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Murdoch’s phone call on Iraq … a little contextualisation

Posted on 16 June 2012 | 6:06am

To be fair to Rupert Murdoch – you don’t hear that too often these days – News International were right to say last night that ‘there isn’t any evidence in Alastair Campbell’s diaries’ that ‘ he was pressing Tony Blair on Iraq on behalf of the Republicans.

Nor, to be fair to me, have I said there was. It is however evidence of the extraordinary topicality and controversy of the Murdoch brand that out of 700 pages of a book covering the momentous period from 9/11 to the Iraq War, The Guardian should lead their coverage on a very short entry about this phone call.

Page 490, March 11 2003, a day covering four full pages, beginning with the sentence ‘Growing sense of crisis, what with the Chirac veto, talk of a challenge to TB, and the dynamic moving away from us the whole time.’

Problems too with Clare Short, then a TB meeting with Portugal’s PM, then with the Attorney General, then rumours of a Robin Cook resignation, then TB making international calls, then a meeting with Jack Straw, Geoff Hoon and the military, where the Chief of Defence Staff, who was warning of real difficulties, then news that Guinea were withdrawing their support – important because of their position on the UN Security Council at the time – then what I called ‘another Rumsfeld disaster’, when he said the UK might not be able to get involved in the action because of our Parliamentary difficulties, which led to damage limitation by all of us including TB, who then had to leave for the Palace for an audience of the Queen, before coming back for more calls with foreign leaders, then dinner with John Prescott and Gordon Brown (yes, one of those ones). Then back down to the office for a long 11pm phone call with George Bush, covering diplomacy, military, the UN tactics, and the Rumsfeld gaffe, for which Bush apologised. Then back up to the flat where Sally Morgan and I, now close to midnight, had a chat with him.

So quite a day, and here is the Murdoch bit. ‘He also took a call from Murdoch who was pressing on timings, saying how News International would support us etc. Both TB and I felt it was prompted by Washington and another example of their over-crude diplomacy. Murdoch was pushing all the Republican buttons, how the longer we waited the harder it got.’

Then the following day, again amid dozens of other things, I recorded: ‘TB felt the Murdoch call was odd, not very clever.’

That’s it. I mentioned the call in my second statement to the Leveson Inquiry. I know people have had a lot of fun at all the amnesia that has struck many of the witnesses, but as I said in my statement, my recollection of this call comes only from my diaries. Given the rest of what went on that day, and more generally at the time, I think that is understandable.

But as newspaper people know more than anyone, news is often about timing and because of the horrors of the Leveson Inquiry, Murdoch is hot news, which I assume is why this detail leads the paper this morning. There was actually nothing inappropriate in what he said. He was clearly wanting to signal support, and given TB’s views on Iraq, and his determination to deal with Saddam absolute, it is really pushing it to suggest this call contradicts Murdoch’s statement that he ‘never asked a Prime Minister for anything.’ TB was clearly irritated though, and we did feel the arguments were those coming at us in all directions from the US Administration.

So that irritation is briefly recorded the next day, amid continuing difficulties over Rumsfeld, continuing discussions about diplomatic and military strategy, discussions with the chief whip about future votes on the issue, two meetings with GB, then Prime Minister’s Questions, then Jacques Chirac’s ‘whatever the circumstances’ opposition to military action statement, calls with Chile and Mexico, then another long Bush call,  a disagreement on timings, a discussion then meeting on the Middle East, and so on.

I hope the context helps understanding, not least of the reasons why busy people cannot always remember everything. It is why diaries, again if I may something in my defence, are quite useful – albeit always inevitably partial and incomplete – contributions to debate and history.

  • Amnesia has abounded throughout Leveson, detail has been glossed over. Perception of chummy partisan supping with Dave in the country leave clear impressions. People dislike intensely the hothouse, cosy collusion that Cameron has exhibited this week – this will be remembered beyond the village bubble in which the media and politicans appear to inhabit.
    The intensity of daily life detailed in your accounts is exhausting – to see a path and direction through that is an immense feat of navigation. 

  • Olli Issakainen

    According to general Wesley Clark Paul Wolfowitz told him in 1991 that the US had to change the regimes in Irak, Iran and Syria.
    We know from declassified documents that Libya and Lebanon were also on the list.
    Since 1990s the US has had a plan to change regimes in seven countries in the Middle East.

