The Public Relations State by HC120807193455


									Dominic Wring is Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies at

Loughborough University

The Media and Politics: the Hutton Inquiry, Public Relations State

and crisis at the BBC.

Abstract: 2004 began with the culmination of an inquiry by Lord Hutton into the

circumstances leading up to the death of the Ministry of Defence scientist David

Kelly. Hutton formally cleared the government of blame and criticised the BBC for

its role in the affair but the subsequent debate ensured Tony Blair’s involvement in

the controversy and the wider issue of Iraq remained firmly on the agenda. Blair’s

apparent vindication by Hutton was dismissed as one-sided by a formidable coalition

of agenda-setting newspapers whose vigorous defence of the BBC together with

further criticisms raised by the Corporation’s former Director General Greg Dyke

maintained the pressure on government. The crisis highlighted the limitations of the

so-called Public Relations State, subsequent reforms of which have done little to

counter the perception that there is a growing crisis of public trust in the Prime

Minister and his government.

Labour inherited the machinery of the modern ‘Public Relations State’ from the

Thatcher government.1 Prior to then, and despite their relatively brief spells in office,

Labour prime ministers did oversee some important innovations in this sphere:

MacDonald employed a press secretary, Attlee supervised the introduction of the

Central Office of Information and Wilson was arguably the first incumbent to
understand the importance of the television soundbite.2 These developments attracted

journalistic commentaries but none of the coverage in is comparable to that devoted to

the modern Labour government’s high self-conscious communications strategy. But

arguably this approach and the attention given it is not necessarily a demonstration of

strength in that it underlines the conditionality of media support for Tony Blair when

compared with Margaret Thatcher. The former never required or depended upon

press officers or their more clandestine spin-doctor variants to the same degree

because the proprietors of most agenda setting national newspapers were almost

unquestioning in their support for her agenda. Consequently rather than devoting

resources to soliciting and managing ‘free’ coverage from the news media, the

Thatcher governments were able to concentrate more of their efforts on ‘controlled’

communications like the advertising campaigns they funded to publicise the major

privatisation programmes.

Thatcher’s departure from office brought into public the simmering Conservative

divisions, principally over European integration, and strained the party’s relationship

with the ‘Tory press’. Soon only the staunchly loyal Express was the only reliable

supporter as John Major found himself in a precarious situation without a clear

parliamentary majority or compliant news media. The Tory press gradually became

the Tony press but, as the latter term suggests, this was a more conditional, less

compelling allegiance. The Sun, one of Blair’s new allies, demonstrated this when it

criticised the by now prime minister for being the ‘Most Dangerous Man in Europe’

because of his allegedly integrationist tendencies. And this in turn helps to explain

why the Labour government has devoted so much resource, expertise and effort to

communicating its message through the media.
Thatcher’s press secretary Bernard Ingham has criticised the Labour government in

seeking to distinguish his own role from that of successor Alastair Campbell but in

doing so he fails to acknowledge that degree to which the print journalists he worked

with were employed by close political allies of Prime Minister Thatcher. There has,

nonetheless, been a qualitative as well as quantitative change in the work of what

Campbell helped to relaunch as the Government Information and Communication

Service (GICS). Allied to this an important spin-doctoring function was increasing

being discharged by the growing numbers of Departmental Special Advisers working

throughout Whitehall. Infamously it was one of these, Jo Moore, who shortly after

news of the tragedy suggested September 11th 2001 would be a ‘good day to bury bad

news’.    The incident underlined the government’s determined, even ruthless,

commitment to media management and, by his failure to orchestrate the immediate

removal of Moore, Blair’s own devotion to this network of spin-doctors. The episode

also helps to clarify why the present government has gained and retained a reputation

for media manipulation and how this served to undermine its credibility during the

most serious crisis in media-government relations since Labour’s election in 1997.

In successive military engagements involving British forces, the role of the country’s

media has been a site of controversy and source of debate. The BBC, in particular,

has been subjected to particular scrutiny because of its perceived symbolic and

journalistic importance as the supposed ‘voice of the nation’. In each of the last three

major conflicts, a loyal government backbencher has managed to convey their

leadership’s anger towards the Corporation by launching a highly emotive attack on

the broadcaster for its alleged duplicity and/or lack of patriotism.        During the
Falklands crisis, MP John Page spoke of BBC Newsnight providing questionable if

not downright ‘treasonable’ coverage. Similarly in the Gulf crisis of 1990-1 David

Tredinnick endorsed a constituent who had written to him to denounce the ‘Baghdad

Broadcasting Corporation’. In one of the subsequent debates over the more recent

Iraq invasion it was the turn of a Labour politician, Sion Simon, to attack and label the

