BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 10.03.02

==================================================================================== NB. THIS TRANSCRIPT WAS TYPED FROM A TRANSCRIPTION UNIT RECORDING AND NOT COPIED FROM AN ORIGINAL SCRIPT; BECAUSE OF THE POSSIBILITY OF MIS-HEARING AND THE DIFFICULTY, IN SOME CASES, OF IDENTIFYING INDIVIDUAL SPEAKERS, THE BBC CANNOT VOUCH FOR ITS ACCURACY ==================================================================================== ON THE RECORD RECORDED FROM TRANSMISSION: BBC ONE DATE: 10.03.02 ==================================================================================== JOHN HUMPHRYS: Good afternoon. We're about to see big changes in the way our police operate... if the Home Secretary gets his way. But, as we'll be reporting, he may be forced to back down. And Tony Blair's got a big fight on his hands over his support for President Bush in the "war against terrorism". Will he be able to maintain his coalition against terror? And are the newspapers turning against the Government? All that after the news read by Peter Sissons. NEWS HUMPHRYS: Thanks Peter. Later in the programme we are going to be talking to the Conservatives' defence spokesman about the American threat to attack Iraq. Will they give Tony Blair their full support? And we'll be looking at the way the newspapers seem to be turning against the government. But first David Blunkett, we heard about him a moment ago, he is squaring up for a fight over his Bill to reform the way the police work. The most contentious bit would give the Home Secretary the power to intervene in police operations. In theory he could even order individual arrests. It raises profound questions about the freedom of the police from political interference. And this programme can reveal that the pressure on Mr Blunkett is now so great that tomorrow he is going to meet Opposition leaders in the Lords to discuss a possible compromise. In police ranks there's great unease too, they are marching on Westminster on Wednesday. As David Grossman reports, if Mr Blunkett does not make concessions, he risks losing the whole Bill. DAVID GROSSMAN: In Sheffield, police are getting ready to storm a flat where they've been told a man's threatening his family with a knife. At the moment these officers in the Home Secretary's home city are concentrating on the immediate future - what they'll find on the other side of the first floor door. In the long term though there are fears that the Government's Police Reform Bill is about to launch Britain's police into dangerous territory. Every time crime hits the headlines the government know they're in for a hammering from the newspapers. But supporters of David Blunkett the Home Secretary would argue that when it comes to fighting crime he's actually constrained as to what he can do. Sure Parliament can pass laws, but when it comes to enforcing them, in England and Wales that's down to forty-three separate police forces. The new Police Reform Bill though seeks a radical extension of the Home Secretary's powers to intervene in policing and critics say that,combined with other aspects of the Bill, represents a huge change for the worse in the way that Britain's policed that hasn't been properly thought through. SIR DAVID PHILLIPS: If the Bill were to go through unamended it would allow for arbitrary intervention into critical operational policing decisions. LORD DHOLAKIA: We are saying to the Government that if you do not change, if you do not improve on what we are talking about, then there is every possibility that the House, the House of Lords will actually defeat the Government. GROSSMAN: Officers pull over a car for not having a tax disc. How Sheffield is policed is now really between the chief constable and the local police authority. If the Home Secretary has his way there'll be much more Government involvement - even removing senior officers deemed to be under-performing. Because the Bill also includes some provisions that almost no one objects to, like creating a new Independent Police Complaints Commission, one former Labour Home Office Minister says the Government should compromise on the contentious part to make sure the legislation goes through. MIKE O'BRIEN MP: What we must not have is a situation where the Home Secretary or as it will in practice turn out, civil servants in Whitehall, try to micromanage at a local level the way in which policing is carried out. That would make for very inefficient policing indeed and very ineffective policing. What we need to have is a level of operational responsibility on the Chief Constable to decide what's best for his constabulary area. LORD DHOLAKIA: Up to now we have had local policing in this country where there is local accountability geared very much in terms of the police authority having the powers to direct the chief constables and the community actually participates in that particular exercise. We're now being told that these powers aren't adequate and the Home Secretary wants to assume some of the powers for himself. Well we are saying no, you cannot do that, you cannot essentially change the local nature of policing in this country. GROSSMAN: They know all about political interference in policing in South Yorkshire. During the miners' strike of the early nineteen-eighties the police here were sandwiched between a Labour-dominated police authority that was trying to cut off its budget - and a national Conservative Government that was determined to use the police to smash the strike. The result was a breakdown in police