The Week in Politics: Why media and politicians must share blame

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The Independent Online

To avoid another media scrum outside his house, Alastair Campbell decided to stay at Downing Street on Tuesday night. He expected to be up most of the night reading an advance copy of Lord Hutton's report. But there was so little in it to worry him that he got a full night's sleep. "It's better than my best-case scenario," he told former colleagues.

Whenever I attended Lord Hutton's hearings last summer, I was deeply impressed by the law lord's occasional, precise but crucial interventions. When I read his report, I could not believe it was written by the same man. I am sure Lord Hutton judged the facts presented to him. But I am afraid he simply does not understand the media and its relationship with the Government. Unfortunately, Lord Hutton had already written his report before the findings of an inquiry into government communications, chaired by Bob Phillis, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, were presented on 19 January.

Both reports provide a good analysis of what Mr Phillis called a "three-way breakdown in trust" between the Government, the media and the public. His committee blamed a "culture of secrecy and partial disclosure of information" - spin. The Phillis inquiry found, on coming to power in 1997, that Labour's aggressive approach to the media "and their increased use of selective briefing of media outlets, in which government information was seen to be used to political advantage, led to a reaction from the media that has produced a far more adversarial relationship with Government". Tony Blair, Mr Campbell and Peter Mandelson saw the media as the enemy.

Fed up with ministers parroting the party line, broadcasters became more aggressive and tried to break stories rather than recycle government press releases. Enter Andrew Gilligan. He was hired by BBC Radio 4's Today programme to produce agenda-setting stories. (Well, he certainly did that.)

Mr Campbell chose his battleground brilliantly. BBC bosses, rightly anxious to defend the corporation's independence after unremitting pressure from the Government since 1997, fooled themselves into believing they were repelling Mr Campbell's wider attack on their "anti-war" agenda. But the death of David Kelly meant that its dispute with the Government would be judged on the narrow issue of the Gilligan report.

I am not defending Mr Gilligan or the BBC's handling of the crisis. The BBC, funded by taxpayers, must have higher standards than our free-market press. It normally does, but on this occasion it did not. The BBC is a beacon for the rest of the media. You wouldn't think so from reading Lord Hutton's report. Look at the Panorama programme which concluded that BBC chiefs had "bet the farm" on a dodgy Gilligan report. That it could have been broadcast a week before Lord Hutton reported was remarkable.

If the Government was as honest, Mr Blair would stand up in the Commons on Monday and say: "I have to tell the House that I knew Saddam Hussein did not pose a serious and current threat by the time we went to war. But I needed legal cover on the grounds that Iraq was in breach of UN resolutions."

My view is that the Government and the media are equally to blame for the "breakdown" identified by Phillis. Much of the press has moved from a healthy scepticism about politics to a nasty cynicism. I wish Lord Hutton had looked at the relationship through both ends of the telescope. He would then have produced a more balanced and credible report. If he had studied the Government's handling of the media since 1997, he might have reached a different judgment about the "naming strategy" under which Dr Kelly was thrust into the spotlight to aid Downing Street in its battle with the BBC. And Lord Hutton might not have swallowed the Government's fanciful claim that it issued a statement saying Dr Kelly had come forward because it was worried about being accused of a "cover up".

I hope the Phillis report will result in a more grown-up relationship between politicians and journalists. The Government must "draw a line" under Hutton and stop spinning. The media must change too. Politicians should not, as one Cabinet minister put it, "be treated like a war criminal every time we go on the Today programme".

I doubt either party can keep its side of this bargain. The media is set in its ways, while Mr Campbell's departure from No 10 has not cured its addiction to spin. Furious at The Independent's white front page with the headline "Whitewash?" on Wednesday, No 10 scoured this paper's coverage for ammunition. The best it could find was an article by Bruce Anderson. "Lord Hutton will be a judicial Gradgrind: facts, facts, facts. The Blair Government is in a position which it always dreaded. It is at the mercy of the unvarnished, unadulterated, unspun truth." The line was peddled by Margaret Beckett on the BBC's Question Time on Thursday.

The Government's triumphalist response to the Hutton report showed its true instincts. Sometimes, it just can't help itself. Mr Blair hopes desperately that Lord Hutton's judgment will enable him to win back the public's trust. My hunch is that he will be disappointed, and that - on the question of trust - the people already have reached their judgement on him.


Paul Sneddon, comedian, 47, Edinburgh

"Having a report into the death of a single person was a smokescreen to take attention away from the deaths of thousands of people in Iraq. I was a little surprised that the Government came out of it so well.''

Lord Janner of Braunstone, QC, 75, Westminster

"I always believed that neither Tony Blair nor the Government were guilty of lying. I was delighted and relieved to see this belief confirmed. The findings were totally justified. This was without question the fault of the BBC."

Tracy Saunders, 34, from New Zealand but living in Edinburgh

"The Government was responsible for naming Dr Kelly and the outcome of that, but has behaved childishly in seeking to blame other people. We need another inquiry to investigate the truth about why we went to war."

Kevin Williamson, author, founder of Rebel Inc

"It was a whitewash. An investigation into the wrong subject by a government stooge who gave them the result they wanted. The issue is why we took part in an illegal war. It wasn't the BBC who bombed Baghdad illegally."