12 April 2017

Broken Vows

Broken Vows
UK politician Nick Brown is suing author Tom Bower over a sentence in Bower's biography of former Prime Minister Tony Blair. Bower's book, Broken Vows (2016), includes a reference to Brown's relationship with another man: "Nick Brown, the new minister of agriculture, was accused by the News of the World of paying £100 to rent boys in order to be kicked around a room, and admitted his sexuality."

Bower's description of Brown being "kicked around a room" was presumably based on Alastair Campbell's book Power & The People (2011), the second volume of his political diary. Campbell wrote that the News Of The World newspaper gave him advance notice of the story it was planning to run on Brown's private life: "They said they had the confession of a self-confessed rent boy who had been paid £100 a time to beat up Nick and kick him around a room." Campbell's diary includes denials from Brown about the beating, kicking, and payment, making clear that they are untrue.

In its article (published in 1998), the News Of The World also included Brown's denials, and made no reference to the unsubstantiated beating or kicking claim. However, Bower's book does not include any denials; it also distorts the facts (using the plural "rent boys") and implies Brown's guilt (noting that he "admitted" his sexuality). Bower misrepresents the issue by reducing it to a single sentence, and an earlier edition of Campbell's diary, The Blair Years (2007), was similarly misleading: "The News of the World had apparently trapped Nick Brown with rent boys".

15 September 2015


Photo Op
Police in Istanbul raided the editorial offices of the Turkish weekly magazine Nokta yesterday. All copies of the 14th September issue were seized before distribution, and the magazine was banned for insulting President Erdoğan. Nokta's cover shows a Photoshopped picture of Erdoğan smiling while taking a selfie in front of a Turkish soldier's coffin. The photograph is an adaption of Photo Op, the 2005 image of Tony Blair created by Peter Kennard and Cat Phillipps.

Erdoğan has a long history of suppressing any criticisms of his leadership, both as Prime Minister and President. He filed lawusits against Cumhuriyet newspaper in 2004 and the magazine Penguen in 2005. Artist Matthew Dickinson was charged with insulting Erdogan in 2006; he was charged again shortly afterwards, though was later acquitted. Two Penguen cartoonists received jail sentences earlier this year, after caricaturing Erdoğan in a 2014 magazine cover.

12 August 2012

The Unfinished Revolution

The Unfinished Revolution
Philip Gould's book The Unfinished Revolution: How The Modernisers Saved The Labour Party has been substantially expanded, and now has a new subtitle: How New Labour Changed British Politics For Ever. The new version reprints the original edition and supplements it with an entirely new second part (similar in organisation, though not in subject, to the expanded edition of Nightmare Movies).

The new section covers Labour's three terms in government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (though Andrew Rawnsley dealt with the same period more objectively in Servants Of The People and The End Of The Party). Blair has written an extensive foreword to Gould's book, arguing that Brown "took an Old Labour way out of the financial crisis"; advocating a return to the New Labour agenda, Blair even uses that old phrase from the Bill Clinton era, 'the Third Way', which is hardly likely to inspire a revival of Labour's fortunes.

11 July 2011

A Journey (paperback)

A Journey
Tony Blair's memoir A Journey has now been published in paperback, with a new introduction. In his lengthy new essay, Blair calls for an end to the divisive polarisation of left/right politics, arguing that the boundaries between the two traditional opposites are increasingly blurred.

Blair presents some surprising statistics ("China will build seventy new international airports in the next decade"), though his analysis is hardly ground-breaking: his views on current issues (the Arab Spring, the global economy, the future of energy) are all sensible yet predictable. Also, the introduction has a more formal tone than the rest of the book; he doesn't abandon exclamation marks completely, though he does at least put them all on the same line: "listen! Get advice! Seek views!".

28 January 2011

The End Of The Party (paperback)

The End Of The Party
Andrew Rawnsley has added two new chapters to his book The End Of The Party, for the paperback edition. The book was originally published early last year (making its title either presumptuous or prophetic), before the various internal plots against Gordon Brown and the indecisive 2010 UK general election. These events are now included in the paperback edition.

Rawnsley's first history of New Labour, Servants Of The People, covered only Tony Blair's first term in government. The End Of The Party, much wider in scope, features Blair's second and third terms, and Brown's election defeat. Blair has subsequently published his own account of his premiership, A Journey; Peter Mandelson's memoir The Third Man includes an inside account of last year's post-election negotiations.

