The verdict? Guilty, sort of By William Bowles

19 August 2003

One is tempted to hold off saying anything until the loathsome Alistair Campbell, chief propagandist for the Blair government does his pitch at the Hutton ‘enquiry’ today. However, of far more importance than what he does or doesn’t say (after all, the cat’s out of the bag anyway), is how will the Blair government deal with this mounting crisis of confidence in its reign and indeed the potential challenge to the credibility of the state that Blair’s cockup represents?

So after I’d popped out to pick up my copy of today’s Independent, and downed my first cup of (strong) café au lait (home-made of course) and answered my e-mail, I turned immediately to the editorial, to see how the managers of the intellectual elite is dealing with the crisis.

Headed with something between a question and a statement, “Now we know that No 10 did order a rewrite of the dossier to justify war”, I did, at this, the final stage of the story, expect some kind of damning indictment of a government that lied, suborned, threatened and generally behaved like the bunch of gangsters they are.

Instead, and predictably, we got the Independent straddling the barbed wire between the reality of why we went to war and the need to exercise its own version of ‘damage control’ on behalf of the state it so loyally supports. After all, criticism is one thing, but to challenge the status quo at its most fundamental level, is quite another.

Constructed as a series of ‘charges’, the editorial presented its case.

Charge One: That the September dossier had been “transformed” in the last week before its publication, undergoing a “substantial rewrite” in order to “make the case for war”.

Verdict? Guilty, sort of.

Charge Two: That the dossier had been “sexed up” to reinforce the case for war. The 45 minute claim, was indeed a “late addition” and that in its current (pre the 45 minute inclusion) it would only convince those “who are prepared to be convinced”.

Verdict? Guilty, sort of.

Charge Three: That Alistair Campbell authorised the “sexing up” as well as inserting the 45 minute claim at the last minute.

Verdict? Guilty, sort of.

Making the connection – and then breaking it
However, when it came to offering some insight into the rationale behind this process, the Independent chickened out completely. This is spite of saying the following:

“Directly and indirectly, yesterday’s testimony from those at the very nerve-centre of power in this country showed up a consistent discrepancy between appearance and reality – the very discrepancy that has left Mr Blair’s credibility so damaged.”

But incredulously, this is as far as the Independent is prepared to go in offering some kind of analysis into the key reason, why the hell did this country break every law in the book and go to war? For an answer to this, one needs to read between very closely packed lines.

The most telling statement the editorial has to offer, is more in the way of an aside right at the end of the editorial, when it says:

“And, as if manipulating information was second nature, Mr Powell [Blair’s chief of staff] ends his [damning] assessment of the dossier by offering Saddam Hussein some media advice. “If I was Saddam,” he says, “I would take a party of Western journalists to the Ibn Sina factory [mentioned in the dossier as manufacturing WMDs]…to demonstrate there is nothing there.”

As if? I’m gob-smacked! Surely, the entire editorial reveals that the basis for the operation of the so-called Communications Department is to do just this, manipulate information in order to justify the unjustifiable, commonly called propaganda.

This reveals the cosy relationship between the media and the state, when the editorial blithely states that “as if manipulating information was second nature [to the government]”. When hasn’t it been?

Finally, this craven piece of ‘journalism’, just in case we didn’t get the (non) message, tells us:

“Whether it will either help the government press its case against the BBC or justify its treatment of David Kelly is quite another matter.”

I had to read this several times in order to make sure that I was reading it right. In one sentence the Independent managed to side-step the core of its editorial completely and shift the issue over to the BBC and Dr David Kelly. What relevance does the government’s attack on the BBC have to the central issue (aside that is, from it being a part of the diversionary tactics employed by the state)? Or indeed the issue of the unfortunate Dr Kelly, casualty of the propaganda war?

A crucial aspect of this entire process is that it reveals just how unsure the government was of its case, in that Campbell’s overriding objective was to make the argument for war look like it came from ‘neutral’ and ‘objective’ professional civil servants rather than the propagandists. Hence his insistence that the source for the ‘evidence’ came from the Joint Intelligence Committee rather than Blair’s own propaganda machine (see below for more on the biggest con of all, the ‘neutral’ civil service). A ploy that has backfired badly, in that the state, through its civil service, sees the threat not only to its policies, but also to the machine that maintains and delivers it. It’s one thing to challenge the existing government (after all, that can be replaced) but it’s quite another to challenge the institution that maintains it, the civil service.

