Analysis: Eyewitness Report - Campbell puts his bullying on hold

Alastair Campbell's muted appearance before the Hutton Inquiry surprised some observers, more used to bluster and threats from the Prime Minister's top PRO. Juliette Garside reports from the High Court

The transcript of Alastair Campbell's evidence to the Hutton Inquiry into the death of Dr David Kelly runs to just under 100 pages. The Prime Minister's director of communications and strategy talked for over four hours and supplied the inquiry with emails, letters, diaries and minutes running to hundreds more pages.

Despite this, Campbell's day of evidence was significant in retrospect for what he left unsaid.

One of the words the PR man carefully refrained from using was sorry.

It's a word politicians often find hard to use, and Campbell seems no different from his masters in that respect.

It had been a long day for those who had queued for the ten public seats in court room 73 - one man at the head of the line had arrived at 1am.

The press pack was melting in its special marquee, where temperatures soared. Even the inquiry's affable PR man Richard Bailey, an old hand at media frenzies from his days at the Lockerbie trial in Camp Zeist, was beginning to feel the strain.

So there was relief when James Dingemans QC, who had led the questioning, began bringing it to a close. He mentioned Dr Kelly's death and asked Campbell: 'Is there anything you wanted to say in relation to that?'

The QC put his question gently, in the same good-natured tone he and Lord Hutton used throughout the day. Campbell's response was simple: 'I just find it very, very sad,' he told Dingemans. Sad, but not regretful.

Perhaps Campbell felt no blame. But throughout the day, Dingemans had built up a picture of the war of attrition between the PR man and the BBC. The game of chicken, referred to by Downing Street press secretary Tom Kelly in earlier evidence, 'was being played by two great big institutions with Dr Kelly in the middle,' suggested Dingemans. And yet this was not quite deserving of an apology.

A lot was left unread from Campbell's diaries too. Although most of the other evidence used during the inquiry had been made available for public consumption on the day, by showing copies of the original documents on big screens in the court room, and later on the official website, the communications supremo's diary remained sacrosanct. He had shown his entries to Dingemans in private and was asked to quote selected portions, but the rest of the contents he kept close to his chest, like a coy teenager.

And, of course, despite the impressive bundles of documents submitted, it was hard not to wonder about which paperwork Campbell and his aides, indeed all the witnesses, chose to withhold from the inquiry. The instructions from the Prime Minister were to co-operate with the inquiry, but Campbell, like all other witnesses, was free to construct his own paper trail and gave none of his evidence under oath.

Turning to what was said, Campbell performed extremely well, largely because he appeared not to be performing at all. The finger-wagging bully of lobby briefings and that unprecedented appearance on the Channel 4 News back in June was nowhere to be seen, and the charm was only turned on for a few rueful asides, for example on whether he found references to spin offensive: 'We live with the fact that most stories in many of the media outlets have some sort of reference to Downing Street spin most of the time.'

Or on his relationship with the media: 'I do not think my relationship with the media has been terribly good for some time...' And on hostile journalists: 'I am used to being described in all sorts of ways by journalists.

Frankly, I would match a politician's integrity against theirs any day of the week.' This was about as close as he came to fighting talk.

The amazing technicolour spinning machine Campbell had created since becoming Tony Blair's press secretary in 1994 seemed to have taken on a life of its own, and was becoming increasingly hard to reign in.

As the dossier, eventually published on 24 September, was being drafted, every conceivably relevant press officer, and a few others besides, was being copied in on its progress. Email after email flew back and forth between Foreign Office press officers, the Coalition Information Centre, the Prime Minister's press office and foreign policy adviser Sir David Manning's team, all suggesting amendments and rewordings.

If we are to believe the Prime Minister's communications director, he had very little control over how Dr Kelly came to be outed as the BBC's source. The scientist's identity was revealed by a question and answer system devised by the Ministry of Defence, whose press officers were instructed to confirm his name to any journalist who suggested him as the source of Andrew Gilligan's story.

In hindsight, Campbell told the inquiry, this hadn't been the best approach from Dr Kelly's point of view. 'Far better it would have been for that to be announced properly, clearly, straightforwardly,' said Campbell.

'More time could then have been taken with Dr Kelly to sit down and say: look, this is virtually inevitable, it is going to have to happen and therefore let us work out exactly all the steps that then have to be taken.'

Campbell claimed the question and answer system was not his idea, but in that case why had he not suggested an alternative? Over the last year, the Prime Minister's comms director has had much to say on the wording of intelligence dossiers and on the journalistic standards of the BBC, but when his advice on a basic PR matter was required, he stayed silent.

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