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Monday, 17 June, 2002, 08:23 GMT 09:23 UK
Royal spin row: On The Record
The full text of John Humphreys' interviews with Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Tim Collins and Northern Ireland Secretary Dr John Reid.
JOHN HUMPHRYS: Good afternoon, Dr Reid.
JOHN REID MP: Hi John.
HUMPHRYS: Now, let's deal with what's possibly the most serious new detail to emerge this morning and that is that Black Rod told the Press Complaints Commission that Number Ten had put him under sustained and constant pressure. Now that has been denied right from the beginning by Number Ten and now we have it from Black Rod himself.
REID: John, can I first of all say through you, to your viewers, that if they are bemused that we are leading the programme, not on the problems of Northern Ireland or the other big issues, but on this sort of playground gossip, we have just had to listen to, then it's not by my choice. I want to make that absolutely plain. I'd rather be talking about Northern Ireland¿
HUMPHRYS: And indeed, we shall be talking about Northern Ireland very soon, yeah.
REID: Yes we will but we're leading the programme on this sort of, as I said, schoolboy tittle-tattle.
HUMPHRYS: Sorry, before you leave that¿hang on, if I may, accept that I'd just like to point out that if it is only schoolboy tittle-tattle, why did the Prime Minister himself choose to make a statement about it on Friday and then issue a twenty-nine page document. Odd thing to do if it's only schoolboy tittle-tattle.
REID: John, I think you should let your viewers decide whether the last ten minutes has benefited either them or politics. As far as the facts are concerned of this issue, if we have to deal with it. The first fact is this, that there is now no suggestion, contrary to all the headlines in this story, that the Prime Minister muscled in on the Queen Mother's funeral. That was offensive and untrue when it was said and I'm glad that it's now accepted that that isn't true. Secondly, as regards the civil servants and the so-called inundating with pressure, I understand this was a series of about twelve phone calls. I asked my civil servants this morning to give me an estimate of how many phone calls were made in connection with a half day visit I made to Jersey three days ago. They've estimated that with the protection team, with the private authors and with the press, about fifty to sixty phone calls were made. So the civil servants acted with complete integrity and Tim Collins shows that he has no, absolutely no idea of how government works, where the logistics of an operation like this have to be dealt with. And the third thing is this, Sir Michael has made it absolutely clear¿
HUMPHRYS: Black Rod.
REID: ..that he was not asked to..he was not asked to change any arrangements and any arrangements that were made, whatever they were to be, would have included Iain Duncan Smith, the leader of the Conservative Party as well as the Prime Minister himself. So this whole story, which originally started in a right wing journal, edited by a Conservative MP, not just a Conservative supporter, has now been thrown into the agenda because there are elements of the press who quite frankly want to regard themselves as the opposition because every time you have a Conservative spokesman on television, they studiously avoid talking about any of the issues which are really important to people in this country and have one agenda which is to involve themselves in either character assassination to get at the Prime Minister, either through his wife, or through his advisors and now through his civil servants.
HUMPHRYS: Well, just dealing with the number of phone calls, just a comment on that. The¿Black Rod's deputy, Yeoman Usher Brigadier Hedley Duncan, himself says that they were inundated with phone calls. So clearly their office were very seriously taken aback by the amount of pressure from Number Ten. And the other point is, that if you are¿
REID: Can I just answer that. I mean I don't¿can I just answer that, it's a very good point. I mean I don't know Brigadier Hedley Duncan I have to say, I know Mike Willcocks, worked with him when I was a minister and had a very good working relationship. I don't know how often they deal with Downing Street. I understand from press reports that they hardly ever deal with Downing Street. If he understands, if he feels that getting a dozen phone calls over six days is the height of pressure that can be brought on logistic operations on a major state occasion, then I think that's a misunderstanding. I can tell you, as I said, that I carried out, a rough I admit, a rough estimate¿
HUMPHRYS: ..yes you said.
REID: ..a rough estimate of the number of phone calls made for me, and I'm not the Prime Minister, for a half day visit to Jersey and it is many times this number of phone calls. The suggestion that this was inordinate pressure by civil servants is ludicrous, they acted with complete integrity and asked all the right questions.
