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Picture, Tim Ripley - George Robertson being interviewed during Kosovo conflict - Michael Howerd - Tory Home secretary described as having 'somthing of the night' about him - hovers in the background
The military are increasingly frustrated at the reduction of their role to that of props in Downing Street's desperate attempts to put a good spin on Tony Blair's war against Serbia. "Commanders aren't allowed to make decisions," said one senior officer. "Everything is run by Campbell and Oona for the media".
Ministry of Defence (MOD) insiders with experience of the Falklands, Gulf and Bosnian wars are horrified at how the New Labour team is running Britain's war effort. The most important decisions are made not by the Cabinet or service chiefs but a small elite group of spin doctors, headed by Alastair Campbell and Oona Muirhead - respectively the Number 10 and MOD media chiefs. This joint Cabinet Office/MOD/Foreign Office group officially decides the "line of the day". But Whitehall warriors say it has spread its tentacles into almost every aspect of the campaign.
There are daily directives that can run to 70 pages, listing every possible response to media questioning and crucially the strategy for getting ministers seen on BBC and ITN news broadcasts. Military participants in the spin control committee are treated with suspicion and have to sign special security documents promising not to leak its deliberations.
"Our war strategy seems to consist of getting ministers on TV" said one MOD official. "Everything else is of secondary consideration. Hours in meetings are devoted to deciding who will appear on TV and what line to take."
The dominant role of Alastair Campbell is well known but Oona Muirhead, MOD Director of Information Strategy and News, also plays a key role in ensuring Defence Secretary George Robertson and his ministerial team get their share of the limelight.
MOD insiders are embarrassed at the way ministers talk up the British role in the war. The daily press briefing by ministers and military top brass give the impression of "media overkill", when Britain is only contributing 20 or so aircraft to an air campaign involving more than 1,000. Britain may not be "punching above its weight" in military terms but it is certainly "spinning above its weight".
On the first weekend of the war as the refugee exodus began, NATO was planning to extend the bombing strategy by targeting the Yugoslav army in Kosovo. Downing Street needed good headlines in the Sundays and leaked the plan at 6pm on the Saturday. The papers obliged, but allied air commanders did not then have the planes in place to carry out the missions.
In early April, as the air campaign continued to fail to halt the flow of refugees, the MOD decided to divert the aircraft carrier Invincible to the Adriatic to allow ministers to talk about "piling on the pressure".
The Western Morning News in Plymouth found out about the mission from local sources but on checking was threatened with the withdrawal of all facilities on navy ships and bases if it published "secret military information". Days later Downing Street announced the story to the London media, with ministers on hand to bask in the glory.
Invincible's Harriers have flown a few patrols over Yugoslavia but they can't participate in the bombing campaign because they lack precision targeting equipment. As for its anti-submarine helicopters, their most telling contribution has been flying George Robertson to Albania for a 20 minute photo-opportunity.
Almost the same thing happened with the leaked decision to divert the new helicopter-carrying amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean to the Mediterranean. Defence journalists had for weeks been asking about the possibility of deploying it to the Adriatic but were ridiculed for making such wild suggestions when the ship had not even completed trials. But no-one has a clue what Ocean is supposed to do when it arrives.
At the end of April, in the wake of the Washington Summit, where his "land invasion" call was humiliating rebuffed, Tony Blair announced that additional Harriers were being sent to Gioia del Colle in Italy. But no one told the RAF commander at the base, who found out from the media. RAF officers in Italy admit that many of the reporting restrictions on local media access are not due to security requirements but to allow London to announce high profile developments first. "We will never be able to show good cockpit video of bombing missions here [in Italy] because the politicians considered it to be the crown jewel of their briefings".
Military logic and spin collided in public during the first week of May. Lieutenant-General Sir Mike Jackson, the senior British officer in Macedonia, told Newsnight that the decision on a land operation had to be made within two weeks to get the Kosovar refugees home before the Balkan winter sets in. The spinners were incandescent. There was "major nausea" around the building", according to one MOD insider.
The Number 10 spinners have kept control of the policy decisions, but their "Butcher of Belgrade" rhetoric got badly out of step with the White House calling for a negotiated solution. Just how Alastair Campbell and Oona Muirhead manage to spin President Clinton's repudiation of Tony Blair will be their biggest challenge of the war.