Servants Of The People's biggest scoop was an anonymous briefing that Brown had "psychological flaws". Rawnsley did not reveal the source of this quote, writing only that it came from "someone who has an extremely good claim to know the mind of the Prime Minister". Like Bob Woodward (Obama's Wars) and the authors of Game Change, Rawnsley relies on 'deep background' interviews with senior yet unidentified figures, and he has not yet fulfilled his pledge to reveal his sources after Blair left office. In The End Of The Party, Rawnsley hinted indirectly that Alastair Campbell was the source of the "psychological flaws" quote; while Campbell's book The Blair Years contained no reference to the incident, the unedited version published this year confirms that Campbell was indeed responsible.

03 September 2010

A Journey

A Journey
We've had the fictional version (in The Ghost Writer), and the perspectives of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, but now Tony Blair has written his memoir, A Journey, published in America with an additional subtitle: My Political Life. (Andrew Rawnsley's Servants Of The People and The End Of The Party cover the same ground more objectively.)

Blair admits that his suspicious-looking arrangement with Bernie Ecclestone was "a really stupid lapse of judgement"; that the expensive and underwhelming Millennium Dome was "in retrospect a mistake"; and that he should not have sacked Peter Mandelson once, let alone twice. Surprisingly, his biggest regret was passing the Freedom of Information Act: "I quake at the imbecility of it". (He still doesn't regret the invasion of Iraq, and there is no apology for the two misleading intelligence dossiers; he did feel "desperately sorry" after the brutal killing of Jean Charles de Menezes - but only "for the officers involved".)

Blair's account is informal (with too many exclamation marks) and surprisingly candid, with moments of comedy: Gordon Brown locked in the loo ("Withdraw from the contest or I'm leaving you in there") and John Prescott on the warpath ("Where's fookin' Menzies?"). It's also unavoidably one-sided. He is astonished, for example, that Labour leader John Smith considered appointing the Scottish Gordon Brown as deputy leader; naturally, he felt that he, rather than Brown, should be Smith's deputy, forgetting or ignoring that he is also a Scot. (Regarding the subsequent Labour leadership contest, there is no mention of the fabled Granita deal.)

A curious footnote: Blair begins the book by describing his meeting with the Queen on the day he became Prime Minister. According to his account, the Queen told him: "You are my tenth prime minister. My first was Winston [Churchill]". In The Queen, a fictionalised account of Blair and the Queen's relationship, she also uses precisely those words. The film's writer says that he invented the dialogue, and Blair says that he has never seen the film. So it's either an enormous coincidence, or the film had some extremely senior sources, or Blair is confusing fiction with fact.

01 September 2010

The Third Man

The Third Man
To promote his political memoir The Third Man: Life At The Heart Of New Labour last month, Peter Mandelson was filmed sitting in front of a roaring fire narrating a fairy-tale version of New Labour: "Once upon a time there was a kingdom, and for many years it was ruled by two powerful kings. But the kings wouldn't have been in power without a third man. People called him 'the prince of darkness'. I don't know why!" His ironic smirk after that last line is hilariously conspiratorial and theatrical, like Mandelson himself - in contrast to Gordon Brown's cringe-making fake smile on YouTube last year (photographed in Where Power Lies).

Unlike Alastair Campbell, whose diaries were published in 2007, Mandelson spent long periods outside the heart of government. He may have been more influential than Campbell in shaping New Labour, though his two resignations (in 1998 and 2001) and his period as EU Commissioner (2004-2008) meant that he was periodically marginalised from Downing Street. Therefore, The Third Man focuses more on the (admittedly fascinating) twists and turns of Mandelson's political career than on the major policy decisions of the Labour government.

Mandelson's relationships with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (the first and second men, with Mandelson as the Harry Lime figure) are a central preoccupation: his backing of Blair for the Labour leadership, his subsequent long-running feud with Brown, and finally his public comeback when Brown replaced Blair as Prime Minister. Most useful is his insider's account of this year's election and its aftermath, events which occurred too late for Andrew Rawnsley's otherwise comprehensive The End Of The Party.