BBC as the ‘enemy within’, a term with special resonance for the labour movement

because it was previously used by Margaret Thatcher to describe the striking miners

in the 1980s. Former journalist Simon’s further call for the BBC to be privatised was

however less in line with party policy and more in keeping with the views of his

former employers, the notoriously anti-NUM News of the World. Furthermore the

suggestion relied on a belief that the Corporation’s coverage had been markedly

hostile towards the government is disputed by a Cardiff University School of

Journalism study which suggests BBC reporting was more favourable to official

government sources than its rivals. Nonetheless the importance of Simon’s comments

was to reveal the depth of animosity on the part of some within the Labour hierarchy

towards the BBC following the publication in late January 2004 of the Hutton Inquiry

into the circumstances surrounding the death of Ministry of Defence scientific adviser

David Kelly.3

The Hutton Inquiry

Lord Brian Hutton was appointed by Tony Blair to investigate the background to

Kelly’s apparent suicide and the role of government and the BBC in his public

exposure during summer 2003 when it was revealed he had been the alleged source

for Radio 4 Today defence correspondent Andrew Gilligan’s claim that senior people
within Downing Street had ‘sexed up’ the crucial dossier outlining the evidence for

supporting the invasion of Iraq. This highly controversial suggestion brought senior

BBC management into direct conflict with Alastair Campbell and the ensuing debate

over the veracity of the report became a personal tragedy when David Kelly was

named, subjected to considerable public scrutiny and then found dead soon after. The

news emerged hours after the Prime Minister had been awarded the rare honour of

addressing the US Congress. Kelly’s death refocused media attention away from the

government’s agenda and an anxious Blair hastily announced Hutton would supervise

an inquiry into the tragedy.       The subsequent report formally vindicated the

government but, due to its one-sided nature, only served to deepen rather than close

the controversy.

An important aspect of Lord Hutton’s inquiry focused on the role and practices of

journalism and in his conclusions the judge formed the view that: ‘communication by

the media on matters of public interest and importance is a vital part of life in a

democratic society (but is) subject to the qualification that false accusations of fact

impugning the integrity of others, including politicians, should not be made by the

media’ before clearing the government of any ‘underhand or dishonourable or

duplicitous conduct’ in relation to the identification of Kelly as the source for

Gilligan’s allegations. Hutton also believed Downing Street had acted in good faith,

particularly over the insertion of the dossier’s highly contentious claim that the Iraqi

regime possessed weapons of mass destruction and that it was able and potentially

willing to deploy these within 45 minutes. The latter and rather alarming figure had

been widely reproduced throughout the media and was perceived to have strengthened

the case for the subsequent military intervention.
The publication of Hutton’s findings may have exonerated the government but the

report provoked a furious and sustained counterattack led by a formidable alliance of

national newspapers who were normally thought of as the BBC’s rivals (if not foes)

but who in this case mounted a vigorous defence of the Corporation. Whereas there

had been a tendency among journalists to neglect the evidence and accept the less

critical conclusions of the Franks report into events leading up to the Falklands crisis

twenty years before, the reverse was the case with this inquiry. This demonstrated the

vulnerability and limitations of the public relations state machinery Blair and

Campbell had expended so much effort on reforming. Some journalists now appeared

to prepare to ask questions that deviated from the normal Westminster consensus and

even right-wing papers like the Express and Mail expressed unease over the

government’s adherence to a policy formulated in Washington by the so-called neo-

conservatives within the US administration.

It was perhaps ironic that a document so preoccupied journalistic custom and practice

should itself be apparently spun through the kind of leak that had long characterised

the news management strategies of the Blair government. Hutton was angered by the

disclosure of his findings to Trevor Kavanagh of the Sun on the eve of his report’s

publication (28th January 2004). Arguably though the judge’s reaction underlined the

journalistic criticism of him that he was naïve about the workings of the media and

was not in a strong position to offer an informed commentary on this particular brief.

The front-page story in the Sun accurately forecasted the judge’s findings apart from

one important detail relating to Campbell’s assistant press officer Tom Kelly. He had

earned the rare and dubious distinction of being named by Paul Waugh of the
Independent (6th August 2003) as the source for an unflattering portrayal of David

Kelly (no relation) as a ‘Walter Mitty’ character shortly before the scientist’s death.

Kavanagh predicted the spin-doctor’s censuring by Hutton but in the event no such

criticism was forthcoming and he remained in post to again find favour and

preferment under Campbell’s successors when major changes to the GICS were

announced two months after Hutton.

