Was the PCC fair to Oborne and Walters?



Alastair Campbell’s was not the only reputation at stake when he complained to the Press Complaints Commission about reports that No.10 tried to muscle a higher-profile role for Tony Blair at the Queen Mother’s funeral.

Also on trial were Peter Oborne and Simon Walters, whose stories he had denounced as "lies and malicious gossip written as fact". If such poisonous charges succeeded, it would ruin them.

So the PCC had a duty to the journalists too. Did it sacrifice them by letting its most important customer (apart from the Palace) off the hook? Though the case was recorded as resolved, the cauldron continued to bubble.

Once it became clear that Black Rod was not prepared to oblige by hanging the journalists, Campbell got together with PCC officials to identify a face-saver. An agreed exchange of letters would accept there was no evidence that Blair had himself made any of those calls to Black Rod (which the journalists never said he had anyway).

It was a done deal. There was nothing the journalists or their publications (The Spectator, London Evening Standard and The Mail on Sunday) could do about it.

Confident in their defence, they would hardly have spared the PCC the task of choosing between conflicting accounts, however much it shrugged that it could "never be in a position fully to ascertain the facts, and the issue remained a matter largely of interpretation". (Stand by to hear those wet words echoed next time MPs query press self-regulation).

Would Campbell have been so ready to forgo an adjudication had he thought he was on a winner? No way. But how fair was the deal to Oborne and Walters, whom he had set out to destroy?

The PCC rightly sees its everyday business as "amicable resolution" of everyday complaints. But this was no everyday complaint and was manifestly unqualified for amicable resolution.

Nor do everyday complainants enjoy behind-the-scenes drafting of self-justifying proclamations. Nor go on to spin failure into success with a 29-page dossier under the PM’s imprimatur (and excluding the crucial memo from Black Rod that shot Campbell down in flames).

Daily Telegraph political editor George Jones reported "the journalists are furious that the PCC allowed Downing Street to beat a tactical retreat". Too true. The PCC had played Campbell’s game. Were Oborne and Walters not more entitled to an adjudication than he was to attempt to rob them of their good name?

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