Blair puts faith in Phillis inquiry to rebuild trust

Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to enlist the help of journalists to rebuild the Government’s relationship with the press following the exposure of Downing Street’s latest attempt to manipulate the media.

A committee headed by Bob Phillis, chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, has for some months been examining evidence of the deteriorating relationship between political reporters and Whitehall.

The team, whose members include Evening Standard political editor Charles Reiss and John Hipwood, political editor of the Express & Star, Wolverhampton, was set up at the request of MPs following the e-mail by Jo Moore suggesting September 11 was a good day to bury bad news.

Now Press Gazette has been told that the Phillis inquiry is expected to take account of the latest controversy which led Tom Kelly, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, to admit briefing The Independent’s deputy political editor Paul Waugh that weapons expert David Kelly was a Walter Mitty-style fantasist. It will publish its findings next month.

Tom Kelly, a former BBC journalist, claimed the remark was made during a private conversation, but Waugh said it was not just off-the-cuff but represented a “well-thought-out briefing aimed at influencing the press”.

The affair highlighted Downing Street’s technique – to spin a line and then, when challenged, officially disown it. It followed its usual practice by first denying any responsibility, and then admitting it when Kelly was identified as the source.

Ironically, Kelly is a member of the Phillis team, along with Godric Smith, his fellow No 10 spokesman, who has already announced he is leaving Downing Street. So is David Hill, Labour’s former communications director, who has already been tipped as a successor to Alastair Campbell, widely expected to quit as director of communications in the autumn.

But the Phillis recommendations could provide Blair with the opportunity to regain the trust of journalists, once Lord Hutton has delivered his verdict on Dr Kelly’s death.

By David Rose

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