Tom Kelly’s survival demonstrated how favourable Hutton’s report was to the

government and his prominent appearance in the Sun story underlined the personality

driven nature of the much contemporary political reporting. As BBC political editor

Andrew Marr observed current affairs reporting is increasingly influenced by a

celebrity style journalism that tends to concentrate on the human drama of who is ‘up’

and who is ‘down’ to the exclusion of context and detail.4            Politicians have

encouraged this development through their own efforts at self-promotion and their co-

opting of the famous; Blair’s sanctioning of popstar Bono’s keynote address to the

2004 Labour Conference offers a prime example of this trend. Consequently it is

possible to draw a parallel between the highly personalised coverage of the Hutton

Inquiry outcome and that afforded ITV programme I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of

Here, the story that dominated popular media culture at that time. Both stories

revolved around the reporting of the interplay between ten to a dozen actors, some of

whose fortunes greatly fluctuated over a short period of time. An editorial in the

Guardian even drew the two genres together when it suggested Blair might appear in

his own version of the television format following another of his broadcast encounters

with a group of voters over student top-fees. But it was the same paper’s columnist

Madeleine Bunting who had previously made the more telling observation that Blair’s
emotionalised discourse had initially worked in his first term but now had the

potential to rebound against him (Guardian, 17th March 2003). From this perspective

the prime minister had arguably made himself more vulnerable to criticism from an

aggrieved Kelly family but in the event their response to Hutton’s findings was

understandably subdued. The media reaction was anything but and raised once again

the issue of whether Blair was a leader the public could trust.

Whitewash over Westminster? Media reactions to Hutton and the crisis at the BBC.

The BBC’s reporting of the Hutton Inquiry’s conclusion was, as it is legally required,

offered a considered and coherent summary of the main findings. But ultimately its

reporters, and particularly those belonging to the News 24 channel, were literally left

on the sidelines as Corporation staff staged a walkout on hearing that Director

General Greg Dyke had followed Chairman Gavyn Davies earlier decision to resign in

light of the judge’s criticism of the Corporation’s management. The two departures

together with their employees’ spontaneous demonstration, refocused attention on the

government, none of whose ministers had resigned despite the recognised

shortcomings in its own conduct over Iraq.         The BBC staff response was less

favourable to what many believed was the unnecessary public apology offered to

Downing Street by Davies’ temporary replacement, Deputy Chairman Richard Ryder.

Of the other main broadcasters, Channel 4 News’ Jon Snow’s performance was

particularly memorable, reminiscent as it was of his combative ITN predecessors

Robin Day and Ludovic Kennedy. The tenor of much of this coverage demonstrated

the degree to which Davies’ and Dyke’s actions succeeded in refocusing attention on
Blair, Campbell, intelligence officer John Scarlett and Defence minister Geoff Hoon’s

motives and activities.

It was, as ever with the British media, the newspapers that were able to offer more

forthright analysis because of their relative freedom from the statutory regulations

imposed on broadcast content. The press reaction underlined the more complex

nature of media alignments compared with the more obviously pro-government bias

of twenty years before. As was noted above journalists then had largely accepted the

findings and neglected the more critical evidence presented by the Franks report into

the events leading up to the Falklands crisis of 1982. The reverse was the case with

Hutton although there was a parallel between the two reports’ receptions in that it was

the more left inclined newspapers that led the attacks on the government.          The

Independent had been particularly critical of the Iraq invasion and reported Hutton’s

findings in a similar manner, providing one of the most memorable covers of the year

with its front page largely empty save for the headline ‘Whitewash’ (29th January

2004). The Guardian was similarly dismissive of the government’s position whilst

the Mirror was scathing about Hutton and defended the thrust of Gilligan’s story. In a

rare show of unity editorials in the right-wing Mail and Express closely resembled

each other and their liberal rivals. The Mail even reproduced, almost verbatim, the

evidence used by the Mirror to challenge Hutton’s judgements. Similarly the Express

reproduced the ‘Whitewash’ front page headline and complained that the report was

unlikely to diminish the suffering of the grieving Kelly family.

The Express may have found common cause with its nominal rivals but it did not with

its fellow Richard Desmond owned paper, the Daily Star, which blamed the crisis on
BBC ‘stupidity’. Similar sentiments were reproduced in a more portentous Telegraph

commentary that departed from the case to launch a somewhat irrelevant attack on the

‘market share obsessed’ Corporation’s ‘soft left’. The Times reiterated this point in a

less circumlocutory manner and condemned the BBC editors’ ‘defective systems’.

Fellow News International title, the Sun, was characteristically blunt in attacking the

‘shamed’ BBC and dutifully acted as the authentic voice of proprietor Rupert

Murdoch in his ongoing campaign against license funded broadcasting in Britain.

Murdoch’s leading media critics responded by publicising a survey finding comparing

the 92% of the public who expressed trust in the Corporation with the 11% who said

the same of the Sun. It is perhaps instructive that Blair found himself increasing

dependent on the latter as a source of media support and more by default than choice.

