Analysis: Campbell made four key mistakes

The Government's handling of the 'dodgy dossier' affair, orchestrated by combative director of communications Alastair Campbell, has been bungled, argues former Tory head of media Amanda Platell

When Alastair Campbell demanded to know who people trusted over the 'sexed-up' dodgy dossier charges - the Prime Minister or the BBC - he thought it was a rhetorical question. He was not seeking an answer, simply making a statement of fact for dramatic effect.

Such is Campbell's isolation from the real world, the inevitable separateness from ordinary people that comes after more than half a decade in power, that he really believed the public would be with him. He, like Tony Blair, never dreamt that 66 per cent of the people would side with the BBC. It was a bad miscalculation.

Campbell has made a number of strategic mistakes in this battle. The first was pitting his and the Government's integrity against that of the BBC, soon after Andrew Gilligan reported on the Today programme that the first intelligence dossier on Iraq, published last September, was 'sexed up' by Downing Street.

Who did he think people would trust, slippery politicians or the organisation that brings them EastEnders and the world's most trusted news service?

And for the evidence for that, Campbell need only flick through his own Government's recent research on the corporation and the trust factor.

The second problem for the Government is the basis of that trust. People trust BBC news presenters like Huw Edwards and Moira Stewart and regard them as impartial. The likes of Andrew Marr and John Humphrys are also placed in this category. Viewers do not regard them as journalists who, like politicians, are not to be trusted, but as news presenters, who are.

So when Marr and Humphrys joined the fray attacking Blair's reasons for war, all sympathy was with them.

Campbell's other miscalculation was in misjudging the strength of the respective brands. New Labour is so badly tarnished that, in the middle of the battle, they were trying to reposition themselves as the 'progressive' party, with a little help from Bill Clinton. The BBC, however, continues to be one of the strongest brands in the world. It was like Anne Summers taking on the Catholic Church.

Thirdly, most voters do not share the contempt most politicians feel for the BBC. There is paranoia in Westminster about BBC partiality. When I was head of comms for the Conservative Party under William Hague, a day would not pass without some Tory MP complaining about BBC bias. It was, like complaining about the weather, a treasured pastime.

And yet, first Hague and now Iain Duncan Smith were smart enough not to embark upon campaigns they could not win. Campbell described the situation with the BBC as trench warfare. It was a stupid thing to do.

The only workable strategy for political parties taking on the BBC is one of guerrilla warfare, where lightning attacks are carried out against specific targets.

The fourth mistake was when Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon claimed, just in time for the six o'clock news - but not in time for any journalist to check it out - that he had found the Ministry of Defence mole and he contradicted various key aspects of Gilligan's story.

But again, BBC director general Greg Dyke and director of news Richard Sambrook stood their ground. They refused to cave in to the now enormous pressure from Downing Street and did what the corporation does best - they were forensic and painstaking in their response. They were neither bullied nor bounced into the apology Blair now so desperately needed to salvage the shreds of credibility he had left.

It was a cheap stunt, the late-drop story, the same stunt deployed by Campbell when he appeared unannounced on the Channel 4 News the previous Friday. The surprise arrival gives the interviewer no time to prepare and gives all advantage to the interviewee. The more hostile the media outlet, the less warning it gets.

One must not underestimate the personal courage it takes to stand full square against the combined might of this Government, but the BBC executives did just that, earning our respect in the process.

The one thing Campbell and Blair have succeeded in doing is to take the real issue vexing the British people off the top of the news agenda. It is not the phoney war with the BBC people are concerned about, but the real one with Iraq and the reasons given by our Prime Minister for justifying it. The existence of weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam's ability to have deployed them within 45 minutes, are what people care about. This whole battle with the BBC has been a smoke screen to try and obscure these issues from the people. In that, it has not succeeded.

Even The Guardian is now running front-page stories about Campbell's imminent departure from Number 10. It is not true that the spin doctor has to leave when he becomes the story, only when he makes it up.

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