community relations that took years to heal. RICK NAYLOR: We saw then, the political nature, political interference in operational policing. It was a very emotional and emotive time, but we saw some practical effects of how that actually held back the South Yorkshire police in the way that it wanted to develop after the strike. There is a fear now with the Home Secretary taking powers as he proposes to do in the Bill, that this could become something that is experienced across the nation. I'm not saying that David Blunkett or his ministers would want to do this but there is an opportunity there, and we must be very careful before we alter the constitution as it now stands. LORD DIXON-SMITH: When you write any law you have to consider what use can be made of that law by less than reasonable people and if we put this in place we're removing a protection which works very much to the benefit of society at the moment because you couldn't have a let's say a home secretary who could in theory control the careers of individual police officers, being able to say well now look you've got to do this, whatever it is, which, if you wish to progress and that would be completely unreasonable. GROSSMAN: You're talking about a police state really LORD DIXON SMITH: Yes, that is the ultimate possibility. GROSSMAN: This is along way from any totalitarian nightmare. Neighbourhood wardens employed by the council patrol one of Sheffield's housing estates. Today they're providing a reassuring presence outside the Post Office on pension day. They can call in graffiti removal, keep an eye out for vandalism, and a thousand other urban irritations the police just don't have the time to deal with. Now these wardens in Sheffield and the others like them up and down the country actually have no more legal power than you or I would walking the streets in a brightly coloured jacket but the Police Reform Bill could change that. The Home Secretary wants to create what would be called community support officers and they would have the power to detain suspects. Critics say that's dangerous new territory and would turn what are at present a useful supplement to law enforcement into a second class and cut price police force. LORD DIXON-SMITH: We think that this is not right in principle. We think that curiously enough the most important work that the police do is on the beat and if you're looking for one of the reasons for the rise in street crime, it is quite simply that the police have withdrawn from the streets to a considerable degree. FRED BROUGHTON: The policing function on the streets when you're stopping, searching, detaining people, and using force is the most difficult of all the policing functions. It's where the problems happen and it's where the disputes happen and it's where the criticism of policing happens and that's why we can't quite understand why a government would want to move to the most critical part of the policing role that at that point where you're dealing with aggression and hostility potentially, that you'd want to reduce the standards and the quality. It just seems unacceptable. GROSSMAN: When the Sheffield neighborhood wardens find something they can't deal with - in this case an abandoned car - they hand it over to the police. It's an arrangement that all seem happy with. The new style community support officers though would be under the direct control of the police, and so it's feared that over-stretched force commanders may be tempted to send them into potentially dangerous situations instead of their regular officers. PHILLIPS: Let's imagine that we have a call of distress, to a domestic dispute, to a missing child or whatever and we have one of these patrols nearby. Are we going to send them or not? Well if it's a life saving or life threatening situation, we clearly are and then we're going to put them in a situation they may not be trained to deal with. Would it be efficient anyway to have people, a proportion of your work force, that can only deal with a small part of the business? Will it be possible to isolate them to particular tasks? Wouldn't it be better to have police officers, at slightly greater cost, both in terms of training and whatever, who can do the whole task? O'BRIEN: There shouldn't be a creeping agenda, of them taking over some of the responsibilities of properly qualified British police officers. I mean policing is a profession, it's a profession which requires qualifications, standards an independent complaints procedure. It is a profession which has a great deal of credibility in the eyes of the British public, they don't want to see that undermined. GROSSMAN: This debate on reform is taking place at the same time as negotiations on new pay and conditions for the police. In the ranks they're not at all happy with what's being offered by David Blunkett. Among other things many believe changes to their overtime rates will make them significantly worse off. In a recent ballot the package was rejected by a 9-1 margin. O'BRIEN: I think ministers have actually put together a very good package but they haven't gone out and sold it, they haven't sold it to the bobby on the beat. Most police officers in this country, as we saw in the recent ballot by the officers, think that they will lose financially. Now they are putting their lives on a line for our fellow citizens on a day to day basis dealing with criminals and protecting our society. What they don't want is a pay cut - David's got to go back to Gordon and say, a little bit more money, we've got to then go back to the police officers, explain