News Internationals’ anti-BBC agenda was on further display the following weekend

in Hutton related editorials. The News of the World departed from its populist format

to pursue a relatively esoteric argument for a reform of an ‘arrogant feather bedded

corporation’ that would require it to make 10% of revenues available ‘to subsidise

other channels’ (1st February 2004).      Presumably the latter would include the

Murdoch run Sky channels that were restricted from broadcasting their own case for

this kind of subsidy. Helpfully News International’s other newspaper, the Sunday

Times, continued the lobbying by complaining of the BBC ‘smothering

entrepreneurial activity’.

The other Sundays tended to follow their daily sisters’ editorial line if they

commented at all. The Independent on Sunday dismissed Hutton as ‘naïve’ whilst the

Mail on Sunday ridiculed the judge’s ‘ludicrously one-sided’ report. Other papers left
the matter for contributors to comment on. Sunday Express political editor Julia

Hartley-Brewer set out the evidence to argue that Gilligan had been ‘95% right’

whereas occasional BBC presenter Eamonn Holmes of The People used a minor part

of his column to state his belief that the Corporation was needed ‘more than ever’.

Richard Stott, political columnist on Trinity Media’s other weekly, the Sunday

Mirror, took a line that dissented from most of his colleagues in criticising Greg Dyke

for fomenting the crisis and his own downfall. Likewise the Guardian Media Group’s

Sunday, the Observer, which had been markedly more sympathetic to the government

over Iraq than its daily sister paper, laid most of the blame on the apparent failure of

the BBC governors to discharge their regulatory duties.

The former Director General eventually provided a lengthy response to Hutton, the

government and his critics in his own memoirs and a subsequent Channel 4 broadcast

‘Betrayed by New Labour’.5 Dyke, one of a select group of associates who had

funded Blair’s 1994 Labour leadership campaign, accused the Prime Minister of

duplicitous behaviour for having failed to honour an apparent promise to him that he

would not support calls for BBC resignations at the end of the Inquiry. Dyke was

particularly incensed at the by now freelance Alastair Campbell’s highly public and

bitter attack on him following the publication of Hutton’s report and viewed this as

emblematic of the way Blair had failed to control his Director of Communications in

Downing Street.

The unprecedented departure of both the Chairman and Director General left two

vacancies that were temporarily filled by deputy post-holders Richard Ryder and

Mark Byford. Neither replacement endeared themselves to their staff given what was
felt to have been their overly conciliatory response to the government in the aftermath

of the Hutton report. The vacuum within the BBC was however filled with the

appointment of Michael Grade as Chairman and Mark Thompson as Director General.

Both were veterans of the BBC with experience of working for Channel 4 and thus

well placed to begin planning their strategy of ensuring the Corporation’s Royal

Charter was renewed in 2006.        To this end Thompson’s first major act was to

announce changes that amounted to 2,900 job losses and the relocation of selected

London based departments to new premises in Manchester. The measures were

designed to save an estimated £320 million, approximately 15% of the total budget.

The announcement came at the end of a year that had seen several major studies into

various aspects of the BBC structures and provision including those led by experts

such as academic Patrick Barwise, policy adviser David Elstein and economist Tim


One of the most potentially influential if not feared contributors to the debate over the

future of public service broadcasting was the regulatory authority Ofcom now

operating in its first full year of existence.    Despite the BBC’s difficulties, the

possibility or desirability of the new organisation replacing the Corporation’s board of

governors was not a major topic of discussion although Ben Pimlott, in one of his last

published commentaries, was fearful of Ofcom’s possible encroachment.6 Such a

concern was motivated by the energetic start made by Ofcom and its success in setting

the agenda in a way predecessors such as the ITC, Radio Authority and Broadcasting

Standards Commission had not. In a major review of the media and communications

market and structures, the report identified a significant increase in the uptake of non-

terrestrial media by British households. The trend encouraged Ofcom executive and
former Downing Street aide Ed Richards to argue for a new public service

broadcasting (PSB) venture based on a digital platform. Allied to this other proposals

began to emerge suggesting ITV and Channel 4 be increasingly released from their

less commercially lucrative PSB requirements, notably the commitment to regional

programming. Even more radical was the contention that satellite based providers

such as Sky News might at some stage in the future be freed from the strict and

longstanding rules requiring broadcast current affairs providers to offer balanced and

impartial coverage and thereby raising the possibility that Sky might emulate its more

populist and determinedly ideological American sister network Fox.

Renegotiating the Public Relations State.

