On the eve of the Hutton Report’s release, in response to PR from the Kelly Investigation Group, the UK’s Evening Standard ran a headline: “Was Kelly Murdered?” ** Remember how the Sun leaked the report that same evening***? Is it possible the government and Murdoch’s Sun colluded here too?
Was the Hutton Report leaked to the Sun deliberately to divert attention away from that headline? Subsequent media attention that evening and the following day focused on the leak, neatly sidestepping any examination of the real possiblity that Kelly’s death was not “suicide” at all. — Rowena Thursby
Michael White, political editor
The Blair government knew in advance that the Sun newspaper was to launch a week-long campaign on the “immigration crisis” last summer, and immediately moved to neutralise the issue in collaboration with the tabloid, it was claimed yesterday.
The weekly news “grid” produced to maximise the impact of government announcements for the week of August 18 to 24 included a scheduled interview with the home secretary, David Blunkett, in which he promised “tough measures to crack down on asylum cheats”, even before the campaign started, according to a book reported in the Mail on Sunday.
Inside Blair’s Bunker, a study of the Blair kitchen cabinet, also repeats claims that the prime minister realised that his then-communications director, Alastair Campbell, needed “calming down” during his 2003 battle with the BBC over David Kelly’s suicide – and wished Mr Campbell had stepped down sooner.
So distraught was Mr Campbell over BBC claims that No 10 had “sexed up” intelligence data on Iraq knowing it to be false – a charge on which it was acquitted by Lord Hutton – that his rage made some associates fear for his health. “I am trying to calm him down,” Mr Blair is quoted as explaining.
The book’s co-authors, political journalists Simon Walters and Peter Oborne, both old adversaries of Mr Campbell, repeat charges that the former communications director – a “brilliant but ruthless man” – often dominated Mr Blair, who had run-ins with both Bill Clinton and George Bush over his influence. They also highlight the role of the “grid” used to synchronise government announcements and make sure they do not clash with events that might overshadow them in the wider world, including Bob Hope’s memorial service and the world athletics championships in the week starting August 18 last year.
But it was Mr Blunkett’s pencilled-in agreement to be interviewed by the Sun before its “Sun Asylum Week” campaign was even launched which yesterday led its tabloid rival, the Mail on Sunday, to publish extracts from the book.
Labour invented the grid in 1998, having returned to office after 18 years to find that Whitehall departments did not know what other departments were doing – in contrast to ever-sharper media planning outside in the era of round-the-clock news. Finding out what newspapers, especially tabloids, and even more importantly, broadcasters, are planning is a significant task for press officers and spin doctors.
“There’s a constant battle. Our task is to learn what we can as soon as we can and try to put our best case over,” one veteran practitioner said yesterday.
In the case of the Sun’s asylum campaign, No 10 knew how sensitive the issue was to many tabloid readers who feel they are competing most sharply with newcomers for jobs and other services.
“The impression given was that the government had acted on the Sun’s concerns. The newspaper could boast it had won a significant victory. In fact, the outcome of the week may have been choreographed well in advance,” the Mail on Sunday suggested.
Keeping the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun happy is a key target for Labour strategists, anxious to neutralise the gut-hostility of the tycoon to anything which smacks of the socialism he briefly espoused as a student.
Mr Oborne and Mr Walters also revive the tensions between Cherie Blair and Mr Campbell and his partner, Fiona Millar, an adviser and friend of the Labour leader’s wife, who fell out over the influence of Carol Caplin, the “lifestyle guru”.
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