The Prime Minister has enjoined us to be ‘in complete solidarity with Russia and the Russian people’, and invites us to draw a parallel between the terrorist threat from al-Qa’eda and the threat posed by Chechen lunatics. I am not so sure about that. Is it not possible that if Osama bin Laden had never been born and there had been no attack on the World Trade Center, Russia would still be besieged by appallingly cruel home-grown terrorists? It is easy to feel a sense of solidarity with the people of Beslan, even of Russia, but impossible to identify with President Putin and his government. We do not share the same values. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Putin’s almost totalitarian treatment of the media.
When he became President four years ago, Russia had what approximated to an independent media. Now all television channels and nearly all newspapers are controlled directly or indirectly by the Kremlin. Putin nationalised the liberal NTV channel by putting it in the hands of Gazprom, a state-backed gas company. The country’s last independent television channel was shut down last year on the pretext of financial insolvency. A law passed last summer threatens newspapers with closure if, during an election period, they express any opinion about a politician’s policies, his campaign or his personality. Intimidated by these and other new laws, many newspaper journalists practise self-censorship. There has been very little critical coverage of Putin’s human rights abominations in Chechnya. Television cameras follow Putin slavishly around Russia, portraying him in a heroic light.
Nonetheless, the Kremlin has not totally succeeded in throttling the independent media, as was clear from the reaction of some newspapers to the Russian government’s amazingly inept handling of the crisis in Beslan. Izvestia published shocking pictures of the siege, and questioned the claim by officials that there had been only 350 hostages in the school. It also denounced the censored coverage of events on state-controlled television, though on one channel a commentator by the name of Sergei Brilyov was brave enough to call on the government to come clean about the ending of the siege. Another newspaper, Moskovsky Komsomolets, brazenly accused the authorities of ‘lying to us all the time’. The government reacted by securing the dismissal of the editor of Izvestia, Raf Shakirov. Two Russian journalists with independent views on Chechnya were not even allowed to get to Beslan. Andrei Babitsky of Radio Liberty was arrested at Moscow’s Vnukovo airport last Thursday, and thrown in jail for five days. Anna Politkovskaya of Novaya Gazeta, a fearless critic of Russian atrocities in Chechnya, was mysteriously taken ill on a plane to Rostov after drinking tea supplied by a stewardess.
The Russian government’s reaction shows how much it dislikes even an occasional expression of editorial freedom. Possibly there will be a further crackdown after Beslan, as previous crises have precipitated harsher laws against the media. Let us sympathise with the Russian people. Let us even have a pragmatic relationship with the Russian government where we do indeed share common interests. But I personally do not wish to be put by Tony Blair in the same boat as President Putin. The crisis in Chechnya extends much further than the so-called war against terror. Putin, like Yeltsin before him, has behaved like a butcher there. And his attitude towards his country’s media is barely more enlightened than that of the Soviet leaders who preceded him.
Poor Alastair Campbell is suffering a dark night of the soul. A year ago he was ejected — as now seems clear — by Tony Blair from his job as director of communications and strategy at No. 10. Since then he has been touring theatres and halls like some latter-day Rector of Stiffkey, denouncing Paul Dacre and the Daily Mail. Presumably he, or his audiences, will sooner or later tire of this. Mr Campbell has also been writing a regular sports column for the Times which is by no means as bad as you might have supposed. On the other hand, I am not sure it has much more of a future than his theatrical performances. The other day he betrayed an insecurity by confessing that he was not ‘a proper sports journalist’. He has written a good deal about himself, and kept the thing going by coming up with names of the greatest sportsmen of all time. But I sense that he does not believe that he will be writing his column in five years’, perhaps even in one year’s time, and that his heart is not really in it.
How could it be when, though unelected, he has been the second or third most powerful person in the country? ‘Sometimes I wonder,’ he confesses in an interview with Radio Times, ‘if I will ever do anything meaningful and worthwhile again.’ (Ah! So the Times column is not worthwhile! Editor please note.) In the same interview he declined to rule out standing for Parliament. ‘When all is said and done,’ he said, ‘politicians make real and lasting change. I have to put myself under pressure somehow.’
Some people may be appalled by the thought of Mr Campbell returning to public life in however humble a capacity. I can see their point, but I think we should welcome the idea. Here is a man who threatened or intimidated ministers, and overrode or ignored senior civil servants. Parliament barely figured in his calculations. He may not even have been aware that it existed. For Mr Campbell an ordinary Labour backbench MP was a person of infinitesimal importance. Now he affects to contemplate joining their ranks. Let us encourage him, and wish him well. What could be better for his soul after the sweets of high office than to put himself in front of the electors of whichever constituency and then, if he should find favour with them, to take his place among the teeming ranks of Labour backbenchers, most of whom hate his guts? He might rise to be a minister, but on the other hand he might not, especially if Gordon Brown were leader of his party. So Alastair Campbell might wile away his days in relative obscurity, sitting on the odd committee, asking the occasional question. It is a delightful prospect — so delightful that I rather doubt that Mr Campbell will ever take the risk.
What a relief to have Jeremy Paxman back on BBC2’s Newsnight after an absence of what seems like several months. He has lost a little weight about the face and found an ambitious new hairdresser. The truth is that his colleagues do not have the authority of Paxo, and cannot deal so well with slippery politicians. None of the stand-ins tried out this summer has really worked. It is a mystery that Newsnight is unable to find anyone to match him. I have long hankered after Andrew Neil, but he seems to be occupied elsewhere. Of course Paxo is not perfect, being sometimes sneery and gratuitously confrontational, but he is by far the best on offer.