The structures and organisation of Downing Street’s ‘spin’ operation periodically

attracted the kind of media attention normally reserved for the various machinations

over the future of the BBC. The former were, however, relegated far behind the latter

when the conclusion to an inquiry headed by Bob Phillis into the workings

Government Communication and Information Service (GICS) coincided with that of

Lord Hutton. Like Hutton, Phillis, Chief Executive of the Guardian Media Group,

had been appointed by Downing Street to convene a committee based inquiry into the

GICS over the course of 2003. The investigation, the first major review of the service

since the Mountfield report at the beginning of Labour’s first term, had been

commissioned because of a growing perception that there was an increasing

breakdown in trust between politicians, journalists and the public.       The Phillis

committee’s final report was understandably neglected given the furore following the

publication of Lord Hutton’s findings. Nevertheless Blair’s personal endorsement of
the review leant influence and credibility to its proposals, most notably the call for an

overhaul in the existing structures of the GICS to counter the perceived lack of co-

ordination between Whitehall departments and beyond.

The Phillis report argued for a new, more streamlined system headed by a senior

permanent secretary for communications who would be aided by a fellow civil servant

as well as a political appointee. In March 2004 Howell James, a former aide to John

Major, was duly confirmed in the senior role. Given the high profile of Bernard

Ingham and Alastair Campbell, it was perhaps inevitable James’ appointment to a

sensitive new position would attract media attention and journalists did begin

commenting on the official’s friendship with Peter Mandelson, another controversial

former exponent of government communications.7           The permanent secretary was

aided by existing No.10 Downing St press officer Tom Kelly, a notable survivor

whose demise had been predicted before the Hutton Inquiry, and political appointee

David Hill who was also an existing member of Blair’s staff. Hill had originally

replaced Campbell following the latter’s departure the previous year and had proved

to be a consummate insider during his three decades working in politics, most of it in

the employ of Labour politicians.         If judged by their subsequent, relatively

anonymous public profile the ‘new’ team succeeded in focusing media attention away

from the minutiae of their work in a way the more obviously combative Campbell had


The implementation of the Phillis’ review recommendations was swift although the

report did attract criticism, particularly from beyond Westminster. Broadcaster and

academic Ivor Gaber questioned the validity of the report’s assertion that
communication was now as vital a part of government as public service delivery and

policy formulation.8 Gaber also argued the reforms were a retrograde step because

they amounted to a further concentration of power within an already highly

centralised government information system.         In a related criticism Jeremy Dear,

leader of the National Union of Journalists, suggested the changes marked the

privatisation of the GICS’s functions and that the main beneficiaries of this would be

those corporate public relations consultants fortunate enough to gain a highly

lucrative government contract. Phillis also drew criticism from more conservative

opinion-formers such as John Major’s former Press Secretary Chris Meyer who, as

chairman of the Press Complaints’ Commission, was dismissive of the report’s call

for more public, televised briefings in place of the informal interactions between

journalists and politicians under the guise of the secretive, off the record lobby

system. Meyer believed the proposal impractical and offered a defence for what he

called the ‘healthy scepticism’ that characterised political reporting in Britain.

Some of the most telling criticisms of the government communication service came

several months after some of the Phillis report recommendations had been

implemented. More surprisingly the observations were made by some of the most

senior officials working within the system and thereby demonstrated the difficulties in

changing working cultures as opposed to just structures. At a meeting involving

heads of communication working for the various ministries, the Department of

Health’s Sian Jarvis reportedly said that Downing Street was still preoccupied with

presentational matters to the detriment of the substance and complained that: ‘they

are asking for announcements before we have a policy’ (Sunday Times, 26th July

2004). Jarvis further suggested this was a key reason why her office preferred to use
doctors rather than ministers to make announcements on matter involving issues of

public trust. Similarly Siobhan Kelly from the Department of Culture Media and

Sport reiterated former spin-doctor Jo Moore’s infamous words to support her

contention that the government was still seeking to ‘bury bad news’ and gave the

example of how a survey demonstrating widespread support for the BBC post-Hutton

had been hidden in a relatively obscure part of a much larger report issued to

journalists. Besides their content was particular notable about the criticisms was that

they came from officials who had joined the government since it was first elected in

1997 and who were perceived to have been more sympathetic to its aims and

procedures than their predecessors.

Communication and the nature of decision-making within the highest levels of

government formed a central feature of the officially sanctioned investigation headed

by former Cabinet Secretary Robin Butler into the events leading up to the invasion of

Iraq. During this review Blair’s motives and conduct were once again examined,

debated and evaluated by key protagonists and media alike. Butler concluded by

criticising the government’s lack of formal procedures and structures, a deficit he

believed had contributed to the diminution and neglect of the Cabinet, its committees

and the senior civil servants who had succeeded him. The report was also critical of

the evidence in the dossier collated by future head of MI6 John Scarlett that had been

used to justify the government’s support for the invasion.

