Press and PM on collision course over funeral claims

First complaint by Blair over a story that does not concern his family

The Press Complaints Commission finds itself this week trying to heal the most serious rift between Downing Street and the press since Tony Blair came to power.

The Spectator, the Evening Standard and The Mail on Sunday have all refused to apologise to the Prime Minister over stories – which Blair says are untrue – claiming he tried to enhance his role at the Queen Mother’s funeral. A complaint about accuracy landed at the PCC early Tuesday evening. They all stand by their stories.

The dispute has arisen over what was said by Blair aide Clare Sumner to Black Rod, who made the funeral arrangements.

But MoS editor Peter Wright said: "I can say that our source for this story, who knows exactly what was said in the telephone conversation between Clare Sumner and Black Rod, stands by our story 100 per cent and has, I understand, told Downing Street that is the case. So why they are pursuing this complaint, I don’t understand."

The PM’s spokesman stonewalled at a lobby briefing on Tuesday when pressed as to why Downing Street had not lodged a complaint after it had informed other newspapers inquiring about the story last week that it would do so unless there was a retraction in 24 hours.

Blair’s spokesman would only say it was "unfinished business" but the questioning seems to have prompted action. Within an hour of the briefing, Downing Street had rung round newspapers informing them that a complaint had finally been lodged.

The worrying development for the press is that it is the first complaint made by the PM which did not concern his family.

"This is the first time they have attempted to use the PCC on what is ultimately a political matter and that is very disturbing," said a senior industry source. "If Downing Street starts dragging the PCC into the political arena, there will be no end to it. Politicians will never agree on interpretations of their actions and the PCC will find itself trying to find the truth where the truth can’t be found."

Named in the complaint, which is said to be a straightforward, chronological setting out of the issue, are Peter Oborne, who broke the story in The Spectator and later repeated it in the Standard, and MoS political editor Simon Walters.

A statement from No.10 said "We are forced to take this course. The Prime Minister has many things written about him which are untrue and which he lets pass, but the idea that he would seek to exploit the death of the Queen Mother is totally without foundation and deeply offensive."

Spectator editor Boris Johnson said he would defend the story "vigorously and robustly". "We are completely right and justified. Alastair Campbell is flying off the handle."

He claimed Campbell had threatened to complain to the PCC before he had acquainted himself with the full facts. "As far as I can see, he feels stuck. He made a threat and now he is finding it difficult to back down."

Johnson said he is expecting "total exoneration, triumph, vindication and exculpation."

The Evening Standard said it had no comment at the moment.

Jean Morgan, David Rose and Ruth Addicott

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