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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Campbell's kingdom

By Revel Barker
I haven't read the Campbell diaries, nor in all probability will I bother, not least because on the evidence of the lifted quotes I have read in the newspapers (on-line) the grammar is so sloppy, the writing so unstructured, that I would find it irritating. True, they are supposed to be extracts from a diary written late at night: but they are "edited", even "sanitised", extracts, edited by Campbell with the assistance of his old boss at the Mirror, Richard Stott. Both of them can write a bit. The least they might have done is clean up the syntax.
If, on the other hand, the fault is down to inadequate retyping, at speed, under pressure to meet the newsprint or agency deadline, heads should roll. Shorthand is long gone out the window, but typing - in a new world devoid of competent (or any kind of) subbing - is nowadays more important than it ever was.
It's fairly common, among our Old Farts' group, to say what would have happened "in our day". Nothing would have happened because even the lousiest copy typists (and on the Mirror we had one who didn't speak any recognisable form of English) were protected unto death by SOGAT. But now there is no such bodyguard system for the inept. Typists who press Send or Submit without reading their own copy or having it checked should be fired.
On the spot. These days it would be allowed. It doesn't happen, because editorial management is also incompetent and idle and, if its internal memos are any clue, similarly grammatically challenged.
As to the much-advertised revelations of the diaries themselves, within an hour of publication the Press Association reported that there was "nothing new" in those 816 pages. Possibly their reporter could reach that conclusion with such impressive speed - though I doubt it.
A day later the Daily Telegraph's Rachel Sylvester [who she? -Ed] writes that "politically, the diaries are not particularly revealing."
Oh really? Rachel and her chums knew all that stuff all the time then, did they?
Then why is everybody going on at such length about the political equivalent of those "Not many dead" stories?
"There was nothing to report from last night's speech," the meeja-trained reporter tells his news editor, "because somebody shot the speaker..."
But what - the chattering political classes kept all that information for cosy discussion in the Press Gallery, perhaps sharing it with their dinner guests at home in Islington without bothering hoi polloi readers with such trivia?
What the extracts that I have read do not reveal (possibly with good reason) is the total idleness of that most pompous group of scribblers - self-inflated far beyond the normal run of Fleet Street hack, or even of typical modern editor - the Parliamentary Lobby Group [their caps].
This is a club more elitist and exclusive than the Lords.
They do not see themselves as other men, which is a pity, not least because their role in life is supposedly to hear what is going on in the corridors of power - the rumour and the innuendo, the shared back-of-the hand confidence - and report and interpret it for the rest of the world, rather than to rely on official statements (those being the province of the foot soldiers, the parliamentary reporters).
But how do they set about this task under a new regime created by Campbell, a man most of them protest to despise?
They troop along to meetings that he calls so that he can brief them. They take notes, although these days - such is the level of "secrecy" and of "confidentiality" (and of Pitmans prowess) within the Lobby - they are also allowed to take tape recorders with them. Then off they go to their lap-tops in pleasant privileged rooms in the Palace of Westminster and file it back to the office. They quote Campbell (occasionally, if they'd been good, he would trot out "TB" as a special treat for them), apply their own... er, spin to the story and that's it. Back to Annie's Bar for a drink with the lads and with the MPs to whom they - out of touch with the reality of the world beyond SW1 - alone suck up.
So you get Campbell's spin (about which they complain), amended by the Lobby man's "expert" and "interpretive" spin. And the public pays through the nose for the sheer joy of being allowed to share it.
In my day (here we go) the Lobby man - he was the Political, rather than the Parliamentary correspondent - was the top job on any newspaper. It went only to an established reporter who already had the contacts in place, who could ferret out stories, could pick up gossip and interpret it as news. And additionally, he could usually write it well.
MPs with something to get off their chests could talk to them individually or in small groups in the certain knowledge that the source would remain confidential. The understanding, on both sides, was that the information was sound, and its basic truth was the only quid pro quo for the guarantee of total confidentiality.
When Joe Haines did the Downing Street job for Harold Wilson, he understandably had his own friends within the Lobby to whom he would drop stories that he wanted to get out. Bernard Ingham, in a similar role for Mrs Thatcher, did much the same. At different times in my childhood I ran up against both of them.
Neither thought twice about calling in commentators through the awesome door of Number Ten for a bollocking if he felt the hacks had let the side down, or strayed from the party plot. Being cut off from this innermost source would be a severe punishment for the wayward reporter.
But the difference was that those two men, even at their most belligerent, respected journalists.
Campbell, having been in the Lobby himself immediately before taking up the job, despised them.
For the plain truth is that - with the possible exception of so-called Crime Reporters who do no more than sit in the press room at Scotland Yard and feed back to the office official statements that have just been "released" to them by the Met's spokesmen - there is no more idle job in Fleet Street than that of a Lobby Correspondent.
Nor, given the fact that these days the Downing Street briefings sometimes appear in full on TV, is there a more useless one.
When I heard that Campbell was accused of "sexing up" the government's position, even on something as important as the threat imposed or implied by Saddam Hussein, I thought: Yes; that is what a press officer is paid to do. He takes the brief and he sexes it up.
Stories, in Fleet Street terms, are either sexy or they are boring. As a general rule, boring fails to make the paper. Derek Jameson once said that news was something with a CFM factor. If you read an article and said Cor, Fuck Me! It was a story. Andrew Marr described the same thing as FMD - Fuck Me Doris.
If nothing else, Campbell's diaries have exposed the system. Exposed it even for those readers and editors who didn't know how it worked.
Will it be reported among the acres of space being devoted to the Diaries?
I suspect not. For newspapers are putting their own censored and censorious spin on what appears in their pages.

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