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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 August, 2003, 13:35 GMT 14:35 UK
Witnessing Campbell's performance

By Mark Davies
BBC News Online political reporter at the Hutton inquiry

The usher sitting at the side of court room 73 was chatting and laughing with Alastair Campbell like a nurse trying to calm a nervous patient before a particularly nasty physical examination.

The government media chief smiled back, fidgeted a little and played with his red tie. Brown file in hand, he looked ever so slightly uneasy, shifting in his chair before stepping up to the witness box at the Hutton inquiry a few minutes later.

Downing Street communications director Alastair Campbell
There was no finger pointing from Campbell in court
Exposed as he sat high above the bank of computers in the small room, Mr Campbell stared ahead impassively. He crossed his arms. Then uncrossed them. Raised his eyebrows, looked at his shoes.

After giving his full name, Alastair John Campbell explained his role in government and then sat forward for the inquisition, folding his hands before him.

What followed was a fascinating plethora of emails, memos and even extracts from Mr Campbell's own diaries.

The witness was calm and controlled, self-confident, but showing none of the bristling anger and sense of injustice he displayed when grilled by MPs on the Iraq dossier and BBC reports that he "sexed up" the document.

This was not the time or place for the finger-jabbing fury we saw then. That was replaced by gentle hand gestures as Mr Campbell was quizzed by James Dingemans, the square-jawed and pinstriped counsel to the Hutton inquiry who has the look of a 1930s matinee idol about him.

Lips pursed

But there was no sense that he was cowed by the unfamiliarity of the setting - row upon row of blinking computers to one side, the glare of Lord Hutton to the other.

He displayed irritation a couple of times - usually when the name Andrew Gilligan, the BBC reporter whose broadcasts so annoyed him - was mentioned.

Alastair Campbell
Campbell arrives at the Royal Courts of Justice
But if there were any stomach churning moments of horror for Mr Campbell, he hid them well. Lips pursed, he rubbed his nose repeatedly.

It was not so comfortable though for Daniel Pruce, a Downing Street press officer, whose emails on the dossier were among those flashed up on the two big screens in the room.

"A very good press officer," said Mr Campbell. "Making contributions above his pay grade."

Mr Pruce was, said his boss, "meaning well but not terribly involved in the process".

Standard headlines

The media chief's e-mail inbox has been scrutinised heavily for the Hutton inquiry.

"I receive an awful lot of emails that I do not read, because they get sifted for me," said Mr Campbell.

So did he take those from Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff, seriously, asked Mr Dingemans?

"I certainly read them," he said to laughter in the court room. "No offence intended."

There was also laughter when Mr Campbell was asked about a comment from Mr Powell asking what the headline in the London Evening Standard would be on the day the dossier was published.

The media chief said he would have had no idea. The headline in question then flashed up: "45 minutes from attack".

"Did you have a hand in the headline?" said Mr Dingemans.

"I did not," said Mr Campbell. "I don't write headlines for the Evening Standard."

'Ghastly Gilligan'

We also got extracts from Mr Campbell's own diaries (cue the pricking up of ears among the publishing community). Infuriatingly for the press, these were not, however, flashed up on the screens.

But they did provide an insight into his thinking when Mr Gilligan's report was broadcast.

"I said it was grim. It was grim for me and it is grim for TB (the prime minister) and there is this huge stuff about trust."

It was utterly gripping: the combative press chief questioned on every email and exchange on the dossier and on his angry letters to the BBC.

As Andrew Gilligan's Today report on the Iraq dossier was read to the court, Mr Campbell sat back in his chair with an unmistakable look of disdain.

What was his reaction to that report and Mr Gilligan's subsequent report naming him as the man behind the "sexing up" claim.

There was a long pause. Mr Campbell puffed his cheeks out. He was "torn", he said, because it was such an "extraordinary" claim that he thought no-one would take it seriously.

It highlighted just how compelling it will be when Mr Blair himself goes into the witness box

When they did, he referred to it in his diary as a "ghastly Gilligan story".

And he vigorously denied suggestions that he had inserted the 45 minute claim into the dossier: he had "no input, no output, influence upon them whatsoever at any stage in the process".

It was at this point that he came closest to finger pointing - placing his palms together and chopping them towards Mr Dingemans.

It was fascinating stuff. The prime minister's right-hand man, alone and exposed in a court room facing tough questions.

It was an impressive morning's display, and it highlighted just how compelling it will be when Mr Blair himself goes into the witness box.




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