To be fair to Rupert Murdoch – you don’t hear that too often these days – News International were right to say last night that ‘there isn’t any evidence in Alastair Campbell’s diaries’ that ‘ he was pressing Tony Blair on Iraq on behalf of the Republicans.
Nor, to be fair to me, have I said there was. It is however evidence of the extraordinary topicality and controversy of the Murdoch brand that out of 700 pages of a book covering the momentous period from 9/11 to the Iraq War, The Guardian should lead their coverage on a very short entry about this phone call.
Page 490, March 11 2003, a day covering four full pages, beginning with the sentence ‘Growing sense of crisis, what with the Chirac veto, talk of a challenge to TB, and the dynamic moving away from us the whole time.’
Problems too with Clare Short, then a TB meeting with Portugal’s PM, then with the Attorney General, then rumours of a Robin Cook resignation, then TB making international calls, then a meeting with Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon and the military, where the Chief of Defence Staff, who was warning of real difficulties, then news that Guinea were withdrawing their support – important because of their position on the UN Security Council at the time – then what I called ‘another Rumsfeld disaster’, when he said the UK might not be able to get involved in the action because of our Parliamentary difficulties, which led to damage limitation by all of us including TB, who then had to leave for the Palace for an audience of the Queen, before coming back for more calls with foreign leaders, then dinner with John Prescott and Gordon Brown (yes, one of those ones). Then back down to the office for a long 11pm phone call with George Bush, covering diplomacy, military, the UN tactics, and the Rumsfeld gaffe, for which Bush apologised. Then back up to the flat where Sally Morgan and I, now close to midnight, had a chat with him.
So quite a day, and here is the Murdoch bit. ‘He also took a call from Murdoch who was pressing on timings, saying how News International would support us etc. Both TB and I felt it was prompted by Washington and another example of their over-crude diplomacy. Murdoch was pushing all the Republican buttons, how the longer we waited the harder it got.’
Then the following day, again amid dozens of other things, I recorded: ‘TB felt the Murdoch call was odd, not very clever.’
That’s it. I mentioned the call in my second statement to the Leveson Inquiry. I know people have had a lot of fun at all the amnesia that has struck many of the witnesses, but as I said in my statement, my recollection of this call comes only from my diaries. Given the rest of what went on that day, and more generally at the time, I think that is understandable.
But as newspaper people know more than anyone, news is often about timing and because of the horrors of the Leveson Inquiry, Murdoch is hot news, which I assume is why this detail leads the paper this morning. There was actually nothing inappropriate in what he said. He was clearly wanting to signal support, and given TB’s views on Iraq, and his determination to deal with Saddam absolute, it is really pushing it to suggest this call contradicts Murdoch’s statement that he ‘never asked a Prime Minister for anything.’ TB was clearly irritated though, and we did feel the arguments were those coming at us in all directions from the US Administration.
So that irritation is briefly recorded the next day, amid continuing difficulties over Rumsfeld, continuing discussions about diplomatic and military strategy, discussions with the chief whip about future votes on the issue, two meetings with GB, then Prime Minister’s Questions, then Jacques Chirac’s ‘whatever the circumstances’ opposition to military action statement, calls with Chile and Mexico, then another long Bush call, a disagreement on timings, a discussion then meeting on the Middle East, and so on.
I hope the context helps understanding, not least of the reasons why busy people cannot always remember everything. It is why diaries, again if I may something in my defence, are quite useful – albeit always inevitably partial and incomplete – contributions to debate and history.