Funeral row deepens Labour rift with press

Johnson: "ludicrous climbdown"

Relations between the media and the Labour Party are almost as low as they were in Neil Kinnock’s time.

Party chairman Charles Clarke has accused the media of being pious and hypocritical and damaging democratic politics.

Downing Street is seething after its "settlement" of the Prime Minister’s complaint to the Press Complaints Commission that he had not sought to enhance his role in the Queen Mother’s funeral arrangements. "Settled" seems to be an arbitrary word when the newspapers and magazine accused of running an untrue story are treating the outcome as vindication of their accurate reporting and have repeated the accusation.

The revelation that Black Rod, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Willcocks, who spoke to Blair aide Clare Sumner about her boss’s role in the Lying-in-State, was not about to back No.10’s version of events in evidence to the PCC, only served to confirm the press’s assertion that it had been right all along.

It was "a realisation by Downing Street that the complaint should never have been made in the first place", said Evening Standard editor Veronica Wadley. It was "utterly untenable", according to a spokesman for The Mail on Sunday; "a ludicrous and humiliating climbdown", as far as Spectator editor Boris Johnson was concerned.

"When we first broke the story, they demanded a correction, an apology, and the payment of a sum of damages. They have now put their tanks into reverse in the most hilarious way," Johnson said, asking for his expenses and an apology in return.

Wadley, MoS editor Peter Wright and Johnson have vociferously defended the stories they published last month – by Peter Oborne in the The Spectator and the Standard and Simon Walters in the MoS.

In a release of letters between the PCC and Tony Blair’s spokesman Alastair Campbell on Tuesday, the commission admitted it would never be in a position to ascertain the facts fully and the issue would remain a matter largely of interpretation of a conversation between Sumner and Black Rod.

As none of the publications had produced evidence that the Prime Minister was involved directly and Campbell’s main concern had always been that it was accepted Blair did nothing wrong, Professor Robert Pinker, the PCC’s acting chairman, asked Campbell if the complaint could be resolved on that basis.

Campbell agreed that the PCC’s investigation had proved his point and that he saw no need to pursue the matter further.

But Johnson said: "There has been no ‘resolution’ of the dispute. The Prime Minister has simply run up the white flag." And Wright said: "For No.10 to claim the Prime Minister is not responsible for the actions of his officials is preposterous. In Sunday’s paper we ran a feature headlined ‘Tony Blair – the Pontius Pilate of politics’. It was clearly more prescient than we could have thought possible."

Jean Morgan

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