THE BRITISH Army has deployed almost a platoon's worth of what are termed "media handling officers" to Kosovo. Twenty nine captains and majors from around the Regular Army have been drafted in to escort Fleet Street's finest through the ruins of Kosovo.
Government Information Service press officers from the Ministry of Defence are also part of the British spin effort in Pristina, which has almost twice as many personnel as the NATO press centre in the Kosovo capital.
And the Downing Street spin doctors who led the war against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic are still trying to run the show, even in the aftermath of the 79-day NATO air campaign.
The deaths of two Ghurkhas - a Nepalese engineer and officer - in an accident a week after the liberation of Kosovo plunged military relations with the Whitehall spin machine to a new low.
Number Ten's sticky fingers reached all the way to the KFOR press and information centre in Pristina's bomb-damaged sports centre to make sure the story being given out did not contradict the line from Downing Street.
Even though this line, that the soldiers had died defusing a Serb minefield, was rapidly taken over by accounts from the scene that unexploded NATO cluster bombs were to blame, British officers were instructed to refuse all comment until a very tightly worded statement had been agreed with Alistair Campbell. "We are not allowed to say anything that contradicts their statements," fumed a senior British officer, who said he felt they had no reason to keep information back.
At the following morning's daily press conference, Army spokesmen had to stonewall repeated questions about the origin of the cluster bombs, sticking to Alistair Campbell's line that they were "NATO weapons". Downing Street feared "friendly fire" headlines if the bombs were identified as British or American, particularly as President Clinton was visiting neighbouring Macedonia that day. The overriding priority was to smooth relations with the White House.
Tony Blair July 21, 1994, was declared the new leader of Britain's opposition Labour Party after handily winning a three-way election. He succeeded John Smith, who died in May. The announcement of his victory came at a mini party conference in London.
Blair, 41, was Labour's youngest leader ever. Active in politics since 1983, he had most recently served as shadow home secretary.
Blair won 57% of the total vote of an electoral college in which equal power was given to three groups--constituency party members (about 250,000 voters), party dues-paying union members (4.1 million) and a group consisting of Labour members of Parliament (269) and members of the European Parliament (62). His two challengers were the shadow employment secretary, John Prescott, and Margaret Beckett, the party's deputy leader under Smith and its acting leader since his death. Prescott received 24% of the vote, while Beckett trailed with 19%.
Prescott July 21, 1994, was elected deputy leader, replacing Beckett, who was left without an official party post.
Blair had emerged immediately following Smith's death as the preferred choice of most Labour voters. He was considered a moderate who would continue the trend--begun by his two predecessors, Neil Kinnock and Smith--to move the party away from its leftist roots and embrace more mainstream centrist policies. Prescott and Beckett were more closely allied with the party's left wing, and thus were considered less likely to seek reform or to appeal to a broad spectrum of Britons during a general election.
Beckett, in particular, had by consensus seriously damaged her candidacy when she publicly courted the party's left wing, in many cases indicating her opposition to certain party reforms deemed necessary by the majority of Labour voters. Her embrace of the left was also seen as the reason she was unable to retain her deputy leader post.
Blair Expected to Continue Reforms-- Blair was expected to continue efforts to reposition the party by reforming its constitution and stressing his commitment to issues that most concerned the overall electorate. He also had indicated that he would not necessarily support increased government intervention into industry or raise taxes to boost social spending, two traditional Labour policies. The Labour Party had been out of power since 1979; in the interim, it had lost three consecutive general elections to the Conservative Party, largely because of the Tories' ability to capitalize on fears that Labour remained beholden to trade unions, prone to raise taxes and out of touch with most Britons.
By virtue of his victory, Blair also became the early favorite to succeed Conservative Prime Minister John Major, who had to call a general election by mid-1997. Major and the Tories were deeply unpopular throughout Britain, even though the economy had begun to recover in recent months, and many political analysts doubted that the prime minister could retain his tenuous hold on power much longer.
According to a Market and Opinion Research International poll reported July 22, 1994, in the Times of London, the Tories were favored by just 23% of Britons, while Labour was supported by 51%. Britain's third major party, the Liberal Democrats, were the choice of 21% of poll respondents. Only one in 10 potential voters--and just 35% of declared Tories--were satisfied with the current government.
