Tony Blair was warned Alastair Campbell had lost ‘all credibility’, documents show

Tony Blair’s private secretary advised him that his own authority was being undermined because Downing Street was seen as a ‘politically-dominated spin machine’

Archie Mitchell
Friday 29 December 2023 00:01
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Prime minister Tony Blair was warned that the No 10 press office had lost “all credibility” under his combative communications chief Alastair Campbell, according to newly released official files.

Papers released by the National Archives show Mr Blair’s private secretary, Jeremy Heywood, advised him that his authority was being undermined because Downing Street was seen as a “politically-dominated spin machine”.

The warnings followed a series of bruising rows between the Labour government and the BBC over its coverage of the US-UK invasion of Iraq in 2003.

After Mr Campbell announced he was standing down after nine years as one of Mr Blair’s most trusted aides, Mr Heywood urged the prime minister to take the opportunity to carry out a complete overhaul of the No 10 press operation.

“The No 10 press office has lost all credibility as a reliable, truthful, objective operation. Even respectable journalists treat it with caution – part of a relentless politically-dominated spin machine,” he wrote.

“Although we all know this is monstrous, it has become the settled view of the entire British media and political establishment. This is disastrous for the authority of your own office.”

Mr Campbell’s departure came after months of increasingly acrimonious relations between the government and sections of the media amid the failure to uncover Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which had been the justification for the invasion.

On 19 March, the day the invasion began, Mr Blair sent BBC chairman Gavyn Davies a blistering letter complaining about the corporation’s coverage.

“I believe, and I am not alone in believing, that you have not got the balance right between support and dissent; between news and comment; between the voices of the Iraqi regime and Iraqi dissidents; or between the diplomatic support we have, and diplomatic opposition,” he wrote.

“I have never written to you or your predecessor in this way before, but I have heard and seen enough to feel I should do so now.”

Anji Hunter, another of the prime minister’s close aides, suggested Mr Davies – a former Labour Party member – probably thought Mr Blair “has a point” but would feel compelled to respond with a “magisterial rebuke” because BBC director general Greg Dyke had been copied into the letter.

“GD clearly feels in a difficult position viz this – think he would have preferred a quiet phone call from you,” she wrote.

The papers also show Mr Campbell suggested threatening the BBC with legal action over a Radio 4 Today programme report that the government had “sexed up” an intelligence dossier on Iraqi WMD issued in the run-up to the conflict to strengthen the case for war.

“If the BBC remain belligerent, I think the rhetoric has to be stepped up, up to and including the threat of putting the issue in the hands of lawyers,” he wrote.

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