The Week in Politics: Hutton learns lessons of Scott and fires first shots in the spin war

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The Independent Online

First impressionscount in politics. I learnt that lesson when Lord Justice Scott delivered his 1,800-page report into the arms-to-Iraq affair almost eight years ago.

The 8lb tome contained severe criticism of the Conservative government, which had been prepared to let innocent businessmen go to prison to cover up the illegal export of military equipment to Saddam Hussein's regime. But Downing Street and Tory officials, who received the Scott report eight days before it was published, launched the most ruthless, misleading, and effective spin operation I have witnessed.

They seized on a few words favourable to the two ministers under pressure to resign, William Waldegrave and Sir Nicholas Lyell, while ignoring the stinging criticism. A briefing pack for journalists cherry-picked the report. A Treasury press release was headed: "Scott clears Waldegrave of intent to mislead". It did not mention his finding that Mr Waldegrave and other ministers secretly relaxed the policy on arms sales to Iraq without telling Parliament. The spin worked, despite heroic efforts by Robin Cook, then shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, to counter it. No minister resigned, and a potentially lethal storm for the Major government blew over quickly.

No wonder Tony Blair's aides have been studying the publication of the Scott report as part of their jittery preparations for the Hutton report into the death of the scientist David Kelly. The bad news for Mr Blair is that Lord Hutton has been learning lessons from Scott, too.

Lord Hutton is in no mood to let anyone "spin" his report. He will allow the Government only 24 hours to prepare its lines. Crucially, unlike Lord Justice Scott, he will summarise his report at a televised press conference at the Royal Courts of Justice, before the politicians can put their gloss on it. He is right about this, but wrong to deny journalists advance copies, which would dilute the power of the spin doctors.

The BBC is already spinning away. Gavyn Davies, the chairman, ruled out major reform of the way the corporation is run, and Greg Dyke, the director general, said there would be no scapegoats and made clear the BBC would not necessarily accept Lord Hutton's recommendations.

I can guarantee that both the Government and BBC will declare they have already taken action on the lessons from the evidence given to the inquiry last summer. The Government will point to changes in its communications set-up in the post-Alastair Campbell era. The BBC will trumpet new editorial guidelines and curbs on its journalists writing for newspapers.

But the real battle will be over the carefully chosen words in Lord Hutton's report. One minister told me: "It could come down to one sentence, perhaps a few words, that will make the headline. We hope it will be about the BBC. They hope it will be about us."

But the reality may be more complicated. Some ministers suspect Lord Hutton will deliver a "plague on all your houses" report, apportioning blame on the Government, the BBC and possibly even Dr Kelly himself. Privately, No 10 would probably settle for that. The hope in Downing Street is that the Hutton report will not be as bad for Mr Blair as some think. Much attention has been focused on Mr Blair's role in the unmasking of Dr Kelly, due largely to Michael Howard raising the issue two weeks running at Prime Minister's Questions. But the Prime Minister is cautiously optimistic that he will have the last laugh. "He thinks Howard will have made a strategic mistake unless Lord Hutton accuses him of lying," said one Blair ally.

Like two glaring boxers at the weigh-in before the big fight, Mr Howard and Mr Blair have told each other how they are relishing their battle on the day Hutton is published. Privately, Mr Howard is worried that the Government will ape the Tory operation on Scott and distract the media, perhaps by turning the story into one about the BBC. Just as Mr Campbell did when he appeared before the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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