09 July 2010

The Ghost Writer

The Ghost Writer
In Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, Ewan McGregor plays an author hired to ghost-write the memoirs of former British Prime Minister Adam Lang. The ex-PM, played by Pierce Brosnan, is directly inspired by Tony Blair (whose own memoirs will be published this year, under the awful title A Journey). In a parallel with Polanski (who is currently under house-arrest in Switzerland, following his 1977 sexual assault conviction), Lang's travel is restricted to avoid extradition and criminal charges.

The previous ghost-writer died in suspicious circumstances, and McGregor's character investigates a potential conspiracy; it's implied that his paranoia is justified, though there is no explicit corroboration. McGregor's character - selected as a pawn by a femme fatale, in an investigation he cannot control - is superficially similar to another Polanski protagonist, JJ Gites in Chinatown. In The Ghost Writer, however, Chinatown's bleached sunshine is replaced by a less cinematic, permanently overcast atmosphere.

Polanski's greatest films (such as Chinatown, Death & The Maiden, Repulsion, and Rosemary's Baby) are morally ambiguous and psychologically shocking, whereas The Ghost Writer is simply an extremely effective thriller. Like the equally entertaining Shutter Island, and Polanski's The Ninth Gate (and the cliche-ridden Angels & Demons), it's a code-cracking suspense film with a twist ending.

23 February 2010

The End Of The Party

The End Of The Party
The End Of The Party: The Rise & Fall Of New Labour is Andrew Rawnsley's sequel to his excellent Servants Of The People. The earlier book is an authoritative account of Tony Blair's first term as British Prime Minister; with the same access to senior yet unattributed sources, The End Of The Party covers Blair's second term and Gordon Brown's succession. Whereas the previous book centred on Brown's rows with Blair (deliberately omitted from Alastair Campbell's The Blair Years), the new volume discusses Brown's bad-tempered relations with his staff.

Despite the international impact of his bank bail-out scheme, Brown's leadership has been heavily criticised after a series of U-turns and chronic presentational failures. There have been at least three internal attempts to remove him as Labour leader, the latest of which (organised by Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt, with cabinet ministers offering Brown delayed and qualified support) came too late for Rawnsley's book.

03 September 2007

The Blair Years

The Blair Years
Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair's press secretary when Blair was leader of the opposition. When Blair became UK Prime Minister in 1997, Campbell became his official spokesman. When Blair won a second term in 2001, Campbell was given the unique role of Director of Communications & Strategy. He resigned in 2003, and Blair stepped down earlier this year. Campbell, who was one of the key architects of New Labour, kept a daily diary which ran to over 2,000,000 words, and a single-volume concise edition has been published now that Blair is no longer Prime Minister.

Campbell freely admits that there is much material missing from The Blair Years. (Or The TB Years, as it should be called: everyone is referred to by their initials, and the shorthand prose style is not easy to read in long stretches.) The most obvious omission is Gordon Brown: there are occasional references to his uncommunicative grumpiness, but not to the repeated blazing rows we know he had with Blair. Presumably Campbell wants to spare Brown any embarrassment, now that Brown himself is Prime Minister.

Andrew Rawnsley's excellent Servants Of The People, by contrast, offers much more on the Blair/Brown conflict, though his sources are mostly off-the-record and he only covers the first three years of Blair's premiership. Nevertheless, it's probably the most authoritative account of the Blair government yet published. Famously, it includes the anonymous observation that Brown is "psychologically flawed", a statement widely attributed to Campbell. I hope he's planning an updated edition.

Alastair Campbell was Blair's 'spin doctor', though he was often in the headlines himself. His diaries cannot be a definitive record of the period, because it's impossible for someone who was simultaneously managing and making the news to be impartial. They are also incomplete: not only has Brown been toned down, but Blair and the Cabinet Office were permitted to delete especially sensitive passages.

Notably, much of Blair's swearing has been removed, including his four-letter description of veteran Labour MP Roy Hattersley. Plenty of profanities remain, however, most of them Campbell's own comments on other people. In this respect, The Blair Years shares the frankness of Alan Clark's Diaries. Conservative MP Clark's account of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's downfall was astonishingly candid, and, indeed, Clark and Campbell were friends, with Clark making occasional appearances in The Blair Years.

The Blair Years offers a behind-the-scenes look at all the major UK political stories of the past decade, with anecdotal details of Blair's private feelings and actions. Arguably the most fascinating section, though, is that devoted to Campbell's conflict with the BBC over shortcomings in government dossiers published before the Iraq war.