HUMPRYS: Yeah, but you see Black Rod's memo itself says sustained and constant pressure, Downing Street have told us half a dozen phone calls at most. Then we learn from Black Rod that it was sustained and constant pressure, we hear what the Brigadier had to say, we hear that Simon Virley somebody from Mr Blair's office, himself went to see Black Rod's office. And the point is this isn't it, that if you were so confident, that if Number Ten were so confident that there was no case to answer here, why was the complaint effectively withdrawn from the PCC. Isn't the reality, that when you knew what was going to come out of the memo, that Black Rod himself had written, you knew that you didn't have a case and that it would be too embarrassing and too damaging. I say you, I mean collectively Number Ten.
REID: Alright, let me answer your questions in sequence. If somebody feels that that number of phone calls is undue pressure, they were inundated because there was six or twelve phone calls. I mean that's someone's feeling, I can't speak for that, if..all I can say is give you the reality of government. That it is not unusual when you are even the Northern Ireland Secretary and you have a private office, a press office, you have protection teams, you have Detective Sergeants, right up to you know senior civil servants, you know twelve phone calls, you know if somebody feels that, that is being inundated, fair enough. The second thing you said, is that there was a visit, there was a visit by a civil servant, not a political, they didn't make the phone calls, not special advisors, there was a visit to inform, as I understand it, Black Rod, of the Press Complaints Commission move that had been made. And the third question you asked is, why was that taken, why was that dropped, it was dropped because the substantial reason for taking it in the first place was the innuendo, and it was no more than that but it was branded in huge headlines that the Prime Minister had intervened in order to muscle in on the Queen Mother's funeral when it made plain that there was no a shred of evidence for that and there's not. I mean I listened to Peter Oborne and his pathetic justification that someone had phoned on the day of the funeral. I understand that this was a member of the protection team, a policeman who had phoned. So presumably, they are now part of this great Downing Street machine.
I'm sorry this¿there's actually a much more important question here John and that's about the relationship between the press and government. We now live in an era of twenty-four hour a day media. There is constant pressure and I understand this on journalists, lobby journalists in particular, to have stories, particularly in the press because they are trying to anticipate what's coming up because by the time they print their newspapers it's been on television programmes and constant news. So therefore, there is a lot of pressure on government to provide stories. We do our best to put that information out, but we are now in a position where having been demanded that we supply the information and stories, the press, or certain elements of the press are trying to run an agenda which says that this is in itself wrong. We need to rebuild that relationship because you know at the end of the day, both government and the press are absolutely essential for a good functioning democracy and if that isn't working well, the people who lose out are actually the electorate, the ordinary members of the public, who are interested in their health, in their education and the peace process in Northern Ireland and must be utterly bemused about the minutia into which we are now descending.
HUMPHRYS: Yes, but you'd have to accept that this thing has been handled staggeringly badly from Number Ten's point of view. If the story was as trivial and as unimportant as you've said in the first place, then why was it taken to the Press Complaints Commission, that's a nuclear option. Why didn't they simply, why didn't Number Ten simply issue all the documents relating to it, a list right at the very, very beginning and say look, here's what happened, let people judge for themselves and then, why after it was all over, did they try, after the complaint had gone in to the Press Complaints Commission, why did they try to bully Black Rod into supporting their version of events. That's what makes people's eyebrows raise a little bit.
REID: John, that's an entirely fair question, why does something as small as this require to go to the Press Complaints Commission and the answer is quite simple, that although this is a non-story, it was raised to the level of a grievous and offensive charge, that on a great state occasion, involving the Queen Mother's funeral, that the Prime Minister or the politicals around him, had muscled in to try and use this, presumably for party political advantage, although as we all now know, whatever the arrangements would have been Iain Duncan Smith would have been standing shoulder to shoulder in all of them with the Prime Minister. So although it is a minor thing, it was offensive as well as untrue. That is why it was taken to the Press Complaints Commission. When it was discovered at the Press Complaints Commission that no evidence to substantiate that innuendo and allegation had been submitted, then it was withdrawn. Having withdrawn it of course, some of the elements of the press then decide to make that a huge issue and that's why we've spent, instead of talking about life and death in Northern Ireland, we've spent twenty minutes on the lead item, on the flagship programme of the BBC, discussing an issue which quite frankly is of utter irrelevance to the vast majority.
