Saturday, April 14, 2007

Where does the buck stop?

Is there a wider lesson to be learned from the debacle over whether the sailors captured by Iran should have been allowed to sell their stories? Who is really to blame for creating the kind of political culture in which this was initially seen as a good idea? This was the subject of my weekend column in the Journal and Derby Evening Telegraph today, and here it is in full.


The practice once quaintly known as "chequebook journalism" has nowadays become so commonplace that an entire cottage industry has grown up around it - one that goes by the name of Max Clifford Associates.

But twenty or so years ago, when the phrase was first coined, it was clearly understood to be a perjorative term for what was considered the dubious practice of buying newspaper stories for cash.

Back then, few imagined that a group of serving members of the Royal Navy who had just been engaged in a major international incident would one day be given official approval to sell their stories for six-figure sums.

But that was precisely what happened last weekend before the Government, realising it had a public relations disaster on its hands, executed a swift u-turn.

The Navy's initial response to the outcry appeared to be to try to maintain that the decision had been made internally, without wider MoD or ministerial involvement.

But it was obvious from the start that such a decision would have to have been taken, or at the very least approved, at a political level - or that if it wasn't, it should have been.

Belatedly, Defence Secretary Des Browne admitted he had indeed known of the decision, and insisted that the buck stopped with him.

At the same time, however, he maintained that although he had known of it and not put a stop to it, he had not approved the decision as such - a rather hair-splitting distinction even by New Labour standards.

Mr Browne has been hitherto one of the Government's lesser-known figures, a somewhat faceless apparatchik whose rise through the ministerial ranks has been as stealthy as it has been steady.

His elevation to the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury after the 2005 election was the subject of a minor Whitehall controversy.

The post had apparently been earmarked by Tony Blair for the former Home Office minister John Denham, who resigned over the Iraq War with Robin Cook in 2003.

But Gordon Brown, who has always insisted on the right to appoint his own deputies, had already promised the job to his pal Des, and not for the first time, Mr Blair fought shy of a confrontation with his Chancellor.

In the event, he proved just the sort of middle-ranking minister Mr Blair likes - competent, low-key, and seemingly adept in keeping himself out of trouble.

He was duly rewarded with what seemed to some to be a startling promotion to Defence Secretary last May when Charles Clarke was sacked and the much-travelled John Reid moved to take up his current berth at the Home Office.

Again, Mr Browne proved the doubters wrong, and his quiet effectiveness in a difficult role had him spoken of a few weeks back as a possible Chancellor in a Gordon Brown government.

But as if to prove the old truism that everyone eventually rises to the level of their own incompetence, Mr Browne came back down to earth last week with a bump - and now his very survival as a minister is in question.

Much will now depend on his statement to the House of Commons on Monday, but the damage has already been done by Mr Browne's confused accounts of the affair.

His initial defence was that he was "not content" with the decision, but that he believed he had no choice under the rules but to acquiesce in it.

But given that any remotely competent lobby hack would know that all interviews with service personnel have to be cleared by the MoD press office, this is scarcely convincing.

And Mr Browne's case has not been helped by yesterday's revelation that the Press Complaints Commission had offered to help the MoD deal with the problem, but been rebuffed.

Aside from the Defence Secretary's plight, the whole episode of the 15 sailors' detention and subsequent release has not been a happy one for the Government.

Even prior to their release, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett had faced criticism for her apparently rather weak response, branding Iran's actions as merely "unacceptable" as opposed to the more trenchant language some might have favoured.

The release itself was a public relations triumph for Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, whose mixture of demagogic charm and political extremism makes him quite possibly the most dangerous man on the planet.

In the wider context of the diplomatic effort to prevent the Iranian president acquiring nuclear weapons, the affair seems to have had no impact at all.

In the final analysis, is this what Harold Macmillan might have called a little local difficulty, or is there a wider political lesson in it all?

Well, the obvious conclusion is that when things start to go wrong for a government, as they did for Mr Blair's long ago, you eventually reach the point where absolutely nothing goes right.

The idea, floated in the immediate aftermath that the release, that it would provide Mr Blair and Labour with a boost in the run-up to the local election campaign has proved risible.

Scotland and the SNP threat seems to have become the focus of the Government's worries on that score, and it is ironic that Mr Blair, who once dismissed the Scottish media as a bunch of unreconstructed self-abusers, is having to spend the dying days of his premiership there.

If there is a deeper lesson, though, it is surely to do with the media culture that New Labour has by turns encouraged and fed-off during its decade in power.

Only an administration which hijacked the death of a Princess to make itself look good and which thought 9/11 was a good day to bury bad news would think that allowing Navy personnel to sell their stories was a good idea.

It is all very well Mr Blair saying with the benefit of hindsight that it wasn't such a great idea after all, but in a political culture which views the media as an extension of Whitehall, it is scarcely surprising that such things happen.

It was Mr Blair and his sidekicks who created that culture. And if the buck stops anywhere, it is there.

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skipper said...

It was the navy which wanted to allow the sale of stories it would seem- they allowed Flt Lt Nicholl to write a book about his time as a hostage in the first Gulf War- but it was Browne's job as politico in charge to foresee the furore over the sale given the freshness of the recent imprisonment and return of bodies from Iraq. He'll have a hard job explaining all this to the Commons early next week.

Honey Weeks said...

The interesting question here is one of freedom. This is why we have UK legislation covering Freedom and Human Rights rather than subscribing to the European Union's much more enlightened and all-encompassing approach to these areas. We should be asking why these soldiers cannot express themselves? Their lives are not the property of the UK Government, and they don't get paid that in pretty terrible accommodation....and don't have equipment that is fit for purpose? Why shouldn't they publish their stories--as for chequebook journalism; well I agree with you about that Paul, some things are best dealt with in private: hence the Privacy legislation that we have. It is just a shame that the UK legislation in all these areas: Freedom, Privacy, and Human Rights falls far short of what we would have if we hadn't opted out of these areas in terms of EU legislation.