Major himself also remained unpopular; only about 20% of voters were satisfied with his performance as prime minister. About 75% of the public--and more than two-fifths of all declared Tories--were dissatisfied with Major. By comparison, the Liberal Democrats' leader, Paddy Ashdown, received positive ratings from 42% of potential voters, while only 28% of voters overall were dissatisfied with his performance as his party's leader.
In a previous MORI poll, reported in the June 24, 1994, Times, Blair was preferred over Major by a margin of two-to-one. Blair also was favored over Ashdown, whose party was expected to lose support to a resurgent Labour Party.
Blair Pledges Decentralization-- In speeches during the month-long campaign prior to his election, Blair voiced support for a variety of reform measures for Britain. He pledged to decentralize power to local governments, to increase devolution to England, Scotland and Wales, to abolish the right of hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords and to boost human-rights conditions nationwide.
After winning the leadership contest, he said July 21, 1994, at a speech in London that the ruling Tories had "lost the nation's trust" and that it therefore was time to rebuild faith in government as an agent of progress. Blair's style and focus during the campaign had been compared frequently--often by the candidate himself--with that of U.S. President Clinton, who was a contemporary and had been elected in 1992 stressing similar themes.
The Practice of apologising appears to be spreading among politicians.
First we had Richard Holbrooke voicing regret for American wrongdoing towards Cyprus. Now Britons have been treated to the spectacle of their prime minister, Tony Blair, beating his breast over party funding.
True, in his live TV interview last Sunday Blair did not apologise for Labour's acceptance of one million pounds from Formula One racing chief Bernie Ecclestone. Neither did he say sorry for the party's apparent volte-face in exempting Formula One from the ban on tobacco advertising in sport. He vehemently denied that the two were in any way connected, angrily rejecting the suggestion that Labour had rewarded a political donor.
But he did acknowledge that Labour's presentation of the tobacco sponsorship issue had been mishandled and said: "I take full responsibility and I apologise for that."
Viewers might have been forgiven for feeling Blair's apology was mistargeted, that he was saying sorry for a venial sin while refusing to confess a major fault. Even so, coming from a politician, his words were startling; their like never passed the lips of Margaret Thatcher.
The most remarkable aspect of Blair's TV performance, though, was its amour propre, the prime minister's sense of wounded indignation. Blair said he had been "hurt and upset" by suggestions that he had been influenced by Ecclestone's million in diluting the ban on tobacco advertising. He stressed that he was "a pretty straight guy" who would never "do anything improper". He asked people to believe that he remained "the same person they believed in" at the general election. And in a ridiculous admission for a politician, he said: "I couldn't understand that anyone would impugn my motives in taking the decisions that I did."
In sum, Blair showed all the signs of someone who has come to believe his own publicity. He is the squeaky clean crusader who ousted a notoriously sleaze-ridden Tory government. His `New Labour' administration represents a fresh start in British political life, a move towards probity after years of graft and scandal. Tony himself is a notably devout and observant Christian. How could anyone possibly believe that he would act from anything other than impeccable motives?
What Blair has evidently forgotten is that the common and abundantly justified attitude towards all politicians, including himself, is mistrust, suspicion and cynicism. People are perfectly entitled to "impugn his motives". No politician's actions are self-authenticatingly honest or good. It is natural that voters will examine the deeds of all such beings for evidence of self-interest, backsliding or repaying favours.
And it is not as if Blair hasn't given the great British public ample cause for scepticism as to his sincerity in recent months. He has reneged on several pre-election manifesto pledges. First, there is the broken promise on fox-hunting. Labour's manifesto committed the party to "ensure greater protection for wildlife" and pledged "a free vote on whether hunting with hounds should be banned by legislation". The free vote is likely to go ahead and produce an overwhelming parliamentary majority for a ban. But it will come to nothing because Blair's government will refuse parliamentary time to enact the legislation.
Labour also made a pre-election promise to ban cosmetics testing on animals. But Blair's government, instead of imposing the blanket prohibition which polls show nearly 80 per cent of British voters want, has settled for a voluntary agreement with the cosmetics firms to end a minority of tests.