The government commissioned a dossier on Iraq's military capabilities, which was written by the Joint Intelligence Committee in 2002. The dossier claimed that Iraq possessed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, which were capable of being deployed within forty-five minutes at any time. In 2003, another dossier was also published, this time prepared within the government, though it was later revealed that much of it had been plagiarised from existing online sources.

On BBC Radio 4's Today programme in 2003, correspondent Andrew Gilligan alleged that the 2002 dossier had been "sexed up" with more forceful language: an un-named source told him that the JIC's language had been altered after suggestions from within the government. Specifically, Gilligan claimed that the "forty-five minutes" detail was added at the request of the government. In a subsequent newspaper article, again quoting his un-named source, Gilligan identified Campbell as the person who added the "forty-five minutes" detail to the dossier.

Campbell denied sexing up the dossier, but the BBC refused to retract the allegation. Gilligan's source, WMD expert David Kelly, committed suicide after his name was made public. It was suspected that Campbell had learned of Kelly's identity and leaked it himself. A public enquiry into Kelly's death by Brian Hutton exonerated Campbell and the government while criticising the BBC's editorial judgements. Consequently, the BBC's Chairman and Director-General both resigned.

In The Blair Years, Campbell denies leaking Kelly's name and suggesting "forty-five minutes". He writes extensively about his bitter confrontations with the BBC in the immediate aftermath of Gilligan's allegations, and his submission of evidence to the Hutton enquiry. It is this information which makes Campbell's diaries so valuable, rather than its interesting though hardly earth-shattering day-to-day Blair anecdotes.

10 May 2007

"The memo is explosive..."

Daily Mirror
Two men were jailed today for leaking a classified memo detailing a conversation between UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and US President George W Bush that took place on 16th April 2004. Civil servant David Keogh, who copied the memo, was sentenced to six months in jail. Keogh had given the memo to Leo O'Connor, who received a three-month sentence for passing it on to MP Anthony Clarke. Keogh and O'Connor were arrested in 2004, when Clarke called the police after finding the memo in his office.

Details of the memo were first revealed by the Daily Mirror on 22nd November 2005, under the front-page headline "BUSH PLOT TO BOMB HIS ARAB ALLY". The report began: "Bush planned to bomb Arab TV station al-Jazeera in friendly Qatar, a "Top Secret" No 10 memo reveals. But he was talked out of it at a White House summit by Tony Blair, who said it would provoke a worldwide backlash." The newspaper quoted a source saying: "The memo is explosive and hugely damaging to Bush."

After the story was published, the Attorney General threatened the UK media with prosecution under the Official Secrets Act if any further details of the memo were revealed. This marked the first and only time that the Act - rather than a conventional injunction - had been used to censor the media. Also, Keogh and O'Connor's trial was held in camera, and the judge ruled that it would be a contempt of court to report Keogh's three-word response when he was asked about his initial reaction to the memo.

Due to the reporting ban, and the closed trial, there has been some confusion surrounding the charges against Keogh and O'Connor. Their arrest was not reported until they were formally charged on 17th November 2005, more than a year after the event. The case was originally linked to another leaked memo, titled Iraq: The Medium Term, published by The Sunday Times on 23rd May 2004, though subsequent media reports have linked the case only to the "BUSH PLOT" memo.


09 March 2007

The Queen

The Queen
Helen Mirren plays Elizabeth II, and Michael Sheen plays Tony Blair, in The Queen, an account of the aftermath of Princess Diana's death. (Sheen has played Blair before, in the Channel 4 UK TV drama The Deal, from the same director and writer as The Queen.)

Director Stephen Frears takes us inside Balmoral and Downing Street to show us the private reactions of the Windsor and Blair families. Plausibility is maintained throughout, and the script was reputedly based on interviews with people closely connected to the real events. The Queen is stoical (maintaining the traditional British stiff upper lip), whereas Blair recognises that an emotional connection with the public is necessary. Against the advice of his wife and press secretary, Blair persuades the Queen to bow to tabloid pressure and pay tribute to Diana.

Living in Thailand gives a new perspective on royalty. Thai people are proud of their King and royal family, and public criticism of them is perhaps Thai society's greatest taboo. It would be impossible to make a film like this in Thailand about the Thai monarch, and I am even slightly surprised that it was made in England so soon after Diana's death, with Elizabeth II and Blair both still in power.