This time, it's personal

Well, that’s that then – Alastair Campbell is done for. Such a complete Horlicks did he make of his appearance before the Commons foreign affairs select committee after sexing up the intelligence paper on Iraq last February that, so goes the talk in Westminster and Whitehall, “his days are numbered” and “he is now dispensable”.

Hold on a minute, my mistake – Alastair Campbell has triumphed. So convincing were his denials that he exaggerated claims about the pre-war threat from Iraq that he “saw off his accusers” and “turned the tables on a blustering bunch of MPs”.

Thanks to The Daily Telegraph for the first assessment of Campbell’s evidence, in which it was not alone. Lining up alongside Lord Black’s flagship in giving Campbell the mother of a shellacking was Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail, the paper that when it comes to delivering a mauling makes rottweilers look like cissies.

Even the pictures used to illustrate the story in these papers were selected to reinforce the subliminal suggestion that when out of the public eye Campbell wears horns and cloven hoofs. The Mail showed the Downing Street director of communications on his way out of the hearing looking grim-faced and with staring eyes that might cause those of a nervous disposition to send for an exorcist. A similar shot in the Telegraph was cropped savagely and showed one of Campbell’s eyes rolling upwards into his head. Scary? I’ll say, and reprehensible.

What a contrast to those in The Guardian, where a mild rebuke for Campbell was compensated by four flattering photographs in which his shirt gleamed so brightly that for a moment I thought it was an advert for Persil.

The second take on the hearing I have quoted above was The Sun’s, whose unequivocal support for Campbell was not supported by any other title. Cynics will doubtless suggest that this was because Rupert Murdoch – and, ergo, Rebekah Wade – would prefer to continue to sink its teeth into the BBC, rather than bite the hand that has fed it so well in recent years. And they could be right. Although The Times did not cosy up to Campbell – it preferred to lambast some of the committee for their “lamentable” performance – it did manage a sideswipe at the butt of his wrath: “Perhaps it is time for the BBC to be a little more frank in explaining the provenance of its own material.”

The Mail, normally a ferocious BBC basher, was faced with a quandary: it wasn’t possible to attack Campbell and the Beeb in what was more or less the same breath. It presumably decided Alastair was the greater of two evils, for the following morning, after he had demanded an apology from the broadcaster, the paper’s leading article headline read: “A cynical attempt to crush the BBC.” I bet that amused them at Television Centre.

At the time of writing, the row between the Government and the BBC is by no means over. Campbell is currently slightly ahead on points, with the BBC trying to get off the ropes (this maybe difficult, unless reporter Andrew Gillighan’s single anonymous source arrives in his corner). And some of the papers are still using the skirmish to attempt a knockout blow of their own that will finish off Campbell for good.

Spiteful personal agendas – in this case, as Peter Preston pointed out in The Observer, pay-back time for Downing Street’s “abrasive press officering” – have succeeded in distorting a story with considerably more to it than an undignified spat.

The Mail’s Simon Heffer was moved to write 1,000 or so vituperative words about the “grotesque power of a man who answers to no one”.

“Once it was the press who were accused of exercising the prerogative of the harlot – power without responsibility,” huffed Heffer. “Today that is precisely what Mr Campbell does in an utterly undemocratic, unaccountable wayÉ”

What Heffer neglected to mention was that when Stanley Baldwin fired that broadside in 1931, he wasn’t scatter-gunning the press. He was aiming at two specific proprietors: Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere, the current Mail boss’s great-grand-father.

Open the national papers any day and give them a good shake and so many columns will fall out that you’ll be Hoovering for hours. Many of them can be by-passed. Like a good man, an exemplary column is hard to find and a funny column even harder.

Discovering one in a local newspaper therefore seems unlikely, but browsing one weekend the Worthing Herald, I came across Monty Street, a full-page, off-the-wall mini-masterpiece with more words even that those in Simon Heffer’s rants.

The first time I read Monty – I’m now hooked – he dealt with such subjects as the sensible disposal of chewing gum, the customers’ comments book in a Sussex Somerfield store, how once he broke the hot tap in a spa bath at Center Parcs (don’t ask!), an interesting job he’d seen advertised in The Guardian, for which he intended to apply, and how a trial run of a portable loo in the Herald office ended with discovery as “the ladies of the typing pool” passed by.

The recounting of this last episode, as a result of which, Monty claimed, he had been suspended by the management, made me laugh out loud. But I was beginning to suspect that the fool Monty might not be flesh and blood, especially as there is a Montague Street in Worthing.

When I contacted Herald group editor Jon Buss, he told me the column was started a year ago as an antidote to the boring side of local papers. “Many weeklies tend to take themselves far too seriously,” said Buss. “I wanted something that was occasionally genuinely funny, but always self-mocking.” The result was the creation of an eclectic, time-travelling hoot of a columnist who, I note from subsequent Heralds, appears to have served in every post-Second World War military campaign, despite having young children, and who chases women, writes about it and then implores readers not to tell his wife.

Buss is reluctant to reveal the real identity of the author to his readers, but I understand there is hardly anyone at the Herald who’s not involved. What fun. I’m surprised they can ever be diverted to the more mundane business of turning out a very professional local paper.

Noticeable absentees from the Media Guardian’s league table of complaints about national newspapers to the Press Complaints Commission were The Observer and the Sunday Express. What good boys were they? Well, no. Although the Sunday Express would have propped up the league of shame, with just four complaints, only one of which was upheld, since 1991, The Observer, with eight and five respectively, should have been there with seven titles below it.

Also missing was Sunday Sport, which received nine complaints, all upheld, a 100 per cent record matched only by its daily sister (8-8). The Guardian says it took the list from the Commons culture and media select committee report and then updated it. Not well enough, it seems. n

Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review. He’ll be back in four weeks

lNext week: Janice Turner

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