" when they defended dossiers on Iraq's weapons to MPs.

While it is true that the media's size and appetite has grown, there was a certain irony in Mr Campbell pointing to the voracious demands of a monster he fed so well when Labour was the Opposition. After Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994, the party transformed the way politics was conducted by turning a largely hostile media to its advantage.

An opposition can't directly affect people's lives by taking decisions, so the media is its chief weapon. Labour used it brilliantly, running rings round a hapless, tottering Tory government.

There was always going to be a downside. Although Labour enjoyed a long media honeymoon when it came to power, it would one day be judged in the same harsh - perhaps cynical - manner in which it encouraged the media to measure the Tories. It didn't matter that the Tories, for the most part, were feeble at opposition; the media monster would happily fill the vacuum.

So the "spin" that served Labour so well in opposition gradually became a liability in government, the dark side of the Blair regime.

This was recognised when Mr Campbell, the personification of spin, stopped briefing journalists daily in 2001, moving to a role behind the scenes as Downing Street's director of communications and strategy. The Government, we were assured, had finally abandoned the mentality of opposition and had cured its addiction to spin.

True, real efforts were made. There was less advance billing of speeches and announcements. The briefings were handled by a more trustworthy civil servant. But it was never going to happen; New Labour could no more give up spin than it could give up air.

We shouldn't be surprised, as the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee was this week, to learn that the Communications Information Centre on Iraq has a "head of story development".

This Government mirrors the media it tries to manipulate. Ministers talk constantly of the need to find a "narrative" for Labour's second term. Why not let the policies do the talking? Even Peter Mandelson, joint author of the New Labour media strategy with Mr Campbell, acknowledges in The Spectator magazine: "What the Government needs now is primarily policy-driven not media-managed performance."

The contrast between Mr Campbell's brilliant performance before the committee and Mr Straw's two rather nervy appearances was instructive. For some, it symbolised a government in which the messenger and the message come before the policy.

Mr Campbell seems to have turned the committee's potentially damaging inquiry on "the decision to go to war in Iraq" into one about the standards of BBC journalism. He deployed the full weight of the government machine to demand an apology from the BBC over its claim that Downing Street "sexed up" a dossier on WMD.

It was a classic example of diversionary tactics and, to some extent, we in the media have fallen for it. As Mr Campbell knows, the media loves little more than a story about the media - and especially the BBC. If New Labour is addicted to spin, the media is addicted to itself.

We should have been forewarned. Earlier this month, John Reid, an old ally of Mr Campbell, created a useful diversion by attacking "rogue elements" in the security services. The result was the same as in the "battle with the Beeb" - the spotlight of the media, and Parliament, shifted away from the crucial issue of whether Iraq possessed WMD.

As Robin Cook argued yesterday: "It's very important that we don't get distracted into the argument about deception and sexing up or whatever ... For me, the real issue is that we were told things as a justification for war which have plainly turned out to be wrong since the war was over."

It suits Mr Campbell very nicely to have a row with the BBC about who is "lying" over the September dossier. By putting himself in the line of fire, he is acting as his master's bodyguard. Against the BBC, he is playing on his home ground, and my hunch is that he will be able to claim "victory", at least in the Westminster village.

But the fog over "who-said-what-to-whom-when?" must leave many ordinary people cold. Perhaps it is designed to, though that will hardly stop people being turned off by politics.

But will the Government win the battle and lose the war? There is a danger that this affair will accelerate the voters' loss of trust in Mr Blair personally and the Government generally. If I am right, then all the spin, diversions and rows will not have worked after all.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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