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An Unspeaker in denial

In an op-ed piece for the Guardian, Alastair Campbell, former “Director of Communications and Strategy” for Tony Blair, complains about the “rise in cynicism” about politics among young people. One way of combating it, he argues, might be the internet, which he has belatedly discovered. Only a few years ago, he says, he couldn’t even write an email:

I thought that my computer illiteracy might become more of an issue at the time of the Hutton Inquiry into the death of government scientist David Kelly. Lord Hutton, the judge in charge of the inquiry, called for all papers and emails relevant to the events under his wide-ranging investigation, and these were published almost immediately they became evidence. This was seen by many as a groundbreaking use of the internet during such an inquiry. There were emails galore to be published, but none from me, just a few sent on my behalf by my long-suffering PA or one of her team. At one point during my appearance to give evidence, I had to explain who all these people were who sent emails “on behalf of Alastair Campbell”.

If this looks like a further attempt at self-exoneration (“Look, I didn’t even write those emails!”), it might be illuminating to recall that the documents collected by Hutton included not only emails but also typewritten memoranda explicitly headed “From: Alastair Campbell”. You never know, but close scrutiny of these memoranda might go some way to explaining the “cynicism” of the British public.

For example, in a memo to Joint Intelligence Committee chairman John Scarlett, dated 17 September 2002, Campbell requested changes to the draft dossier on “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. Campbell wrote:

3. Can we say he has secured uranium from Africa. [CAB/11/0067]

Scarlett responded the following day to say:

3. on the uranium from Africa, the agreed interpretation of the intelligence, brokered with some difficulty with the originators and owners of the reporting) allows us only to say that he has ‘sought’ uranium from Africa. [CAB/11/71]

Strike one for Campbell. As we now know, it was false even that Saddam had “sought” uranium, since the Nigerian documents on which this claim depended were forgeries. Still, it was a good attempt by Campbell to render the dossier more alarming by changing a word.

Campbell had more success, however, with another request . . .

In the same memo, he complained about “may” in the following sentence of the draft dossier:

The Iraqi military may be able to deploy chemical or biological weapons within forty five minutes of an order to do so. [DOS/2/0072, p17]

Campbell complained that this “may” was “weaker than in the summary”. The summary at the time read:

Iraq [...] has military plans for the use of chemical and biological weapons, some of which could be ready within 45 minutes of an order to use them. [p4]

To Campbell’s request, Scarlett responded obediently:

The language you queried on the old page 17 has been tightened.

Tightened? Indeed it had. The next draft of the dossier changed the summary from “could be ready” to “are deployable”, and the sentence with “may” in it had been changed to this:

Iraq’s military forces are able to use chemical and biological weapons, with command, control and logistical arrangements in place. The Iraqi military are able to deploy these weapons within forty five minutes of a decision to do so.” [CAB/3/0039, p17]

So “may be able to” was changed to “are able to” on the say-so of Campbell. Possibility became fact. The fact that we now know such weapons did not even exist does not mitigate the exaggeration. It does, however, refute Campbell’s later assertion, in an interview with Jon Snow on C4 News, that “There were no errors of fact in the WMD dossier in September 2002.”

But the change from “may be” to “are” was plainly, in Andrew Gilligan’s famous phrase, a matter of “sexing up” the report. On this matter, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee Report of July 7, 2003, trod very gently:

We conclude that the language used in the September dossier was in places more assertive than that traditionally used in intelligence documents. [para 100]

Perhaps you think that changing “may be” to “are” is more than merely being “assertive”. Perhaps you think that it is a substantive and unwarranted change to a claim about what the government knows, and so is a deliberately deceptive use of language to hoodwink the media and public.

If you think that, however, you are part of the problem: the lamentable “rise of cynicism” about politics. This “cynicism”, Campbell affects to think, is fed entirely by the media, in particular what he calls “the media’s obsession with exposing and criticising so-called ‘spin’”. Campbell’s own central role in the British government’s campaign of misinformation about Iraq can, of course, have nothing to do with it. After all, if you were to take such phenomena as his memoranda into account, any distrust you harboured towards official communications would not be “cynicism”, or unjustified disbelief; it would be entirely justified scepticism.

Alastair Campbell no longer “officially” works for the government. He shares a media agent with George Galloway.

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