A fierce war of words broke out between Downing Street and the media this week over ‘leaks’ about the Prime Minister’s movements, with broadsides fired in one direction by Alastair Campbell and in the other by BBC foreign correspondent Kate Adie.
Leak number one, over Blair’s trip to Pakistan, prompted a furious letter of complaint to editors from the PM’s director of communications.
Twenty-one reporters found themselves turfed off the official press party after details of the trip to Moscow and Islamabad were widely reported.
The second alleged leak, by Adie on Tuesday’s BBC Breakfast, discussing details of Blair’s forthcoming visit to Oman, provoked another angry missive from Campbell, this time to BBC director general Greg Dyke threatening to ban all BBC journalists from future official flights.
The corporation had scarcely had time to apologise when director of news Richard Sambrook made a third gaffe by inadvertently mentioning another planned destination in an interview on Wednesday on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
"There are obvious security concerns about the movements of the PM in the current climate," Downing Street said yesterday.
It responded to Sambrook’s blunder by renewing requests for media organisations to observe the blackout on Blair’s movements.
"The BBC is well aware of our views," the PM’s spokesman said. "We don’t want a row with the media but we have asked organisations to observe the guidelines we have issued. We are grateful to those who have and ask others to observe them."
But a furious Adie later rounded on the PM’s press office, claiming it had itself encouraged speculation that Blair was flying to Oman. "I repudiate the allegation that I was responsible for endangering the PM’s security," she said. Adie accused Downing Street press officer Tom Kelly of "exacerbating the situation" by confirming "officially" the BBC report and said he had "encouraged the broadcasting and publishing of the self-same apparently security-sensitive information".
Sources at the BBC expressed frustration that it was being prevented from using information that was already available on news wires as British embassies briefed journalists about proposed visits.
"There’s a feeling that if there is information in the public domain we should be able to report it, but Downing Street wants us to keep to the blanket ban," said a member of the news team.
He added there was also concern that the row over the PM’s movements was being used to deflect criticism after it was revealed that an e-mail from a Government aide suggested that the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center could be used to "bury" bad news.
The BBC was trying to play down the Sambrook gaffe, which mentioned briefings by British embassy officials in Middle East countries which Blair is expected to visit.
A BBC spokesman said there were no restrictions on "mentioning the names of cities in the Middle East".
Sambrook said the matter had been discussed with Downing Street and that the BBC was "keen to draw a line under the issue and move on".
By Julie Tomlin and David Rose