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Albania, me and the Sun on Sunday – a little context via prebutttal

Posted on 12 July 2014 | 6:07pm

Not blogged for a while, as some of you have been reminding me. No, not depression, but working hard on my next book, about Winning and Winning Mindsets, travelling, interviewing, writing, and generally getting stuck into it amid all my other stuff.

One of the ‘other stuff’ categories is the work I have written about before, in The Balkans, an area I have always found interesting, especially since the involvement of the Blair government in the Kosovo conflict. So even since starting to write this latest book, I have made several trips to the region, and especially Albania, another subject I have written about before, not least in the FT, and a country I like.

Any road up, earlier this week I received an email from The Sun on Sunday, asking me about my work in Albania, as follows from a feature writer named Graeme Culliford.

He said: ‘We are planning to run an article on Sunday about Albania and the European Union and I wanted to get in touch at the earliest opportunity to see if you wish to comment. One of the issues the article addresses is your consultancy work in that country. It also discusses Tony Blair’s role in Albania and raises the question of whether he is getting paid. Mr. Blair’s office has previously stated that he is advising Prime Minister Edi Rama “at no cost to the government”. However, right now it is not clear if someone else is funding his work.

I have put these questions separately to Mr. Blair’s office and, while I have read that you are being paid, I was hoping you could clarify the following regarding your position:

* Is your consultancy work in Albania being funded by the government there and if not, who is funding that work?

* Can you clarify what you are doing for the Albanian government?

* Can you clarify how much of your time is being dedicated to promoting/ helping the Albanian government?

* Does your work for the Albanian government solely concern its image abroad and EU integration or are you involved in other projects as well?

* Are you working in tandem with Tony Blair or is your position entirely separate?

Thanks in advance for your help.’

Now the Murdoch tabloids are not exactly noted for their fair and balanced coverage of Europe, or of the Balkan states, or, since the apparent fall out between TB and Murdoch himself, about TB’s earnings, minuscule though they are compared with Murdoch’s. So I could certainly see an article full of the usual buzz words when it comes to the issue of EU enlargement –  Albanians would doubtless be ‘flooding’ into Britain, bringing mass outbreaks of disease, prostitution, human trafficking, welfare scrounging and all those other things that never existed in the eyes of the Sun until the horrible European Union started up. I fancied there might even be a picture of Liam Neeson, good tabloid fodder, and a mention of the film Taken.

So I thought well, at least I should let them have my side of the story, given not only that I have nothing to hide about my work in the Balkans, but that I am quite proud of the role I played in helping Albania’s Socialist Party win a landslide election last year, (I do enjoy a good election landslide) and helping the new Prime Minister Edi Rama secure EU candidate status. So off went my reply.

‘Thank you for your interest in my work in Albania, and the considerable progress the country is making under Edi Rama’s leadership, as acknowledged recently by Angela Merkel, David Cameron, William Hague and others when agreeing to EU candidate status. This was wonderful news for Albania and for the EU, which has done so much to spread peace, prosperity and democratic values, all things which are valued by you, I am sure, and by your readers.

‘Among my other consultancy, writing, speaking, political and charitable activities, I have worked as an advisor to Mr Rama for several years, starting in Opposition when he asked me to help the Socialist Party put together their election campaign strategy drawing on some of the lessons of New Labour’s successive election wins. I am pleased to say he won a landslide victory and as PM he is now using his power to strengthen the economy, tackle crime and corruption and improve both Albania’s standing in the world and the lives of its people.

‘I first became involved with Mr Rama when his press secretary Endri Fuga contacted me via Facebook to ask for help with the campaign and later I met him and Mr Rama and was hugely impressed by their character and their ambitions for the campaign, the country and the region. I have visited Albania and other countries in the region many times in recent years, and I speak to Mr Rama and his team often, both about general strategy and specific areas of activity.

‘Having spent some time working on EU candidate status, my current work for them is focused variously on cross government co-ordination between departments, international branding, and helping put together an advertising and communications campaign to address corruption within public services. The region is an area I became interested in during the conflict in Kosovo, when I was working both in Downing Street and at NATO. Since this part of my work began I have done both pro bono and paid work in the region. Because of my special interest I do the paid work at much lower rates than my usual consultancy fees, and it is part of a broader project in the Balkans for which I am supported by a Western European non governmental donor which shares my commitment to the region and the importance of it improving ties with the rest of Europe.

‘Angela Merkel’s leadership in particular underlines the extent to which relations between the EU and the Balkan region are an issue of growing significance. I intend to continue with this work for as long as Mr Rama and other leaders in the region wish me to. Thank you once again for your interest. I hope you will use the article you are writing to help demolish some of the many myths and stereotypes which continue to abound about Albania and also about the EU and the enlargement process, which has been such a good thing for the world, and I trust you will give fair and full coverage to my answers to your questions. I would be grateful if you could let me know how much of the above you intend to use. I shall in due course be putting all of it on my website.’

I asked him to confirm receipt of the above – which he did – and to let me know the paper’s intentions with regard to how they intend to use my full answers to their questions.

