Former Downing Street press secretary Alastair Campbell appeared to reveal his contempt for journalists yesterday during a lengthy Leveson Inquiry evidence session.
Towards the end of his testimony he said: “Good journalists are probably still in the majority”. Which gives the impression that he thinks that approaching half of us are crooks.
This from a man who did not have a reputation among Lobby journalists as being a particularly straight dealer when he was Downing Street spokesman. One of the country’s longest serving and most respected lobby journalists David Rose wrote about the Blair/Campbell legacy for Press Gazette in 2007.
He said: “Blair’s legacy is tarnished not just by what is now widely perceived as his misjudgement in going to war in Iraq, but in misleading Parliament, the media and the public about the military threat posed by Saddam Hussein.”
He added: “Under Blair, spinning has come so embedded in Government that journalists genuinely now have difficulty at times in knowing when they are being told the truth.”
Yesterday, Campbell began his testimony by talking about his long journalistic pedigree – at the Mirror, Today and other titles. But some of the accusations he bandied around were pure speculation which would have been laughed out of news conference in the days when he was a national press political reporter.
His witness statement largely seemed to be a comment-based tirade against the press based on stuff he had read elsewhere. As far as I could tell he introduced little new evidence. His first-hand evidence about phone-hacking seemed highly speculative to say the least:
“Elements of David Blunkett’s private life are thought to have been obtained via listening in to voicemail messages. Ultimately it could be argued that led to his political demise. I have no evidence Of Carole Caplin being hacked. However, there were times when I believed she or someone close to her was leaking information to the Mail and others about the activities, and movements of Cherie Blair.
“Given that Carole is now sueing the Mail over something else, and as she has never talked publicly about the Blairs, I am now certain that I was mistaken in these suspicions. I do not know if her phone was hacked, or if Cherie’s was, but knowing what we do now about hacking and the extent of it I think it is at least possible this is how the stories got out.
“They often involved details of where Cherie was going, the kind of thing routinely discussed on phones when planning visits, private as well as public. I have also never understood how the Daily Mirror learned of Cherie’s pregnancy.
“As I recall it, at the time only a tiny number of people in Downing Street knew that she was pregnant. I have heard all sorts of stories as to how the information got out, but none of them strike me as credible.
“The reason I became suspicious my own phone may have been hacked arose when I arranged to meet Tessa Jowell at her request at the time her husband’s business affairs were the subject of an Italian court case and considerable media attention.
“She was suspicious someone in her office was leaking out information about her movements (much as Elle Macarthur had been) and we set up the meeting via mobile phone, rather than through our offices. When we arrived at my house, where we had arranged to meet, a photographer was outside.”
On that final point: Campbell said he was involved in a story that was at the centre of “considerable media attention”. And he wonders why a photographer was outside his house.
Do be fair, Campbell’s unique and extensive experience of dealing with the press means his views are worth listening to. And I would not disagree with his conclusion, that ordinary journalists need to be empowered by a new ethical framework:
“The inquiry is perhaps a once in a generation opportunity to help the press regain standards of accuracy, fairness and decency, and a positive role in culture and society. The signs from the owners and editors so far have not been good. But there are many good journalists. They need to be empowered, so that the best of British journalism can drive out the worst.”