  • Les

    I think you miss the point.

    What people are angry about is not what Mr Murdoch said to the then prime minister but the fact that he appears to have been given a clear channel to contact him personally in the first place.

    I cant be alone in thinking that newspapers should be reporting news as factually as possible not creating news. I know this is probably naive and that throughout the generations newspaper moguls have held elected representatives to ransome but that does not mean it is right.

    As regards the Iraq war, I beleive that the huge majority of people in this country now feel that the war was wrong and the British people were misled. 

    The fact that Murdoch supported the war wouldnt surprise anybody but the fact that the PM had even one conversation with him about the matter would come as a disappointment.  

  • Well Mr. Campbell I still think that u should become at least the leader of the Labour Party. Your clarity and memory of events have kept yr claret beautifuly clear. More so no signs of early/temporary dementia.

  • It will ever be to Blairs discredit that he opted for the American take on Iraq. It boggles my mind how he could believe ….
    …weapons of mass destruction, the lie is in the words. What  weapons, atomic? biological? chemical? or them all, which is what wmd are classified as. They are not available at the village market as Im sure everybody knew. They need places of construction, all disimilar in location and process. So what weapons? Blair never knew whether  they had weapons of wmd, he was taking other peoples word for it, people like Bush, Rumsfeld and others of their ilk.
    …not knowing what the consequences of the aftermath of the war would be like…. Did he have no expert on Muslims at the runup to the war advising him on the the Sunni and the Shia rift and what it would cost the country in sectairian violence, and  of the Kurds?
    The mistakes go on and on. And a quarter of a million people had to die because of those mistakes, and are still dying because of those mistakes.
    So forgive me if I hold Blair in contempt, It is because as a prime minister he is contemtable.
    Des Currie 

  • Jacquie R

    Given the public hostility to the Iraq invasion, Murdoch’s support was no doubt a key factor in its going ahead. The only real way to counter this type of abuse of democracy is to break up the concentration of media ownership.

    But will Leveson have any influence here? The signs are not good.

    We really need to make the issue centre stage. More developments are afoot. Will kep you posted.

  • Anna

    The collective and selective amnesia of the politicians at the Leveson is perhaps understandable; they are busy men and events move quickly. What is not understandable is why they did not make contemporary notes of the day’s events, meetings, phone calls etc.

    My husband was a senior civil servant and I was a lowly classroom teacher. We both in our professional lives kept a notebook in which we jotted down phone calls made and received, people we spoke to, meetings we attended, promises made, agreements and decisions reached. When life moves at a fast pace it is easy to forget things, so making contemporaneous notes is simply a sensible way of ordering busy professional lives.  It beggars belief that these men did not keep notes themselves or arrange for a member of staff to do so. (Mrs Cameron, please note, had records of her social engagements.)

    Part of their professional duties should be to keep, or have a staff member keep, an accurate record of their professional activities, and their semi-private activities too, if this involves engagements such as ‘country suppers’ with newspaper editors. ‘I don’t recall’ should not be an option when asnwering questions. ‘My diary for that day records….’ is the way that replies should begin.

  • Anonymous

    It must be blindingly obvious, Murdoch, with his mates, Cameron and Osborne, live in a perverted land – look what C & O have achieved in the last couple of years? Nought, thinking they are so clever with the media while forgetting they actually have a country to run. And reading the proper sharp end with Tone, yourself et al back then, I quiver at the thought at such an event like 9/11 would occur again – Cameron I can see would reach for THE button, and nuke everything, since he seems to live in his own unreality fantasyland.

    And Tone, I can imagine, humouring that plank Dubious then, trying to tell him what he should and not do. But to me that goes without saying, but to some media London living goons, not. These London media need to get out more out from their pathetic closed mind bubble.

  • Janiete

    Doesn’t this furore exemplify the concerns we rightly have
    about the media? John Major, in his evidence to Leveson, identified the common
    practice of newspapers to take a kernel of truth and stretch the point beyond
    any reasonable limits. A headline, designed to catch the eye, sell the
    newspaper and often promote a narrative to which the newspaper is wedded, then
    becomes accepted as an incontrovertible fact. Without the all important
    context, truth is replaced with exaggeration, misunderstanding, rumour, gossip
    or just downright lies. The same newspapers then sit back, enjoy and exploit
    the trouble they have caused, as those who have been misrepresented struggle to
    correct the record, leading to more out of context headlines.