HUMPHRYS: I repeat what I said at the very beginning, it wouldn't possibly have happened this way if we¿.if Tony Blair hadn't reacted the way he did on Friday. But shouldn't he now do what the Tories are saying, release all the documents involved in this, make a statement if necessary, in the House himself and shouldn't Alastair Campbell perhaps, as they say, consider his position.
REID: Well John, you don't even see the irony of what you are saying to me, your last question implied, in fact made explicit, that we were quite wrong to raise this to the level of taking it to the Press Complaints Commission. Now you are saying shouldn't we be taking it to the floor of the House and have the Prime Minister make a statement. I mean we are trying to cope with a Health Service that needs improved, a war against terrorism, putting the¿When I put to Jersey with the Prime Minister the other day, I can assure you that Afghanistan, the war against terrorism and Northern Ireland were foremost in his mind. But the idea that on the basis of no allegation now that he intervened in any way, no evidence to that effect, that he should suddenly go to Parliament and make a statement, thus raising and continuing this issue again, is to me completely to get the priorities of the people of this country and Parliament wrong. It doesn't surprise me, however, that the Conservatives want to do that because they have nothing whatsoever to say on the major issues.
HUMPHRYS: John Reid, thanks very much indeed. We'll be returning to you to talk about Northern Ireland indeed very soon, many thanks.
JOHN HUMPHRYS; Tim Collins, the government couldn't have been more open here could it. I mean it's published a twenty-nine page document, it's cleared it all up - that's what it says.
TIM COLLINS: Well, it published a twenty-nine page document which in itself contradicts itself, and which itself turns out within forty-eight hours not to be a complete version of accounts, because not only do we have Black Rod's story or something very close to Black Rod's story in the Mail on Sunday this morning, we also find out that there were further meetings between Black Rod and Claire Sumner to try to discuss the evidence of the PCC that Downing Street didn't even mention in their twenty-nine page document.
HUMPHRYS: It's perfectly understandable surely for somebody from the Prime Minister's office when an allegation like this is made, from somebody in the Prime Minister's office to go to Black Rod's office and say: Look let's look at what is happening here?
COLLINS; Well, I think this is a very unedifying saga and I think the millions of people like me who are passionate monarchists are very unhappy that the Royal family is being brought into controversy in this way, but I think what we see through this particular target, I think what this saga is demonstrating is three very important truths about this government. The first is that their instinct is to tell a lie rather than the truth, the second is that their instinct is to bully and intimidate those that dare to be critical. Some of the smear stories against Black Rod in this morning's papers I think are simply shocking, and thirdly, it is that we have a Prime Minister who is more concerned with building up his self-image than building up the public services, which is the job he was elected to do.
HUMPHRYS: You say smear stories against Black Rod, there's not a scintilla of evidence that any of those have come from anywhere near Number Ten.
COLLINS: Well, the Sunday Times reports this morning that a number of ministers have said that if Black Rod had done what he allegedly has done, in the army he would have been sacked. We have a number of Labour MPs on the record in this morning's Sunday papers saying they're going to call for Black Rod to be dismissed, and what is his alleged crime, it is simply that he decides to tell the truth and not go along with Downing Street's fabrication of the truth.
HUMPHRYS: But if you look at what Number Ten was doing it was working from guidelines - this is stated in that document that were drawn up in 1994. Now you were in power in 1994, presumably John Major's office drew up those documents or those guidelines.
