steve_bell260603.jpgAttended a talk by Tony Blair’s former Press Director, the Alastair Campbell, at Pembroke College tonight. It was, unsurprisingly, a bravura performance – one of the most impressive displays of seamless rhetoric I have witnessed in a long time. Possibly best known, at least abroad, for his involvement in selling the Iraq War to the British People and his direct responsibility for the embarrassing concoction that was the so-called “dodgy dossier”, given to the press in February 2003 in support of the government’s claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and ties to international terrorism. Smartly, Campbell immediately diffused potential criticism from the audience by humorously outlining how he had garnered something of a reputation for being the Anti-Christ in person.

His topic for the night was the state of communications between politicians and the media – a topic he, needless to say, knows like the back of his hand, having served years on both sides of the press conference table, though there was no question where his allegiance lies today. While paying lip service to the importance of inquisitive journalism, his talk was a marathon lament on the homogenized sound byte nature of the media today.

He detailed how the spin of journalists is consistently given preference over words from the horse’s mouth, how the digital instantaneity of news diffusion has made pundits of most reporters, and prospectors of the rest. He described the “culture of negativity” he sees as pervading the press today, spinning every news story in a negative direction, the problematic ethics of journalists doctoring their stories, etc.

While many of his examples – such as what he described as a consistently negative coverage of the 2012 London Olympics, first pessimism as to getting the bid, then predictions that it is going to be a disaster – were both effectual and entertaining, he ended up coming across as a fully-fledged pundit himself, complaining that politicians are not applauded on, or at least left alone to do, their work. He of course had a point that most mass media today have become increasingly homogenised, with less and less distinction made between solid, newsworthy stories and fluff. He provided a few no-brainer examples himself: the thoroughly absurd Shilpa Shetty/Big Brother racism non-issue earlier in the year, Rupert Murdoch’s no less absurd claims of being “Fair and Balanced”, the binary for/against polls on the ignoble Sky Channel, BBC News’ coverage of Liz Hurley’s wedding, etc. And his point that nobody wins in this scenario is well taken – both newspaper print runs and broadcast news ratings are down, and there is a culture of apathy with respect to our representative democracies in the Western world.

He however seemed to mostly absolve politicians of creating this climate of apathy and spin, or at least explain behaviour conducive to it amongst them as engendered by the media. It was telling that he interpreted a news editor’s rationale for reducing coverage of Blair’s weekly press conferences – that they had become ‘boring’ because Blair had become ‘too good at them’ – to be an example of the press shying away from a politician bringing substance to the table. Not knowing of the specific case, I of course cannot comment on it more than in a general way, but it strikes me that ‘too good’ here is patently not a euphemism for ‘serious’ or ‘substantial’, but rather ‘so full of evasive spin that there is no point in bothering anymore’. Also, it was interesting to note how Campbell tended to describe politicians adept at this kind of subterfuge as “great communicators.”

Nevertheless, he seemed to win over most of the audience by shooting the fish in the proverbial barrel that is the mass media, and by asking up front that people not be polite in the Q&A following the talk. Unfortunately, the audience turned out to be just that – a little too polite. One reason for this could be that most people there, yours truly included I am sorry to say, felt a little too intimidated by his obvious self-confidence and the conviction with which he presented his views. However, a lot of it was also due to intelligent use of rhetoric; early on in the Q&A-session, he was asked whether he had experienced instances of politicians letting the media dictate their policy-making, and he immediately brought up what could otherwise have become the elephant in the room: the “dodgy dossier” that he himself had been responsible for. By doing this, he achieved two things: he mentioned it before anyone else got the chance, getting points for earnestness, and he implied that it was really a product of media pressure, something that would not have happened, had he not had to give two press conferences a day at the time (he also emphasized, somewhat sheepishly, that he was only responsible for commisioning it, not for its content).

There were several instances of him pre-empting such difficult questions – when asked what his most challenging time as Press Director had been, he immediately mentioned the days after the body of Ministry of Defence scientist and WMD-specialist David Kelly was found dead in the Oxfordshire woods near his home in June of 2003. While this was no doubt completely honest, it again seemed to pre-empt further questions about the sad series of events that led to his event, and about the resulting Hutton inquiry, which to many appeared as a government whitewash. But I guess I myself could just have gotten up and asked about these things, so my bad.

My point here is not so much criticising why no-one stuck it to Campbell, who – having fielded much harder questions than any of us could have come up with on a nigh-daily basis – surely would have welcomed the opportunity. No, it is rather to comment on his very fundamental criticism of media practice after himself having been involved in the problematic clampdown on the BBC that followed the Hutton Inquiry. Yes, he has personal grievances over the BBC; they after all accused him of doctoring the so-called “September Dossier”, which preceded the “Dodgy” one and claimed that Saddam had WMD capability and could deploy it in 45 minutes – accusations he was cleared of by Hutton. But if the story the BBC investigated back then – the British government’s rather dubious rationale for going to war – was not the kind of story he would describe as genuinely newsworthy, then I am at a loss to figure out what is. And while it turned out the BBC they had perhaps committed a couple of procedural mistakes, we all now know, or at least have very strong indication, that the substance of their story was true, especially in light of the subsequently leaked, and suppressed by silence, “Downing Street Memo.”

In times when the serious media seem to be increasingly kowtowing to political interests, and evidently being punished when they do not, I for one can live with their “culture of negativity.”

The cartoon is by Steve Bell, from the Guardian, where it appeared July 26 2003.