    There is no doubt that the tabloids are the worst offenders,
    but I find it disturbing that many witnesses to the Leveson Inquiry, disregard
    the same practices in so-called quality papers. In some respects, poor practice
    by broadsheets is more dangerous, as broadcasters readily pick up their
    headlines and repeat them in major national news bulletins, exposing large
    swathes of the public to the same misleading, overblown and distorted views
    presented as fact. The topic of Alastair’s blog wasn’t ‘news’ on the BBC
    on the day the same information was revealed at the Inquiry, so why is it now?
    The only reason is the Guardian headline and the underlying views it taps into. This links in directly with Alastair’s frequently raised
    issue of fusion of news and comment, in which all media outlets (possibly
    excepting the FT) are flouting the central principle of distinguishing ‘clearly between comment, conjecture and fact’. David
    Cameron, far too readily dismissed any effort to rectify the problem as ‘rather
    a forlorn hope’, which was fairly typical of much of his vacuous and
    unprincipled evidence. Presumably, when the Editor’s Code was written it was
    not considered a forlorn hope, which just shows how far down the wrong road the
    media have travelled. In any other walk of life, when things go terribly wrong there is a clamour for a return to decent values and principles which serve the public as intended. There would be reporting and discussion of the issue and opinions expressed as to how we might put things right. A nil return on a Google search of relevant phrases, is evidence that the media is NOT reporting or discussing this issue at all. Yet it has been raised at the Leveson Inquiry, repeatedly. The media don’t want to change the status quo, so the people haven’t been told it’s an issue. If this isn’t an abuse of media power, I don’t know what is. I just hope Lord Justice Leveson doesn’t let them get away with it.

  • Ehtch

    Alastair, when I say London living goons, you know exactly what particular living London goon, BBC wasn’t he? And say no more what happened. Right shit head he was to drive a man to such, conspiracy theories aside. Twat he is, no doubt still around us, preparing to try undermine anything but a tory government. Fifteen years since a tory government gilly, ey?

  • Mark Wright

    If I was about to make one of the most difficult decisions of my premiership I would certainly take a call from Rupert Murdoch. I’d imagine he has an insight that is worth hearing out.

    Yes, millions marched as well. They were also heard.

    In the end a decision needed to be made.

    I believe Tony Blair chose to take action in Iraq for what he believed were the right reasons. The spread of democracy is nothing to be ashamed of.    

    I didn’t doubt him then and I do not doubt him now.

  • mightymark

    I stand, as ever, to be corrected but I think public opinion generally, as measured by opinion research rather than self selecting demonstrations, was in favour of military action in Iraq at the time of the alleged phone call. Even if it wasn’t there is still a non sequiter between the two opening phrases of your post.

      Besides I thought it was generally believed that Murdoch didn’t like being on the wrong side of public opinion.

  • Michele

    Just been catching up with the spat with Iannucci; as for his ‘OBE won’t stop me poking fun at politicians’ …. oh if that was all he poked.I’d imagine he’s made quite a lot of money since pretending he could  assume the truth of a ‘report’ from Gilligan.  It had been an appointed interview, done live at just past 6am, bound to be of national importance but which the hillbilly overslept for then ran with no notes, talking off the cuff, extrapolating wildly from what he had really been told by Dr Kelly.He did nothing about aspersions against Susan Watts for days.Being a fairly Pro or Con type I think that if you take against one side it’s tantamount to taking for the other.Ergo, Iannucci should try some flattery for a change; satire is so easy.  He should start a fan club for Gilligan, if he really honestly regards the latter’s words as believable and given all the slipping downhill that has occurred for him since ’03 he should give him a leg-up, he’s done it for enough other comedians hasn’t he?The Telegraph blogs and the proven reports of Gilli ‘sockpuppeting’ (just as has his ex-boss Rod Liddle) are enough research.

  • Janiete

    I believe you are right and opinion polls at the time showed a small majority in favour of military action. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, it is very irritating to hear so many people rewriting history and claiming the opposite.
    To be fair to Jacquie R ‘public hostility’ isn’t the same as ‘the majority were hostile’, but I take your point.