what the package really means and then I think we will get David Blunkett delivering on the sort of police reform that is so necessary. GROSSMAN: Another call - this time about a stolen van. The chances are that no one will ever be arrested let alone prosecuted for this, but many police are unhappy with what happens to the people they do catch. Senior police officers have been saying that the Government should spend less time telling them how to do their job and much more thinking how criminals can effectively be brought to justice. PHILLIPS: Far too many people commit crimes and in the end are not brought to justice, and when they are brought to justice the outcomes are often hugely ineffective, visibly ineffective to the public and to victims. So you know we, all of us who are involved in this process, police officers, prosecutors, the courts, the sentencers, all of us have got to recognise that the system at the moment is not working well. We're looking at some crown courts where the acquittal rate in contested cases is eighty per cent. GROSSMAN: From the control room in Sheffield, the support staff send officers all over the city. When it comes to the Police Reform Bill though, the Government isn't in complete control. That's because, despite their thumping Commons majority they need to get it through the Lords first and many in the Upper House have made it clear that they think the Bill is fundamentally flawed. Indeed, some predict that unless there are significant concessions, David Blunkett the Home Secretary risks losing the legislation altogether. DIXON-SMITH: We would say to the Government: look, please, this matter is very, very serious. You've got a very wide range of very knowledgeable and very experienced people who think that the Bill goes too far. If you want to get it through the House of Lords, if you're serious about having the Bill, then in fact some movement will be necessary. O'BRIEN: I think David Blunkett can get through this very good package if he just tweaks this Bill and the overall policing package just a bit. He wants to put a little bit more money in to police officers' pockets so they don't lose out financially, because of the overtime changes and I think most police officers would appreciate that. He also needs to make sure that Chief Constables do not feel vulnerable, that he will be able to sack them. GROSSMAN: In Sheffield police have a 999 call from a block of flats. The nature of the police service that stands ready to come to the aid of the public in the future depends on what's in the legislation going through Parliament right now. This time the emergency call turns out to be a false alarm. The Government though has a lot more work to do if it's going to convince its critics that fears about the Police Reform Bill are equally unfounded. HUMPHRYS: David Grossman reporting there. JOHN HUMPHRYS: Well the Home Office Minister John Denham is in our Southampton studio. Mr Denham, good afternoon. JOHN DENHAM: Good afternoon. HUMPHRYS: You're gonna lose this whole thing unless you compromise aren't you. We hear that David Blunkett's going to meet opposition leaders in the House of Lords tomorrow. You are going to have to back down on allowing the Home Secretary to intervene in police operational matters, aren't you? DENHAM: Well I think what we've got to do is make sure everyone's concentrated on what we're actually trying to achieve. We of course... we respect the local accountability that's there to Police Authorities, but let's not forget that at the moment, if you have the misfortune to be in a car accident on the boundary of two counties at the moment, the chances are the police officers who arrive from two different directions couldn't speak to each other on the radio because they have different radio systems. So there are some real practical problems here, about having good policing systems in place, that's what we want to achieve. Now if we can make the legislation clearer, so that it doesn't open up, I don't think it does at the moment, but so that it's very clear it doesn't open up some of the more dramatic policy, possibilities people were talking about in your piece, then we'll be happy to do that. HUMPHRYS: You're not really suggesting that the Home Secretary intervened to make sure that the police can talk to each other on their radios and sort out their radios. I mean, the point that Jeff Rooker, Lord Rooker made, your colleague in the House of Lords was that if Clause Five is unamended it'll be rejected outright. We are not stupid, we can see that, he said. DENHAM: Clause Five, Clause Five, let' technical, it's a different part of the Bill. That's the ability of the Home Secretary at the end of the day to take action if firstly the Chief Constable, and then the Police Authority have failed to act in a demonstrable way and as a result, people in their communities are not getting the quality of protection, or the quality of policing that they should desire, now we do believe that at the end of the day, and it's not the sort of thing you'd expect anybody to use on a regular basis, but at the end of the day, government has to have the ability to do that. We're quite happy to talk about how that is phrased to make sure that what we actually achieve is what we've said we want to do, a last resort, to make sure that the public in every community in this country can get a good quality of police service. HUMPHRYS: But that's exactly the point isn't it? I mean, you've just made it clear. It is a principle that's involved here, it's a question of overriding