The story is the same with tobacco advertising. Labour's manifesto committed the government to a comprehensive ban, one covering the sponsorship of sporting events. But Blair's exemption of Formula One means that 90 per cent of the cigarette cash which goes into sport will remain unaffected.
And just this week we had Blair's social security minister, Harriet Harman, breaking a pre-election pledge to reverse Tory cuts in welfare payments to lone parents.
Against this catalogue of U-turns and abandoned commitments, it would be no surprise if Britons thought their prime minister habitually spoke with a forked tongue. Yet the remarkable thing is that Blair's pained performance as of one unjustly maligned has every chance of being taken at face value. Where Blair is concerned, many if not most British voters seem to have abandoned that instinctive bias towards incredulity which should initially greet the claims of all politicians. Several of my British friends, usually highly cynical about politicians, have surprised me by their starry-eyed view of New Labour and its leader. They are extremely reluctant to believe anything bad of Blair, going to great lengths to find extenuating circumstances for his conduct. It is hard not to accuse them of gullibility, especially as the list of broken promises gets longer. But I believe their charity is an understandable reaction to the years of Tory sleaze. It would simply be too painful for them to believe that having got rid of one bunch of scoundrels, the new lot were just as bad.
As a matter of fact, I don't believe Blair and New Labour are as bad, in the sense of `corrupt', as the previous Tory government. That is to say, I don't believe Blair dispenses political rewards in return for cash donations to Labour. Those who suspect his U-turn on tobacco advertising was a quid pro quo for Ecclestone's million pounds are following a false trail. His flip-flop was motivated by a fawning desire to prove to big business that Labour has changed, that under his leadership the party has abandoned all pretence to radical socialist policies, that he is a safe pair of hands. Since becoming Labour leader, Blair has shown a consistent desire to ingratiate himself with the rich and powerful (viz his hob-nobbing with Rupert Murdoch), and to distance himself from Labour's traditional working-class roots. The irony is that Blair would probably have reneged on his promised tobacco ban even if Ecclestone hadn't given Labour a penny. That in fact is effectively what has happened, seeing as Labour has decided to return Ecclestone's cash.
But Blair and New Labour are every bit as bad as the Tories so far as untrustworthiness goes. They are proven breakers of promises. Last week, Tony Blair implored voters to continue to believe in him. Why should they, when he has repeatedly failed to keep his word?
From Cyprus News
Thousands of people across Britain have been sadly disappointed by the first few months of New Labour's 'rule'. Its a far cry from 1945 when working people were charging down the street crying "...they're in, Labour are in!"
This time John Prescott's first major act was to privatise the tube and Gordon Brown gave up political control of money. The new cabinet give every appearance of being "Corporate Labour". So can they represent the interests of both bosses and workers?
Britain has the fastest widening gap between rich and poor of all the OECD countries and New Labour don't seem to care. They trumpet the virtues of a 'Stakeholder Society', yet say nothing about where the stake is for those that don't have a permanent job... which is something like 1/2 of the population. We are all being encouraged to fit in with a corporate agenda. Socialism is dead.
The fact is they had to get into bed with big business to get elected. For the simple reason that the vast majority of the media are corporate. Even the BBC board of governors have been appointed by Tories for the last 18 years so they're hardly going to look out for the working man.
Once they got into bed with them it was not quite so easy to get out! Labour has become a charade, spineless little puppets of our real masters who inhabit the corporate elite world, an echelon above politicians. This is not simply speculation, New Labour has for several years now agreed to go along to secret meetings with the Global Elite: Transnationals; The media; Banks. John Smith, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, and now their supporters in the 'left wing' press, Wil Hutton at the Observer have all been to the clandestine Bilderberg meetings. We now have a national politics ruled by fear, fear of losing money, resources, our job, our mortgage, our home. Democracy has become a sinister charade and the only way to leave a future fit for our children to inherit will be to get back control of money creation and redistribute land resources to the people.
The latest addition to the cabinet shows how corrupt our system can be. Lord Simon was boss of BP and all of a sudden is made a life peer, resigns his former post and becomes a government minister. The public have had absolutely no say whatever in his appointment.
New Labour is the latest Public Relations company working for the Global Elite. They won the May 1997 contract for Britain which is due to run for five years.
Tough on soundbites, tough on the causes of soundbites New Labour and news management http://www.catalyst-trust.co.uk/catfrank.htm
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