  • Janiete

    I don’t doubt for a minute that serious mistakes were made and there were serious consequences. But in the six months leading up to the Iraq war I was working with a group of Iraqi asylum seekers. One man, who had been a policeman and had escaped with his family, explained to me how much he loved his country and wanted to return, but if he ‘opened his mouth he would be dead’. 

    Those I was able to converse with were in favour of intervention, believing it would be over in a matter of weeks as the oppressed majority took back control of their country. It would seem they were all wrong but presumably you would accept they made an honest mistake. It’s all too easy to be wise after the event. And it’s unreasonableto to impugn the honesty and integrity of others because they made different judgements to your own.

  • Jacquie R

    The whole point is that ‘public opinion’ about the war was influenced by national newpapers. The highest circulation paper was and is Murdoch’s Sun.

  • mike909

    Its interesting, as I had no real contact with or exposure ot the lies told by the media, until my QUANGO was targeted by the right wing press for “action”. Once a campaign that took less than a grain of truth was used to vilify hard working colleagues, who’s only “crime” was in the mind of the journalist, I have taken an awful lot less notice of what the papers say. The lies told were quite astounding, yet the ability to get correction was nil, and was effectively condoned by current cabinet minister, it seemed. Least there was nothing said.

  • ronnie

    Whatever you think about Iraq, I find it really weird that people like you can still query the belief in wmd. Everyone knew Saddam had possessed wmd because he had used them. On top of that, there was no evidence that he had got rid of them. And on top of that, he was refusing to allow inspectors the freedom of access they needed to find out the truth. What was the logical conclusion? Don’t forget Hans Blix himself believed that Saddam was in possession of 10,000 litres of anthrax in 2003.
    You quite legitimately disagree with the war. But why does that mean you also have to think that means Blair had to have lied about wmd? There is no evidence of this whatsoever. Every enquiry has found that he, along with the great majority of British and international politicians, genuinely believed the wmd existed.
    Accept that and your criticism of the war becomes more, not less, credible.

  • RichardT

    The point seems simple to me.  Why should a grotequely right wing foreign media mogul feel he has the right of access to a British Prime Minister, who is supposed to be acting in the national interests of this country, to influence him toward a course of action favoured by the USA? 

  • Richard

    Very poor judgement when you decided to Twit against Aiannucci, Al. His acceptance was on behalf os a  team to whom he provided scripts: your turning down of the gong was on behalf of yourself. Sir Tony and Lord Brown will look after themselves, thank you.
    Amongst your many qualities you have never been able to develop a sense of humour. Lighten up or take a  tablet!
    Own goal, Al!

  • Jbmcfadden66

    The spread of ‘democracy’, YOU ARE HAVING A LAUGH.

  • Michele

     This report pre-dates by 15yrs the discovery of thousands more victims in ’03 just before Chemical Ali was caught.

    This is about more recent events; I don’t know how anyone expects to be able to fathom the whole truth
    from any of this, fathom it well enough that they will choose to
    publicly torture someone else.

    Hans Blix reported mid-’03 his suspicions that armaments and WMDs (gases) had been sent in to hiding in neighbouring Syria.
    If he was right Assad could have used some of the former during the past 18m.

    We know for sure that Iannucci is a liar, he is choosing what to broadcast and whom to persecute based on assumptions and reliance on faith in a drunk.
    Misuse of the internet, when a person knows they can only be lying to be cruel, what’s it about? 
    Is it some macho hang-up?
    Iannucci must be a pacifist – LOL if only that could be his excuse.

  • mightymark

    This looks suspiciously like an attempt to have it both ways – you started out by referring to “public hostility to the war” and now apparently argue that the press turned people in favour. What actually happened was the exact oppposite – that the public started out in favour but turned (wrongly in my view) increasingly against the war – despite the pro war press.

  • Michele

     Good point Ronnie, we’re all seeing by for the past 14+ months what’s been going on in Syria ….. the presumed destination for stuff that their ally Saddam is thought to have hidden.

    Given the difficulties that follow the unseating of any dictator, whether by citizens who’re assisted by foreigners or not …..
     ……trails off in to not kowing what to say next.

  • Michele

    What is the linkage between ‘TB took a call from’ (with no detail about through whom and no hint of it being direct) and your ‘clear channel’?