local accountability and you are prepared to do that. That's exactly what we're talking about. DENHAM: And then, so we need to look at the debate about this part of the legislation. The Police Federation who represent about a hundred and twenty thousand officers are in favour of this part of the Bill. The Association of Chief Police Officers have not rejected it in principle. They have expressed concerns about how far it goes. So that's the discussion we're in. The discussion is one where most people who have looked at this say: yes, in principle, we can see the need for this. What we must do is make sure it delivers what the government has said we want it to deliver. HUMPHRYS: Well, must say, listening to David Grossman's, watching David Grossman's film there, they seemed to be pretty opposed to it, and if Lord Rooker is saying it's got to be amended, well you know. DENHAM: Well I've seen lots of Bills go through there, both Houses of Parliaments since 1992, both in government and in opposition. Many have been changed, improved and clarified and I wouldn't for one moment say this is a Bill that shouldn't have any changes associated with it... HUMPHRYS: you might... DENHAM: ...but I think on the issue of principle, it's very important to say we do believe that at the end of the day, if all other people who are responsible for putting things right have failed, government must be able to act. If there are ways of looking at how we do that, then we'll do that. HUMPHRYS: So when Oliver Letwin, the Conserv..., the Shadow Home Secretary says, and I quote "The operational independence of the Chief Constables is a cardinal feature of the rule of law in this country, and this Bill is a fundamental threat to that". What do you say to him, because he speaks for an awful lot of people, doesn't he when he says that? DENHAM: Because he's wrong. Firstly, unlike.... your introduction was completely wrong, because your introduction said that the Bill would give the Home Secretary the power to order the arrest of named individuals, or to direct a specific operation. In fact far from that, the Bill makes it perfectly clear that the Home Secretary couldn't do that. What we're talking about here, is if the performance of the Police Service fails so consistently for so long, and nothing is put...done to put it right, that actually some action needs to be taken. I actually believe that that's what the public would expect. HUMPHRYS: And that action might involve ordering the arrest of certain people, in the final analysis. DENHAM: No, no, no and the Bill makes it very clear. You, you, we're not talking about how you respond to a particular bank robbery, or particular actions of an individual. That cannot be done. No Home Secretary would want to have that power, not least because we'd all be confronted every day of the week by demands of why haven't you arrested so and so. What we're talking about, is if a force is persistently failing, for example to tackle persistent offenders and burglars in their area, that every effort has been made to get them to adopt the best practice which has been shown to work in other places, the Police Authority hasn't acted, then do you leave that community at the mercy of those, the rules, or do you say to the Chief Constable, we need to know how things are going to be improved. Now I believe that the Chief Officers, and certainly as represented by ACPO, can understand our argument and have said they do. They want to be sure that the powers we have are limited to those types of circumstances. HUMPHRYS: Well, some might say it's a bit of a fine distinction really between saying 'go and arrest Joe Bloggs from down the road' and 'go and arrest an awful lot of Joe Bloggses who have been doing a lot of burglaries'. I mean, you're interfering in or could theoretically be interfering in their operational duties. That's the point of it. DENHAM: Well we recognise that the difference is so absolutely fundamental between the overall performance of a force and individual operations and individual actions that we have explicitly written it into the Bill that that cannot, that it cannot get into that area of action. We've gone that far because we recognise that needs to be laid down in law and that actually fundamentally stops a Home Secretary from doing what your introduction suggests he was trying to do. HUMPHRYS: So when the Home Secretary meets his opposite numbers in the House of Lords tomorrow, what sort of compromise is he going to be offered? Because clearly there'd be no point in the meeting unless he had something to say. DENHAM: Well I think what we would say, and I don't think this is the time to go into the detail of that discussion. We've set out very clearly the important but limited areas in which we think the powers of intervention are necessary. We will be happy to discuss how we ensure, if it, if people feel it doesn't do it at the moment, the Bill actually reflects our desires and our intentions and does not reflect what some people have raised as a much wider and frankly more sinister agenda which we're not interested in. HUMPHRYS: Alright, well something you are interested in is community policing, something that the rank and file police officers do not like, Police Federation very cross about it indeed, because what they say you're doing is you're, you're looking for cops on the cheap effectively. You're going to have to compromise with them as well on this, aren't you? DENHAM: Well this is a proposal that was put forward initially, not by David Blunkett or myself or the, by the