The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, September 08, 2003

Blair and his new spinner - the Ecclestone million pound donation reunion party...

Following the departure of Alastair Campbell, the distinctly shop-soiled Teflon Tone appointed in his place as Director of Communications veteran Labour hack David Hill (Dave Hill to his friends), who has latterly been plying his trade in the private sector.

Connoisseurs of the Blair Lie Machine will recall that master and servant figured largely in the affair that established the Dear Leader's ability to beat any rap however strong the evidence against him: the 1997 case of Bernie Ecclestone's Million [1].

Hill's contribution, in his capacity as top Labour Party [2] spinmeister on duty over the weekend the story starting rolling, was to stonewall journalists, and, by every ruse short of actual lying, to dissuade them from running the story (even warning that Ecclestone was litigious (Jones p111)). And then, on the Monday (November 10), to announce to journos that Ecclestone had made a donation to the Labour Party over £5,000 (p113). It was left to the sports hacks to get out of Ecclestone that the sum concerned was actually £1 million (p115)!

After that, things got pretty ugly. And Blair decided to go on TV to do a Checker's speech - or get as close as modern media conditions permitted. So he volunteered for an interview with John Humphrys on his Sunday lunchtime TV show On The Record the following Sunday (November 16) [3].

The performance is remembered for his Jolsonesque appeal for the voters to trust him:
I hope that people know me well enough and realise the type of person I am, to realise that I would never do anything either to harm the country or anything improper. I never have. I think most people who have dealt with me, think I'm a pretty straight sort of guy and I am.

But it also includes a flat-out lie. Now, however they distort the truth, skilled operators like Blair are usually pretty careful to lie by omission, by juxtaposition, by spurious statistics and the like. Not here.

At issue was a letter (apparently dated November 8) sent by the Labour Party's then General Secretary Tom Sawyer to Sir Patrick Neill, Chairman of the Commission on Standards in Public Life (Rawnsley p96) asking for advice in relation to the proprieties of accepting a donation from Ecclestone.

Blair, in the interview, referred to it:
the question then arose which was the question which was uppermost in my mind, what about the original donation? We decided to seek the advice of Sir Patrick Neill.

The text of the letter (as extracted) leaves no doubt that Blair was lying: the advice sought was about a possible additional donation: the donation already made was mentioned merely as background information [4].

In the state of Tonymania then gripping the nation (in post-People's Princess mood), the lying did him no harm whatever.

Coming up to date, it naturally crosses one's mind whether Blair lied (as opposed to obfuscated and dissembled) to the Hutton Inquiry. Answer comes there none, for the moment...

  1. The case blew up in November 1997, which is inconveniently a year or so before the (relatively friendly) Guardian archives kick in - though covered by the (less tractable) BBC archives. A BBC timeline of the affair. As dead-tree sources, I have Sultans of Spin (1999) by BBC journo Nicholas Jones (p104ff) and Servants of the State (2000) by Observer hack Andrew Rawnsley (p89ff).

  2. As opposed to government.

  3. Miraculously, a transcript is available online.

  4. The Ecclestone affair spawned other flat lies: Gordon Brown lied on the Today programme on November 10 that he did not know whether or not Ecclestone had made the donation (Rawnsley p97); Blair persistently lied (as to former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe at Prime Minister's Questions on November 19 1997) that the donation had been repaid when it hadn't been.

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