Stephen Glover

Alastair Campbell’s redtop values have contaminated our politics

Alastair Campbell's redtop values have contaminated our politics

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When I learnt of Dr Kelly's suicide, my first thought was that he had been fatally drawn into Alastair Campbell's world. It is what many people felt. It was a reasonable assumption that Mr Campbell or his office or someone responsible to the Prime Minister's director of communications had deliberately put Dr Kelly's name in the public domain – with disastrous results. We have since learnt during the Hutton inquiry that Tony Blair himself was involved in the decision to expose Dr Kelly. At a meeting in his study chaired by Mr Blair on the morning of 8 July, it was agreed to issue a press statement describing an unnamed individual who had admitted to having met the BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan. The next day Dr Kelly's name was leaked to several newspapers.

It was as though this serious, precise and perhaps slightly innocent man had been thrown into a bear pit. I had this thought again on Tuesday morning when I read the transcript of his widow's testimony to the Hutton inquiry. Janice Kelly's account was painful to read. It was as though she was describing the collision of two worlds. The one was inhabited by decent people like herself and her husband. The other was peopled by Mr Campbell, treacherous officials at the Ministry of Defence, and journalists. These were two parallel universes that normally exist quite independently of one another. Dr Kelly had strayed from one to the other, and there was no way back for him.

Newspapers did not emerge well from Mrs Kelly's account. 'We have an amazing press in this country,' she remarked at one stage. 'It does not take them long to find out details of this sort.' She told how a Sunday Times journalist called Nicholas Rufford, who was already known to them, had arrived unannounced at their house on 9 July. Mr Rufford evidently warned Dr Kelly that 'the press was on its way in droves' and offered the couple hotel accommodation on behalf of his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, in return for an article by Dr Kelly. One can imagine the scene: the journalist wheedling, charming, pretending that he and his newspaper had the best interests of the Kellys at heart; the civil servant, stunned, panic-stricken and doomed. The next Sunday, according to Janice Kelly, Mr Rufford wrote up his brief meeting as though Dr Kelly had granted him an interview, which he had told his bosses at the Ministry of Defence he would not do. His daughter, Rachel, told the Hutton inquiry on Monday that he had also been upset by an article which Mr Rufford had written for the Sunday Times in April, in which he had been quoted by name.

Mr Rufford does not come across as a very attractive figure. Nor does the Labour MP Andrew Mackinlay, a man of the utmost insignificance, who pompously and rudely humiliated Dr Kelly when he appeared in front of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee. (It is an indication of Dr Kelly's innocence that he took a man like Mr Mackinlay so seriously, and was, according to both his wife and daughter, stricken by his questioning.) Andrew Gilligan, it must also be said, has risked the goodwill of his supporters by sending an email to two members of the same committee revealing that Dr Kelly was the source for Newsnight's science editor Susan Watts. None of this behaviour is very edifying. But, to return to Mr Rufford, I do not think that in arriving uninvited at the Kellys' house he was doing anything that 99 per cent of journalists would not, and should not, do. Dr Kelly's identity was a matter of public interest. Mr Campbell should not have revealed his name to the press, but once he had done so it was inevitable that Mr Rufford and other journalists would swarm on the Kellys, annoying (according to Rachel Kelly's testimony) the local pub landlord and, no doubt, other villagers.

If Mr Rufford turned up at my house in similar circumstances, or indeed in any circumstances, I would be tempted to throttle him. But he was only doing his job, and I would say a necessary job, which was to establish the identity of Mr Gilligan's source. (Representing his meeting with Dr Kelly as a formal interview is less excusable.) Journalism is sometimes not a very nice business and journalists are not always very nice people. Parents of would-be journalists, and would-be journalists, be warned. Journalism is not an extension of a creative-writing course. Some young reporters, with their Firsts from Balliol, think that they have entered a respectable profession, and believe that it is possible to be an effective journalist and a perfect gentleman. It isn't. Anyone who treats a journalist as an entirely normal person because he (or she) appears clever and well-spoken and decent should have his head examined. Journalists really are a different species, and they and members of the much larger species that comprises normal humanity should never forget it. Journalists must be prepared to doorstep good people like the Kellys when the last thing they want to do is talk to the press.

This does not mean that they should not be expected to abide by certain standards, which this column has tried to uphold over the years. Even editors of redtop tabloids accept that inventing stories is wrong. So is exaggerating them, though that is obviously a lesser crime. This brings me to the subject of Alastair Campbell, who announced his resignation as the Prime Minister's director of communications at the end of last week. Mr Campbell is a member of the same species as I am. If he were cheerfully plying his trade, as once he did as the political editor of the Daily Mirror and then on Today, one would raise few objections. He certainly, in such a role, would have had no qualms about doorstepping the Kellys, and probably descending via the chimney if necessary. What was remarkable, and destructive, about Mr Campbell was that he imported values he had acquired at the rough end of the journalistic trade into No. 10 and the very centre of government. He really did behave like someone in charge of a 24-hour newsroom, lurching from one crisis to another, sometimes of his own making, as though he were an adrenalin-driven tabloid editor whose only interest is the next big story. His conception of himself was that of the ruthless editor – terrorising his enemies, rewarding his favourites, and seeking to dominate civil servants and even ministers as though they were hapless journalists under the editorial heel. And, of course, like some others from his provenance, he had no objection to telling lies or twisting the truth. His values, or lack of them, have contaminated our politics. I'm glad he's gone.