The coverage of Butler in the print media was in many ways a replay of the papers’

reactions to Hutton. The Sun emphasised the limited nature of the report’s criticisms

and reiterated what it believed were the benefits to have emerged from the conflict.
The Telegraph took a similar view although it was critical of the ‘cavalier attitude to

government’ of Blair and his close colleagues identified in Butler’s findings. The

more unremitting criticism of Downing Street came from those who had earlier

dismissed the Hutton report and now accepted the broad thrust of the Butler report if

not his cautious, judicial pronouncements. The Mirror (16th July 2004) resurrected

Andrew Gilligan’s contentious description, ‘Over-sexed’, to headline a front-page

story ridiculing the notorious 45-minute claim about the possible deployment of

weapons of mass destruction by Saddam Hussein’s regime. Butler had been critical

of this figure but failed to identify and blame a culprit. Writing in one of his last

articles (The Observer, 18th July 2004), veteran commentator Anthony Sampson was

less reticent to apportion guilt and argued the evidence strongly implicated Alastair

Campbell. Sampson believed the unorthodox Special Order in Council that had

empowered Campbell to personally direct civil servants had been crucial in enabling

him to use his tabloid honed instincts to firm up the less than convincing intelligence

and influence the deliberations of John Scarlett, the official ultimately responsible for

the dossier.

News from Elsewhere: international events and the domestic news agenda.

Blair’s oft-stated desire to move on from Iraq following the various reports and

inquiries that formally cleared his government of wrongdoing was ignored by many

media commentators because the investigations were viewed as partial to Downing

Street. More fundamentally the news agenda was driven by the seriousness of the

ongoing crisis and the associated revelations that began to emerge as a result of the

military intervention. The collapse of the trial against Katherine Gun was particularly
embarrassing. Gun, a GCHQ intelligence official, had earlier leaked details of the

government’s apparent endorsement of questionable bugging operations against

various international figures during the critical debate prior to the invasion of Iraq.

The government also experienced a setback when 52 former diplomats with

experience of the Middle East took the unusual step of publishing a letter critical of

Downing Street’s conduct of foreign policy. Blair’s moral case for war was further

compromised by the widespread publication of photographs of American personnel

mistreating Arab detainees in Abu Ghraib, one of the Ba’athist regime’s most

notorious prisons.    The imagery provoked a powerful reaction from erstwhile

proponents of the invasion whose support had been motivated by human rights

concerns. Initially there was a similar response when the avowedly anti-war Mirror

published images purporting to show British soldiers abusing Iraqi captives but when

the photos were subsequently shown to have been faked the editor Piers Morgan was


The loss of Morgan, one of the invasion’s fiercest media opponents, did little to stem

the attacks on a government that had lost none of its ministers despite the mounting

and varied criticisms of their foreign policy. The tragedy of the crisis was continually

demonstrated by the appalling Iraqi casualties that medical journal the Lancet

estimated to have rise to 100,000 during the year. The media coverage of these cases

was patchy and focused on the most violent theatres of conflict such as Falluja. The

human consequences of the conflict were only really comprehensively reported by

mainstream news journalists when several western civilians including the engineer

Ken Bigley and British born aid worker Margaret Hassan were abducted and killed by

militant groups. The Bigley family’s pro-active media strategy helped to ensure the
story remained in the headlines and provided a dramatic reminder, if any were

needed, of the unfolding crisis and power vacuum within Iraq. Video footage of some

of the captives’ beheadings posted on-line underlined the potential power of the

Internet as a medium.

The paucity of the intelligence that had supported the Coalition leaders’ original

claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction led to considerable debate in the

international media and, in a US presidential election year, an unprecedented number

of major documentaries by radical film-makers. Several of these attacked George W.

Bush and implicated Blair for his allegedly supine support of the Republicans’ agenda

for the Middle East and elsewhere. The most high profile of these films, Fahrenheit

911, came from leading liberal left director Michael Moore and criticised the failure

of mainstream news organisations to question the logic and morality of the

administration’s foreign policy. The film had most impact within the United States

but gained audiences in Britain and other countries where there was a heightened

citizen interest in the outcome of the presidential election.      The Guardian even

encouraged readers to try and influence the result by sending letters to voters living in

the highly Ohio marginal constituency of Clark county. Most of those who wrote did

so on behalf of Democratic challenger John Kerry although their most discernible

impact was to solicit antagonistic replies from some of the more pro-Bush residents.