    I don’t feel that I was misled btw..
    We all knew Saddam was being evasive and playing some stupid bravado games but we also knew he had used chemical weapons 15yrs earlier.

  • Janiete

    Thanks for useful links Michele. In the absence of media outlets willing to report facts clearly distinguished from conjecture, opinion or just plain fiction, it seems we can only identify truth if we find it ourselves! 

  • Jacquie R

    I think we could argue this until the cows come home, but you have to ask yourself this: had the worldwide Murdoch press been almost 100% opposed to the war, instead of almost 100% in favour, would the outcome have been the same?

    And, while we’re on the subject, what a coincidence that all those editors, with supposedly free control, came to the same conclusion!

    Incidentally, although I opposed the war, my point is not about its rights or wrongs.

  • Gilliebc

    I don’t think AC is devoid of a sense of humour.  e.g. the way he ‘dealt’ with that hideous old bat Anne Leslie on QT some months ago.  And he plays the bagpipes in public!  Of course he has a sense of humour.

  • WMD? I know Blair lied because he said WMD and not what it was. WMD was just a cover to go to war,
    feeding lies to the public who were  gullible not query what exactly he was saying . And you seem to be one of the gullible. There were two people who didn’t know at all whether they had WMD’s, Bush and Blair.
    It is not correct to kill so many peope on a
    supposition, it is evil.
    Des Currie  

  • ”seeing”…”presumed”…”thought”…those were the words used to start the Iraq fiasco.
    Have proof first, then you can start a war. And to assume Syria was/is like Iraq is infantile reasoning. Let me decide on the war and you do the tea and cookies.
    Des Currie

  • Because the media mogul new that he was dealing with somebody who bends a lot. Don’t blame the media mogul, to him its just a game.
    Des Currie

  • reaguns

    I think the points made by Alastair are entirely reasonable. Not for one minute do I believe Murdoch influenced this decision.

    Would Blair have wanted a war to become popular like maggie after the falklands?! Even if you believe that, he already had Afghanistan!

    As for the rightness or wrongness of war, mistakes were made on spin, but I trusted military intelligence and geopolitical analysts on both sides of the Atlantic more than a bunch of London elite journo hippies and I still do. I don’t know if it was the right thing to do or not but I think killing saddam was a positive thing. As for the man on the street I think he had the same instincts as me. I don’t know how I’d feel if I was a soldier though.

  • Michele

     Not claiming any credentials for being a military strategist.
    You’re wrong about the ‘presumed’ …. Blix and Dr Kelly et al had lost track of audited weapons years before the invasion.  They knew the hardware couldn’t be hidden inside people (as had been the chemicals sprayed in several locations on thousands of civilians) and they believed they would have gone to Syria, their nearest and strongest ally.
    You’re also wrong about the ‘thought’, it was with reference to what they KNEW existed and could only speculate on where they’d gone.  They could have been wrong about Syria as the destination but they knew the hardware had existed and I for one do hope it is not what is in use in Syria (as well as wishing nothing had ever been sold to them direct).

    New hospitals have been built in Fallujah since the war, more doctors and more nurses and more health visitors means that thousands more victims of those sprayings of the late 80s have been traced and diagnosed and are receiving help.

  • Michele

     Instead of looking at one side of things can you try to do a balancing trick. pros and cons? 
    Do you not believe them when the UN say that more people were dying every month under sanctions that died through military action?
    There are still millions that deride the ‘appeasement’ of Hitler mid-late 30s.  What we knew about him then (and for 3/4 more years) was far less than we knew about SH before the invasion.

  • ronnie

    This is the thing about this argument. I’m (in my opinion!) an entirely reasonable person, not gullible at all, no axe to grind, only interested in the truth. I’m sure you see yourself in the same way. But to my way of thinking, you are the one that has taken the easy way out and allowed yourself to be brainwashed by the rewriting of history in the popular press. In 2003, it was known – not a supposition – that Saddam had had wmd and that there was no evidence they had been got rid of. That is why Hans Blix is quoted in the Butler Report that Iraq had amongst other things 10000 litres of anthrax unaccounted for in 2003. Of course everyone believed in wmd – when you know something exists and there is no evidence that it has ceased to exist the only sane reaction is to act as if it continues to exist.
    The real evil here was the Saddam regime – you seem to be forgetting the hundreds of thousands he killed. I believe the world is a better place without him. I’d like to think you agree but somehow I suspect you don’t. 

