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The Campbell Code

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Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the co-founder of openDemocracy and author of The Lure of Greatness.

The Hutton report on the death of a British scientist blames the BBC and clears Tony Blair, but misses the larger truth of the Iraq weapons affair: the British government’s system of command and control.

The conclusion of the Hutton Inquiry into the death of the British weapons inspector David Kelly has coincided with the call by David Kay for a “fundamental fault analysis” into the intelligence used to justify the coalition’s war on Saddam Hussein. Kay has just resigned from leading the United States-led Iraq Survey Group weapons inspection team in Iraq. He was testifying before the US Senate.

The issues in play are significant: truth (and lies), government judgment (and its spin), media investigation (and the lack of it), the choice of war and the character of democratic government.

In some countries, leaders put a vice on everything. In Italy, prime minister Silvio Berlusconi owns and controls most of the television media and has obliged satire to be broadcast without sound. In Russia, President Putin appears confident in his use of even more direct methods to ensure he enjoys good coverage.

In Britain, however, the media enjoys a genuine autonomy. It is free in at least two ways. First, the way of Rupert Murdoch. Newspapers – and not just the tabloids – feel free to propagate their own attitudes, irrespective of fact or argument, as they chase circulation through sensationalism. A Daily Express editorial memo which called on its journalists to find regular sex stories involving (among others) politicians, because these were its news values, revealed the beast at its worst. A corrosive journalism regards its role as to expose. To report an official success or a complex policy is ‘boring’; it presumes that it is the honest ‘voice of the people’ and all else stinks. It is an attitude that disables public culture and democracy.

The BBC represents the second kind of freedom. As a public service broadcaster it stakes out an independence of party that is nonetheless semi-official. Its words carry special weight, not just of authority but also of a different, more responsible culture that claims to be, if not truthful, then balanced.

The Hutton report launches a devastating attack on the internal administration of this culture by the BBC. Arguably, the BBC was finally being run by people who had a commitment to democracy rather than elitism. But when this commitment was fused with its old establishment complacency, the BBC become unable to distinguish between probing for the truth behind government policy and the slack populism of the UK’s new journalism. David Elstein assesses the results.

But the defining clash which led to the Hutton Inquiry was between the BBC and the prime minister’s then head of communications, Alastair Campbell. Campbell’s exceptional influence - when a press officer becomes more important than a Cabinet minister – was first identified by Peter Oborne in a pioneering biography.

The relationship between media power and government power in contemporary representative democracies will become more important. From migration to deterrence, the doctrine of ‘pre-emption’ means that the way governments access risk, take decisions and present their case is becoming ever more important.

In this case, Hutton’s report finds that the September 2002 dossier on which the British government built its case for war was neither knowingly ‘sexed-up’ nor improperly presented.

It is hard to imagine a more ridiculous judgment. The entire presentation of the dossier’s case for war was a catalogue of distortion.

But, and here was the catch that brought down the BBC, it was distortion built on truth. To understand how this was possible one needs to grasp the nature of what can be termed The Campbell Code.

This is by no means a manifesto for stupidity or lying. Rather, it is a strategy for preserving and renewing traditional rule from above in the era of a vermin press.

The Campbell Code has three elements.

First, ‘presentation’ is, and must be understood as, an integral part of policy. Once, governments decided policy much as, say, a piece of machinery was built. Lower orders put out press releases and ‘marketed’ the device. The key was whether and how it actually worked.

Today, new policy is more like, say, a new form of software. Its presentation is part of what it feels like, how it looks, and how people relate to it, all of which is integral to whether or not it works. Campbell rightly recognises this. If, furthermore, the aim of a policy is to win wider support for a government, then presentation is even more significant.

This is the fundamental starting-point of the Campbell Code: presentation is not spin, it is substance.

But, second, this presentation-as-substance will be attacked by the vermin of media who live off exposing its failure. The vermin have to be constantly controlled, policed, brutalised and counteracted. Presentation may be substance but it is also media war.