Yes Minister, I mean, no Minister
And just in case we didn’t get the message, in an op-ed piece on the same page, we read yet another piece of craven disinformation by a certain Michael Brown headed amazingly, “At the heart of the Hutton enquiry is Blair’s corruption of the civil service”.

Blair’s corruption of the civil service? The op-ed starts out by saying:

“By the end of the week we may finally learn the full extent to which the machinery of government has been politicised [my emph. WB] since Tony Blair took office in 1997.”

It then goes on to say:

“The Government is now finally reaping the whirlwind of the past six years during which it has suborned the civil service information offices for its own political purposes.”[my emph. WB]

And just in case we still don’t get the ‘message’, in a reference to a former top civil servant in the Central Office of Information (the ‘old-style’ propaganda department before Blair ‘sexed it up’), Sir Robin Mountfield,

“Sir Robin insisted that his recommendations on new working practices had reasserted the conventional neutrality of government press officers.”[my emph. WB]

Conventional neutrality? But in spite of this, the writer of this piece of ‘spin’ on ‘spin’ quotes Sir Robin again:

“At the heart of Government, the position of special advisors is becoming more powerful and potentially dangerous, particularly in No 10, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. The effect is not so much interference in civil servants’ impartiality, as the virtual marginalisation of orthodox civil service advice.”

Dangerous to who? Why the professional civil servant of course who is in danger of being marginalised and destroying the myth of ages, namely that the civil service is independent of the state.

Brown goes on to say, quoting former Northern Ireland press officer, Andy Wood on the BBC’s World at One:

“It boils down, said Mr Wood, to Downing Street and professionals working in other information divisions “to get it right, off their own bat.”

The fantasy being promulgated here by the writer, is probably the most enduring of all myths that has been developed by the ruling political class of the world’s “first democracy”. That the civil service is some kind of neutral ‘servant of the state’, motivated by the desire to ‘do the right thing’ and the last thing it wants is ‘professional politicians’ meddling in its business. Indeed, Brown says it himself in reference to the alleged interference of politicians:

“So the independence of the civil service is inevitably undermined as civil servants themselves are pressured and encouraged to compromise truth and integrity.”

There are two fundamental lies wrapped up in the article’s premise. The first is the notion that the ‘state’ is somehow separate from the government, an enduring institution that rocks on regardless, motivated by some ‘neutral’ objective and powered by the ‘truth’. The second is the idea that civil servants are somehow not responsible to anybody except this mythical state of ‘independence’. A state that endures outside of time and that politicians who dare create what is effectively their own civil service, are treading on the toes of the professionals.

And of course, one of the things that has been revealed by the never-ending story of the dossier, is the sheer amateurism (and desperation) of Alistair Campbell and his crew. When one unpacks this article, it’s clear that the central message is, ‘leave it to the professionals,’ in other words, the civil service. Brown even reveals this sleight of hand when he refers to the propaganda war unleashed by Thatcher during the Falklands War:

“So the independence of the civil service is inevitably undermined as civil servants themselves are pressured and encouraged to compromise truth and integrity [sic].

Some would argue that this government has merely extended a practice which was already developing under Margaret Thatcher…Sir John Nott, the former defence minister during the Falklands crisis, certainly has harsh words for her press secretary, “Bernard Ingham…[who was] a constant nuisance throughout the Falklands campaign…. But I was determined to keep the press under the tightest Ministry of Defence control and, as far as possible, away from No 10 with its obsession for background briefing and for spin.””

In other words, if you want ‘spin’, leave it up to the professionals, ’we know what we’re doing, we’ve been at it for centuries’. Note the reference to “keeping the press under the tightest…control”. So yes, some would indeed argue that the practice that has been carried to its logical conclusion under Blair, represents a struggle between the established order of the ‘old boy network’ and the ‘young turks’ in No 10. But what needs to be set out, is that the objective is the same, defend and maintain the state and its institutions of control.

The struggle therefore that is part and parcel of the ‘new’ imperialist mission, is wrapped up with the struggle, initiated under Thatcher and being carried forward under Blair, of how best to sell it to a public that has lost faith in the political institutions. Hence the propaganda contained in the Brown article, that attempts to restore faith in the established order. This indeed, is the rehabilitation of the empire. The question is, who is to control it, when the Blair government has seriously undermined the credibility of the state.

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