  • “Do you not believe them when the UN say that more people were dying every month under sanctions that died through military action?”

    Do you know who imposed the sanctions?
    Do you know who imposed the military conflict?
    That amounts to “‘If we can’t  kill them one way we are going to do in another.”
    A balacing trick? I have already done that……one the one hand I imagined I was a bystynder citizen of Iraq having to bury my entire family, my wife and twins, and the three boys, my mother, my father, and my grandmother.
    On the other I chose to get rid of Saddam and to hell with colateral damage as long I can get my fathers face chopped out the hotel foyer.
    For me it was easy choice.
    Des Currie

  • Dr.Kelly commited coerced suicide. Perhaps you were thinking he was thinking ”hail
    britania” when he popped his cloggs.
    Saddam destroyed all the weapons he had held after the Bush senior war in which Bush was protecting Kuwait. He detroyed them precisely because he knew that the western nations would destroy Iraq if he did not.
    That he kept the destruction of these weapons a secret from the international community (the where and when) while telling the truth about not having them is in fact true.
    That’s my take on the subject.
    And it holds more water than 
    a lot of other theories.
    As for the sprayings, Saddam was just doing a field test of the wepons of mass desruction America sold to them.
    You can’t view the past in isolation. Only the future, unfortunatly.
    Des Currie

  • ronnie

    So even if your theory is correct, I don’t see how you think it means we shouldn’t have gone to war. Saddam destroyed them because he knew the western nations would destroy Iraq if he did not. But he kept it a secret. Which meant that the western nations were bound to believe he still had them. Which meant that they were duty-bound to factor them in when assessing the risk Iraq presented to its citizens, the region and the international picture. Which led to the war.

  • Anonymous

    Those nasty americans eh, I suppose thats the bilderbergers running them eh? Damn them with their efforts to bring freedom, democracy, prosperity, women’s rights etc etc to those places eh.

  • Michele

    Dr Kelly could have committed suicide for dreading that something completely unconnected with his interview with Gilligan was bound to become known to his family in the haze of wild publicity that followed days on end of hourly headlines on all BBC stations, using the sloppy hack’s flippant choice of words.

    Try reading some sworn facts.

  • Michele

     I’m not sure there’s lots to trust on t’net J but I do tend to trust .org domains

  • In todays there is no difference between a sworn fact and a swearword. 
    Des Currie 

  • Anonymous

    In what sense?

  • Anonymous

    I note that, because it was labour who went to war in Iraq, that many labour supporters on this board are making the case that we spread democracy, we built hopsitals in Fallujah, look at Syria etc – all well and good, but guys you must admit if it had been the tories who went to this war you’d have slaughtered them for it.

    In the same way, if a Tory government had taken the same actions as Brown and Darling during the crisis, they’d have got slaughtered by labour but they would have got praise from the same press who slag off Brown.

    So hard to find objective analysis.

    Bush and Obama provide more examples. If a right wing president had made as many cuts as Obama has (way more than Cam/Osbo) the left would crucify him. And as for Bush himself, yeah he sounds like a moron, and he is a typical red neck country club oil rich republican… but what decisions would have been different had we a democrat president between 2000-2008? They’d still have went to war in Afghanistan, still have tried to topple Saddam, still bailed out the banks, still tried to reform education etc.

  • Michele

     Yes I agree that the existence of a weapons trade by itself is evil, arming an ally against an enemy is bound to backfire eventually.
    Your ‘As for the sprayings’ sounds dismissive (probably without being so); tens of thousands of his ‘own’ people were sacrificed but he didn’t even class them as his own people (being of another religious sect).
    Your last para doesn’t make sense but no matter, there’s not much to be found in the whole situation anyway (other than that some things are improving for the poor and several evil people are dead … only leaving space for other evil people to fill their boots).

  • Gilliebc

    I don’t believe that Dr. Kelly was ‘taken out’ as so many conspiracy theorists do. I think it much more likely that he ended his own life because he had made a bit of an arse of himself and he lied to that select committee.  His wife/widow believes it was suicide.  As for Gilli. I cannot abide that bloke. Sloppy journalist and all round dick head.  Imho of course.