COLLINS: Well, one of the reasons we're calling for a full disclosure and for a statement to the House of Commons by the Prime Minister is that even that part of Downing Street's defence now looks rather undermined by the Mail on Sunday this morning. According to that newspaper this morning Black Rod pointed out to Claire Sumner, why didn't you refer to this 1994 document when we spoke originally. Although Claire Sumner says in her documents that she was relying on the 1994 document apparently according to Black Rod, she didn't mention that document when she had her initial conversation. The detail is complicated and convoluted but the bottom line is this; we have on the record quotes this morning from Black Rod saying he was under sustained and constant pressure from Downing Street to alter arrangements. We have evidence that Alastair Campbell was spending a huge amount of time writing reams and reams of letters to the Press Complaints Commission which are full of a stack of inaccuracies. This is evidence of government at best pursuing the wrong agenda, at worst trying to intimidate its critics.
HUMPHRYS: But you see even if, and as you say it's immensely complex all of this, and it's a pity to inflict on an unsuspecting and undeserving audience, they don't deserve all these details, but let's try - the basic, even if the charge is right that Tony Blair sought a more prominent role for himself, he would have taken Iain Duncan Smith your leader, along with him. This wasn't just him, this was leaders of the party as well as him.
COLLINS: Well, we have yet to see exactly what it was. I mean what certainly is one of the allegations of course, is that the Prime Minister or somebody on his behalf wanted the Prime Minister to walk from Downing Street to Westminster Hall, glad-handing I think is the phrase - the people who were there ¿ That is not something that would have involved the leader of the Opposition. And the evidence for that is actually in Downing Street's twenty-nine page dossier. They admit that somebody from Downing Street rang up Black Rod and said would it be alright if the Prime Minister walked from Downing Street to Westminster Hall. Now very interestingly, very interestingly, they say in their document, the twenty-nine pages, that it was decided and I quote, it was decided within Number Ten without feedback from Black Rod, that the Prime Minister would drive. Now, according to the Mail on Sunday this morning not only was there feedback from Black Rod, but it was fairly vigorously expressed, and it was very strongly counselling the Prime Minister against doing that.
HUMPHRYS; But that idea¿¿
COLLINS: So we don't have a consistent story here.
HUMPHRYS: That idea of the walk was supposed to have come from Jack Straw and a sort of casual comment about it being a nice sunny day, and he wasn't actually planning to walk down Whitehall or anything, he was going to walk under the corridor, you know under those..¿
COLLINS: Well, I think it is one of the most absurd developments that we've had this week that Jack Straw who was actually in Canada for an international summit is supposed to have woken up one morning, slapped his forehead, said: Oh, of course it was all my idea, I'd better get on to Number Ten, and then tell everybody it was my idea to suggest this walk. Really it is the case where a Downing Street story as ever, as on so many of these cases, falls apart when you look in the detail, there are many, many inaccuracies. Just to give you another example. They said that the Prime Minister was going to walk to the north door, and there was no problem, and as agreed the Prime Minister was driven to Westminster Hall. He didn't go through the north door in front of the cameras, he went through the south door.
HUMPHRYS: What do you want to happen now. Should Alastair Campbell resign in your view?
COLLINS: I think our view is that this is indicative of a culture of spin, an obsession with driving out opposition and building up image rather than the public services. Alastair Campbell is the figure-head of that particular culture. Certainly he should be considering his position, but it's not enough for him to pack his bags and go. That whole culture of spin, deceit and bullying at Downing Street has got to go.
HUMPHRYS: Isn't the problem from your point of view though, you may inflict a few flesh wounds on the government as the result of all this, it might be embarrassing for the government, but it doesn't do politics any good, and ultimately it doesn't do you any good either, if you're seen to be in this great mess, this great¿.. Now people say there are things that..real issues that we care about, the NHS, education. crime and all that, and what are you doing, you're whingeing on about what you describe yourself as some very obscure detailed allegations.
COLLINS: But this of course is the reason why more than five years into a Labour government the public services are not getting better. They're getting worse because the Prime Minister spends all his time thinking about the next photo-opportunity. He doesn't do the hard grind of improving the public services and until we get him to change his attitudes and get down, knuckle down to the real work and stop worrying about what he looks like in next morning's headlines, we will never get better public services.
HUMPHRYS: Tim Collins, Peter Oborne, thank you very much indeed.
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