Another polite email came back from Mr Culliford. ‘Hi, Thanks for giving such a detailed response to this. I will try to make the article as balanced as possible’ [can’t wait for that one!] ‘and will be able to provide some guidance on how much of the statement we can use as soon as the page is laid out by the editor. In the meantime, can you clarify for me whether your work in the region is under or related to the ‘Government Advisory Practice’? Also, can we name the ‘Western European non governmental donor’ that is supporting your work? I replied to these two questions: ‘No and no.’

True to his word, Mr Culliford then told me which parts of his answers he intended to use, as follows:

‘Hi, This is the section of your response they have been able to put into the 1200 word article. Please let me know if there are any issues and thanks again for your help. G

‘Mr Campbell said he had been working as a freelance strategic adviser for Mr Rama for several years. He added that some of his consulting in the Balkans is “supported by a
Western European non-governmental donor” — although he would not say
who that is. He insisted his input is separate from Mr Blair’s, adding that having
worked on the country’s bid for EU candidate status he was now focused
on international branding, advertising and addressing corruption
within Albania. He said: “I have done both pro bono and paid work in the region.
Because of my special interest I do the paid work at much lower rates
than my usual consultancy fees.”

Their editing of my words leads me to believe that far from challenging stereotypes of Europe, Albania, TB’s earnings, or my ‘spin’ work, the Sun is likely to play into them; and, as is often the case, that they only take the parts of answers that stand up the story they hoped to write in the first place. Hence, true to my word, I have posted the above, which at least gives a rather fuller picture than the paper will do, even with 1200 words to play with.

Meanwhile, if anyone is looking for a new tourist destination, with warm-hearted people, a fascinating history, great food and restaurants, [heavily Italian influenced], lovely scenery and stunning beaches, and excellent hotels especially in the cities, I would definitely recommend Albania. Not expensive either, like the work I do for them! The roads could do with a bit of work, but maybe if EU candidate status one day leads to EU membership, that will all get fixed.

The last time I was there was the day England played their last match in the World Cup so finally, as the World Cup nears its end, to all those who predicted Brazil, England or Spain would win, I remind you all of the short sentence I wrote in The Guardian several weeks ago at the end of a piece about Angela Merkel and football…. Germany will win the World Cup.

Why Gary Lineker has that Alan Shearer and Alan Hansen (both went for Brazil in the semi-final) rather than me is beyond me.

Finally finally, as I know Gary is an avid reader, and will almost certainly get to the end, I was really shocked yesterday to be told by a very attractive woman in her 40s that ‘Gary Lineker is the sexiest thing about the World Cup.’ Stunned.

Finally finally finally, Edi Rama is likely to feature in the new book as he has been a winner both in sport and politics – I think he is the only current PM or President who has played international sport for his country. (Basketball). If I am wrong about this, I would love to know who else, so I can interview them too, along with all the great sportsmen and women and business people I have been seeing of late.

All the best. No more blogging for a while, unless further prebuttal activity required. And I hope Graeme Culliford enjoys the rest of his weekend. Polite to the end…

 

  • Chimi shakohoxha

    Alistair, I very much enjoyed your blog on Albania and the Sun’s take on its status as a candidad country. Many thanks for your help in getting the story out there. I have always been a great beliver that Albania does have a good story to tell but has not had the right people to do it on their behalf. Having people such as yourself and Edi Rama is a very good start and will help.
    The perception about my fellow countryman (Albania) is not as complimentary and the only stories we hear on the UK press is about drug dealers or benefit cheats and not the hard working tax paying emigrants who make a huge contribution to the UK economy.
    My wife and I are both solictors in the city and would be delighted to help you, help our country. I would not consider myself as a leftie but have a huge admiration for both you and TB and your achivements in office.
    With the very best
    Chimi Shakohoxha

  • Londoner

    Your description of Albania and the Albanian people is spot on. Faleminderit! You will always be welcomed in Albania for being one of the few for writing the truth without any (unnecessary) prejudice.

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  • Tania

    As a Brit living in Tirana for nine months now, I can second your view of Albania. It’s a gorgeous country with an intriguing culture and blissfully undiscovered by tourists! I have to agree that Rama is consistently making the tough but necessary changes in Albania and deserves respect!

  • Craig Thomas

    Great article and you’ve almost totally sold Albania as a holiday destination to me. Please write more blog articles. So you have a book on the go; people, especially at this difficult time for those of who support policies and parties of the Left of British politics, need more intelligent writing about politics than they, we, can currently get hold of.

    In short, we need your insight, wit and wisdom. We need it now and we need it badly.

    Finally, something you wrote to The Sun clarified something for me I’ve been pondering for a long time: where you talked of the EU promoting “peace, prosperity and democratic values.” I suddenly realised just what the Tories, UKIP and their unpleasant representatives in the media dislike so much about it (the EU). It’s the democratic values. The more British history I read, the more I watch and listen to present day conservatives, the more clearly it dawns on me that these people just hate democracy. Thanks for solidifying this realisation, horrible though it is in many respects.

    CT

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