The perceived failings of mainstream media reporting of international affairs was the

subject of a major Glasgow University Media Group study into the coverage of the

Middle East situation.9 The research suggested British viewers were ill served by

journalistic accounts that failed to take proper account of the historical context to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict.   Reviewing the book former BBC Middle Eastern

correspondent Tim Llewellyn (The Observer 20th June 2004), suggested the state was

more resourced and adept at defending its position, a point borne out when an Israeli

minister attacked Llewellyn’s successor Orla Guerin for her unflattering portrait of

the security authorities’ handling of a teenage suicide bomber. Elsewhere another

aspect of the BBC’s output, the thought provoking BBC2 documentary series The

Power of Nightmares, could have been interpreted as a response to the Glasgow

group’s criticism about the lack of historical context on television. In the programmes

director Adam Curtis revisited a thesis popularised by journalists like Jason Burke to

question whether the terrorist network al-Quaeda and thus the justification for the

‘war on terror’ actually existed.

Politics and ‘Anti-politics’.

The Brown versus Blair saga continued to generate headlines, speculation and

features throughout the year and re-emphasised the importance of spin as both a

concept and practice. The controversy attracted renewed interest in May following

Gordon Brown’s meeting with John Prescott at the Loch Fyne restaurant in Scotland.

Speculation increased following a convivial interview between Melvyn Bragg and

Alistair Stewart of the ITV News Channel during which the peer admitted his friend

Tony Blair had recently contemplated resigning.        Further news about his heart

problems and the purchase of a multi-million pound family home led Blair to take the

highly unusual step of confirming that, if re-elected, his third term would be his last.

The realisation that the Prime Minister’s career was entering its final phase prompted

more journalistic speculation and this duly intensified following the resignation of
Work and Pensions Secretary Andrew Smith. Smith had allegedly been the subject of

what one journalist described as ‘poisonous’ off the record briefings and these had

encouraged him to quit before being sacked.

Coverage of the reshuffle following Smith’s resignation re-ignited the debate over the

rivalry between Blair and Brown or, more precisely, their respective spin-doctoring

‘camps’. There was speculation Party Chairman Ian McCartney would be removed in

favour of Blair ally and Cabinet returnee Alan Milburn. In the event Milburn was

appointed Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster with a brief to co-ordinate election

preparations but this did little to dispel the media fuelled perception that the Prime

Minister was positioning him as an alternative successor to Brown. These changes

and the nature of Smith’s departure gave credence to Clare Short’s accusation that the

Blair ‘court’ was a ‘nasty place’ preoccupied with ‘manipulating the media’

(Guardian 9th September 2004).10 The government’s presentational difficulties over

the reshuffle were soon further compounded by the resignation of Home Secretary

David Blunkett following revelations that he had abused his position to help a now

estranged partner.   Lurid stories of the affair with Spectator magazine publisher

Kimberley Quinn diluted the impact of both the Chancellor’s Budget statement and a

Queen’s Speech that had been designed to emphasise the importance of security in

advance of a widely expected May general election.

Aside from the various media driven stories about personalities and rivalries in

government, informed journalists recognised the very real tensions that were

emerging over policy and which were exposed through Blair’s sanctioning of a

referendum on the proposed European Constitution without Cabinet approval. The
decision was widely interpreted as a setback for the integrationist cause because of the

widely perceived public scepticism towards such matters. EU Commissioner Chris

Patten criticised Blair, believing him to be motivated by a desire to appease the anti-

EU press, particularly those agenda-setting titles owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News

International company (Observer 25th April 2004). Blair’s maintenance of these

newspapers’ support over this and other issues made it all the more difficult for

Michael Howard in his attempt to cultivate Rupert Murdoch when the two met for

discussions early on in the year. The new Conservative leader had more success in

winning over the Daily Express, a paper that was once one of his party’s staunchest

allies. Its front-page declaration that ‘Enough is Enough’ was followed up with

analysis of key issues and an explanation for its abandonment of Labour for the

Tories. The impact of the news was, however, diminished by the title’s declining

reputation, influence and readership. By contrast media commentators appeared more

interested in the announcement by the rare pop music industry endorsement of the

Conservatives by the band Busted.

The lack of a more enthusiastic media response to the Conservatives under new leader

Michael Howard encouraged party strategists to take their message to the public in

more direct ways.      Those directing the campaigning included former Orange

telecommunications marketing executive Will Harris and, following his recent

success in the Australian elections, Lynton Crosby, an adviser to the country’s Prime

Minister John Howard. As part of a major organisational review the Conservatives

also moved from their established Smith Square headquarters to a new state of the art

premises in Westminster’s Victoria Street. From there strategists supervised various

initiatives including an advertising campaign aimed at a public sector workforce
perceived to be increasingly disaffected with government reforms. The party also

launched an ambitious telephone canvassing operation staffed by the kind of person

the Conservatives thought would be able to best empathise and communicate with the

public. Michael Howard attempted to demonstrate this quality by appearing on the

less formal programmes such as ITV daytime show This Morning along with his wife

Sandra. Blair as well as some of Howard’s Conservative predecessors had long

recognised agreeing to such interviews were an excellent way of reaching the kind of

viewers who were not greatly interested in formal politics but who nevertheless might


