Dacre: ‘pathologically hung up about Campbell’
Regional journalists and those out of favour with Downing Street will be left out in the cold if Tony Blair presses ahead with plans for daily televised briefings, MPs have been warned.
And the MPs have been told to expect a permanent turf war with Whitehall departments following the appointment of Howell James to the newly created post of permanent secretary in charge of government communications.
Both televised briefings and the new civil service appointment were key recommendations of the review of government communications chaired by Bob Phillis, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group.
But both moves were criticised by Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre and Sir Christopher Meyer, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, in evidence to the Commons public administration committee.
Dacre told MPs that televised briefings led to broadcasters and journalists sympathetic to No 10 being called with little opportunity for supplementary questions. “Provincial journalists don’t get much of a look in either,” he said.
Meyer – former press secretary to John Major – echoed his criticism of televised press conferences, doubting whether they would be of value to journalists.
In Washington, where he had been British ambassador, television cameras were present at daily White House, State and Defense Department briefings.
“But very little, if any, footage survives to the main news bulletins,” he told the MPs. “On-the-record briefings, either by ministers or civil servants, are imperfect vehicles for communication with the public. Precisely because they are on the record, spokesmen will tend to put caution before candidness.”
Meyer predicted that the system of unattributable briefings would survive. “Call it ‘lobby’ or what you like, there will always be a market in the worlds of policy and politics for information conveyed in ways other than on the record.”
Meyer said the appointment of a new permanent secretary and the new structure he would supervise would “prove cumbersome and ineffectual”. The best that could be said for the new official was that “he will be left running a souped-up version of the GICS [Government Information and Communication Service] and not much more.”
Dacre robustly defended Daily Mail journalists when the Labour-dominated committee went gunning for his editorial line after chairman Tony Wright told him: “You are reporting to an agenda which has nothing to do with the facts of the case.”
Dacre, the only editor to be summoned by the MPs, hit back: “Why are you so obsessed with the Daily Mail? We are one paper.”
He accused Alastair Campbell of poisoning the atmosphere between the press and politicians. “His obsession with the Mail is almost unhinged.” Wright told Dacre he was “pathologically hung up about Campbell”.
Dacre said there had been an improvement in relations since David Hill had replaced Campbell as the Prime Minister’s director of communications.
By David Rose