Third, a warrior code is needed to win this war. This code is “truth”. The warrior press-officer can never beat the vermin if he or she allows their presentation to include a lie. Whenever a policy-maker is caught out with a lie, or partial lie, they must also do contrition immediately and apologise or they will lose. Above all, they will be defeated by the vermin if they try to mount a cover-up.

But BBC correspondent Andrew Gilligan accused Campbell of deliberately lying. The dossier appeared to suggest something that was absurd, namely that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which he could deploy in 45 minutes to threaten Britain. Surely no one believed that! It must, then, have been a deliberate attempt to mislead.

To be accused of lying struck at the heart of Campbell’s code. It hit his self-esteem. It lowered him to the status of… a journalist. He blew his top.

In a moment, the larger picture. But imagine the small one. The government needs to show that Saddam Hussein is a danger. As the dossier is being drafted, a report comes in that Hussein might have battlefield WMD he could use in less than an hour if attacked. Doesn’t this mean that the government can present its case by saying that Iraq has WMD which will be used in 45 minutes? If the head of the JIC – Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee – agrees, is this not then true?

Thus were the British people informed that the dictator had WMD at the ready. Incredible! How could any grown man or woman believe it? But Campbell and Blair did believe it. They wanted to. They needed to. The code told them they had to. And they did. It never occurred to them that it was false, they never sought any assessment of it to ensure it wasn’t.

The fact they were “telling the truth” reveals an important development in the relationship of veracity and power.

What is “truth” according the Campbell Code? For most of us to seek the truth is a risk. It is something we try to discover. The truth is likely to be painful, to raise issues, to blur certainty: it is the foot soldier of the awkward squad.

In the Campbell Code truth is quite different. It is a weapon without a soul or spirit of its own. It is a device to be used, focused, confined and disciplined, in order to deliver certainty and support. Campbell insists that the presentation of policy must not lie, but when offered a Freedom of Information Act that could hold government to account, he bins it. In case it exposes the larger, undisciplined truths.

With respect to the dossier the larger truth is that the BBC was plugged into reality.

The dossier told a story. It provided a narrative. This went: Saddam Hussein made weapons of mass destruction and used them before 1990. He is a bad man and could do it again. We have asked our intelligence services to assess the risk. They say the risk is high, very high - indeed so imminent that we can wait no longer to save our country from danger. Therefore we must go to war.

The narrative was one of cause and effect, of danger and response to danger. Blair emphasised this to parliament, if Saddam withdrew the threat there would be no invasion.

But we know that the narrative went the other way. President Bush decided on war in Washington D.C. Blair decided Britain would support him. Both then decided how they should best present this decision. They agreed to go down the WMD route, as Paul Wolfowitz explained in his interview in Vanity Fair.

The whole dossier was more than an untruth it was a fiction built on… genuinely believed assertions.

In his evidence to the Senate, David Kay says that it was intelligence that was at fault in providing these assertions, it was not political interference or pressure that extracted them. To try and prove his point he says that German and French intelligence agreed that Saddam Hussein might have WMD.

It is amusing that these two countries should be appealed to for veracity. For their intelligence services evidently advised their governments to reject the conclusions of immediate danger the US and UK tried to draw from the evidence. The good sense of old Europe was in part based upon sound judgment – at least in this case. It is most unlikely that the top German or French officials would have approved the September 2002 dossier as their British colleagues did.

What code then should journalists adopt in the face of the Campbell Code? (Assuming, that is, that they are not vermin and do seek to educate and inform as well as entertain.) How can the media escape being reduced to a patsy of power? The answer demands care, thoughtfulness, doggedness, rather than cynicism as the cheap route to knowing better. It does also involve assuming that government ministers can tell the truth.

In the style and spirit of openDemocracy.net we are debating all these issues both inside and outside our editorial team. Another point of view is provided by Douglas Murray. But on one point at least, I think he and I agree. It is possible for government policy to be right.

It is a savage irony that Hutton’s absurd over-endorsement of the British government’s mendacious dossier on Iraq’s WMD itself misappropriates this fundamental fact and undermines public appreciation of it. In this sense, the Hutton report is a disgrace to democracy.


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