Despite their best efforts the Conservatives’ support were routinely placed behind

Labour in successive public opinion polls. Perhaps worse still the Tories faced a

sustained challenge for second or even third place in the Hartlepool, Leicester South

and Birmingham Hodge Hill by-elections. The party came nowhere near winning any

of these seats and attempts to promote itself as the credible opposition to Labour were

undermined by the Liberal Democrats’ increasing momentum as well as the

remarkable upsurge in support for the United Kingdom Independence Party. UKIP’s

populist campaigns against the EU and immigration were given renewed impetus by

the presence of ex-Labour MP Robert Kilroy-Silk, the former talk-show host who had

recently been sacked by the BBC for making controversial remarks about Arab states

in his Sunday Express column. The minor party maintained scored notable gains in

both votes and seats at the European parliamentary elections and Kilroy-Silk became

an MEP having personally attracted considerable media attention through his own

notoriety and the co-opting of celebrity supporters such as actor Joan Collins.
UKIP was not a new organisation but the significant boost in support for it underlined

some commentators’ belief that a wider and growing anti-politics sentiment was

growing. This view appeared to gain endorsement with the media led condemnation

of MPs following the most comprehensive publication of their expense costs to date.

Allied to this was a perception that public cynicism with the democratic process had

been a factor in the heavier than expected vote against the proposed North East

Assembly in a referendum involving nearly half of the region’s population.          In

addition to this it was noteworthy how much coverage sections of the media afforded

single issue groups such as the Countryside Alliance and Fathers4Justice who claimed

to be most alienated, particularly when the more extreme elements associated with

these movements invaded the chamber of the House of Commons and stopped

parliamentary proceedings.

The apparent rise in public hostility towards government was one of the reasons John

Lloyd was prompted to write What the Media are Doing to Our Politics.11 The

veteran commentator and Financial Times journalist took the unusual step of

supporting criticisms normally associated with those working outside of his own

industry and attacked a news culture that he believed was fostering a belief that to be

effective, interviewers should assume ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ when

they encountered a politician. In a Reuters lecture Lloyd continued his critique and

suggested the media were now operating in a ‘parallel universe’. The book was

particularly critical of the quality of news journalism offered by opinion forming
programmes such as BBC Radio 4’s Today and dismissive of contributor Andrew

Gilligan’s working practices and assertion that the government had ‘sexed-up’ the

evidence for going to war. Predictably the defence of political journalism and the

BBC was forthcoming in the keynote television industry MacTaggart lecture

delivered by John Humphrys, the broadcaster who had originally elicited Gilligan’s

contentious report.

One of Blair’s staunchest supporters, John Lloyd also joined other influential

commentators such as Bob Phillis and former Downing Street aides Geoff Mulgan

and Tim Allan in suggesting democratic politics was being ill served by a media that

increasingly appeared unable to distinguish between news from comment. It was

perhaps ironic that one of the most compelling demonstrations of these pro-

government observers’ case involved the libel trial between the staunchly anti-war ex-

Labour MP George Galloway and Daily Telegraph. Galloway successfully sued and

won £150,000 damages following earlier reports in the paper that he may have

personally profited from involvement in charitable works throughout the Middle East.

Former editor Roy Greenslade (Guardian 6th December 2004) contended the outcome

had depended on the journalist’s blurring of news and comment. It was a deficiency

associated with this paper that others including a former Telegraph foreign

correspondent had partly blamed on the imposing style of former proprietor Conrad

Black, the spectacular demise of whom attracted considerable media attention during

the year.

    D.Deacon and P.Golding, Taxation without Representation, John Libbey 1994.
  C. Seymour-Ure, Prime Ministers and the Media, Blackwells, 2003
  J. Lewis, Biased Broadcasting Corporation, Guardian, July 4, 2003. For more on Hutton see J.
Stanyer, Politics and the Media: A Crisis of Trust?, Parliamentary Affairs, March-April 2004
  A. Marr, lecture to the ‘Can’t Vote, Won’t Vote’ conference, UK Political Studies Association
Media and Politics Group conference, Goldsmiths College, November 2003.
  G. Dyke, Inside Story, Harper Collins, 2004
  B. Pimlott, Accountability and the Media, Political Quarterly, April 2004.
  Though unusual in the British context, James’ appointment resembled that of David Gergen, a
communications specialist who worked with American presidents from different parties.
  I. Gaber, Do the Phillis recommendations represent a new chapter in political communications or is it
business as usual?, Journal of Public Affairs, November 2004
  G. Philo and M. Berry, Bad News from Israel, Pluto 2004
   See also F. Beckett and D. Hencke, The Blairs and their Court, David Price 2004.
   John Lloyd, What the Media are Doing to Our Politics, Constable 2004

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