14 January 2010

I was at the Iraq Inquiry watching Alastair Campbell

In the very moment before Sky News started their interview with me I snatched off my hat.

"It was an odd thing for me to do", I mused to Mrs Botogol later that evening, over a glass of red wine. "Well, not that odd", she said "when you consider the hat."

All is Vanity.

"Will I be on the telly?", I had asked the reporter when she approached me "Not necessarily", she said, "We're chatting to a few of you in the queue; it depends what you say, really".
 She asked me why I had been prepared to stand in the cold three hours waiting to watch Alastair Campbell.
"I like Alastair Campbell"
"Oh, yes", she said, "you'll definitely be on the telly"

Unfashionably enough: I do like Alastair Campbell. He's a person whom it's acceptable for the public to hate (he has that in common with Mrs Thatcher) but he's also a man who shows great resilience and purpose, and who commands a tremendous personal loyalty from friends and colleagues: intriguing and valuable qualities, and not to be underestimated. I have a lot of time for him, and I certainly don't blame him for sticking up for himself and his boss yesterday.

I will admit that I overestimated his public appeal though: with only sixty seats available to the punters at 9am  I judged it necessary to be there at 6:30, at which time I was comfortably the first in the queue. By 7am there were two of us, and a sympathetic receptionist took pity and let us into the warm foyer. By 8am there were still only seven when we were thrown back out on to the street by an unsympathetic security guard and told to form a proper queue, already, why don't we? And who let us inside anyway?"

For while the Iraq Public Inquiry makes the public welcome, but it doesn't like to let them get too comfortable.

The tiny Hearing Room was crazily organised such so that the person we had actually come to see was the least visible: In fact Alastair Campbell was practically invisible, seated with his back to the audience, his face displayed on a corner TV monitor, on which video and audio were unsynchronised.

It was no compensation at all that we had an excellent view of bored Benny Hill look-alike John Chilcott and the miscellaneous Bufton-Tuftons on his panel (from the position of the furniture someone glancing casually in might have gathered that they were the stars of the show..)

Note to organisers: change the layout of the room so that the panel and witness sit sideways across the front, so that the public can see them all.

Campbell actually looked nervous when he entered the room, grasping a large blue folder of notes and reminders, and he focused hard on the opening questions, but as the panel wasted no less than an hour to establish merely that he was one of Blair's inner circle and, yes, he had access to everything, Campbell relaxed and grew more ebullient, combative and sure of himself even correcting chronological mis-statements from the panel.

The questioners had a go at probing but Campbell reckoned he was better at this game than they were; and clearly he was right: they wasted so much of the morning session on protocols and procedures that Campbell ended up mentioning the dossier before they did.

The cached thought you'll read in the press is the panel needs a lawyer, but when Campbell made his "I don't read the headlines" claim it was a snorting Jeremy Paxman who might have made a real difference.

But if Campbell didn't think much of the panel, neither did the panel think much of his evidence "I think we're coming from a different direction from that", observed Lawrence Freedman at one point drily, and portentously. Just as Campbell had prepared his answers in advance of the questions so, I suspect, have the Inquiry worded their report in advance of his evidence.

Campbell's key messages were two:
  • John Scarlett was completely in control of the contents of the dossier, and the forward. He could make any changes he liked and all the changes he wanted were actioned. He held the pen. [Translation: if anything in the document is wrong it's not my fault]
  • The Intelligence Services are hardly innocents when it comes to the world of spin. Three times Campbell told us that they alone of all the departments 'got' the new media world. [Translation: even if the dossier was sexed up, it wasn't him what did it]

By 11:15 when a short break was announced, I had been at the QE2 Conference Centre for five hours neither eating or drinking and I asked the staff if there was anywhere where I could get a coffee. [Now, pause for thought here: I was in a Conference Centre…at 11:15… asking for coffee, clearly such a substance was availaible]

"No...  I am afraid not", said the staff member, evenly... but not quite smoothly: a tiny hesititation giving away a flicker of conscience.
"In that case", I said, "can you tell me on which floor is the Technology Conference"
"It's Third floor", he said mechanically…but why..  oops"... and  I ran for the lifts and made it to the mingle room where I had three cups of coffee and eleven biscuits"

I bet the Panel get a cup of coffee in the breaks. And the witness. And the press. Just not the public.

About 10 years ago I worked on a dossier. I was a consultant and it was a proposal for large bank, we had to prepare a detailed statement of qualification. We had two weeks to write it and on the seventh day, just 48hrs before the deadline, two previously unseen senior partners arrived in the war room (yes, blush, we called it the war room) to take charge of the 'presentation' of the document, and they rewrote it all.

The thing is: they did make it better. A fresh eye, especially an experienced and wise one, does add value and although we cursed as we cut and amplified, and toned down and sexed up, we were also caught up by the transformation of the stodgy inventory we had prepared into the selling document it became.

At just one point did I object to a claim I thought particularly egregious and the partner put down his red pen and he asked me "Alibert, of course there can be nothing factually incorrect here. If you are telling me it's wrong, well then I'll change it.. Is it actually wrong?"
"Well no, but..." '

I was only a Junior Consultant, and still it stings to tell the tale; but you couldn't bully a head of the Joint Intelligence Committee like that, could you?

In the second phase of the Inquiry they will call Scarlett back to the stand, and he's going to be in a tricky position:
- "The dossier was dodgy, but I didn't object" sounds feeble
- "I said it was wrong, but they wouldn't let me change it" feebler still.
- but "I agreed with dossier" ..well, that's not so bad, is it.
Choose one from three. I know where my money is.
All is Vanity.


Not such a fan of Campbell said...

What about:

"I was told that the foreword was a political statement and that I had no business altering or commenting on the tone or feel of it, my role was purely to advise if there were factual errors."

IMHO the most telling part of Campbell's evidence was where he admitted that the intelligence that "battlefield munitions" could be employed in around 20-40 minutes transmuted into, in the foreword, a statement that "weapons could be deployed within 45 minutes". Whilst this does not render the statement untrue, it does make it misleading.

Campbell's only "defence" to this charge was to argue that if he was in the business of "sexing up" the document he would have used the 20 minutes time frame and not 45 minutes was disingenuous. 20 or 45 minutes makes no difference. "Battlefield munitions" vs [long range nuclear delivery] "weapons" does. All the difference in the world. Yet the changed sentence is not a lie, just a misleadingly broad statement. As it is not factually incorrect, it is quite plausible that Scarlett would not have felt that he had the locus standi to alter what was, after all, to be a personal political statement by the PM.

Botogol said...

Hi Anon
No doubt the dossier was sexed up, and no doubt AC played his part, but really I don't think that AC is to blame for us going to war

On Scarlett I disagree. I think he sexed up the dossier just as much as AC did. His reward? Director of MI6

M4GD said...

Main post - Alistair Campbell: don’t know much about him. From your post, I guess it seems he ‘s got caught in the ‘sexing-up’ process of the report and all what he is saying in his testimony now: That was above my pay grade (it’s the infamous quote used by Obama re Abortion during his 2008 campaign)

One very important point: As a new friend, I’m delighted and comforted to learn of your skill and ability in finding food and drink! Hats off to the Awesome ‘Hunters-Gatherers 101’ How many can do what you did?:-) Not many!

Side-bar - Babies: Nice one! You may like reading: Lee Silver, Remaking Eden: Cloning and beyond in a brave new world