Metropolitan Police Service and by Sir John Stevens the Commissioner. They argued that there are a range of patrolling duties that you need in a major city like London that don't require the full, trained, tested police constable to do, and act as a complement, as a supplement, to the main body of police officers. Now the background to this of course, is a rapid expansion in the number of police officers in this country. We're heading for record numbers of police officers in England and Wales this year. We'll have, we believe, a hundred and thirty thousand by this time next. So no-one's talking about policing on the cheap. But it's about having additional people to work with the police. And I think that the arguments put forward by the Met, frankly were, were won conclusively after the tragedy of September 11th, where the police needed to put a large number of people on to the streets with a very high profile, to reassure the public, but actually that involved a lot of use of police officers who are also needed in London to be tackling other types of crime. HUMPHRYS: But there is still a shortage of policemen, obviously, nobody disputes that. Why don't we have more of those, which is what everybody says and why, a lot of people say why can't we go back to the old system we used to have, sort of community wardens, we didn't call them that, we called them, I don't know, park keepers or even attendants at public lavatories and caretakers and all the rest of it. You know the sort of people I mean, the sort of people we saw all the time, who were walking around the place, representatives of authority, who did work with the police officers. DENHAM: And in a modern way that is actually what we are seeking to do, community support officers will work directly to the police, they'll work for them and be directed by the Chief Constable. But we also want the police service to link up, effectively, with the type of people that you were talking to in Sheffield, the neighbourhood wardens, they don't work for the police, they're not directed by the police, but we can have a much more effective, if you like extended police family by making use of that wider group of people. HUMPHRYS: Alright, let's look briefly at the way our criminal justice system operates, obviously you're not happy with it, nobody seems to be happy with it, certainly senior police officers are not happy with it. You've accepted that it needs, I think, end to end reform is the phrase that's been used. You now agree for instance, that there is need for more stop and searches, but, you seem to be making that very difficult by adding on enormous amounts of red tape because of the way they would have to conduct those stop and searches and all the details that would have to go in their reports afterwards. DENHAM: Let's deal first with the criminal justice system, we do have to get it working effectively as a system and that's why reform to each part of it is needed. We are doing that with police reform, we've at the moment got major consultations underway on sentencing and also on the structure of courts, on the Halliday and Auld Reports and those, I think, indicate the need to change the system and to have a much more consistent focus on victims and witnesses and what happens to them in the criminal justice system because without those people you can't have a criminal justice system at all. So the need for reform is necessary. HUMPHRYS: And all the red tape? DENHAM: Red tape we are determined to cut.. HUMPHRYS: But you've added on to it. DENHAM: Can I just make a point. We ourselves did a study back in the Autumn of what happens to police officer time and we found that forty-three per cent of a police officer's time nominally there for patrolling duties actually has to be spent inside the police station. So we are going to cut that and we have a group led by the former Chief Inspector of Police, work with the police service, to tell us how to do that and that will free up more time of police officers to be on the streets. So, we are very alert to this. But when you come to... HUMPHRYS: ..stop and search. DENHAM: ..the issue of stop and search powers, those powers are very important, I've said so myself in the House of Commons just a couple of months ago. But given the whole of history, we also know that they need to be used in a targeted and effective and sensitive way and the Lawrence Inquiry Report recommended changes to the procedures by which that is done so that we can use the power effectively and that is necessary. It's been called for by leading members of the Black Community within recent days, but in a way that maintains the trust of communities that they are being used effectively. HUMPHRYS: Some people might say there's a touch of hypocrisy about your overall approach here because we had a Criminal Justice Bill, it was withdrawn and what was it withdrawn of, a Fox-Hunting Bill, so you might be said to worry more about foxes than human victims of crime? DENHAM: Yes, of course that didn't happen though. What happened in the Home Office was that, look at the events of September 11th, we had to introduce at very short notice, a major piece of anti-terrorism legislation and that did knock other timetables back. But we are committed to Criminal Justice Reform, we will publish a White Paper setting out what we want to achieve and there's no diminution at all of our commitment to change. HUMPHRYS: John Denham, thanks very much indeed for joining us. HUMPHRYS: Old Labour were always complaining that they had two enemies when they were fighting elections: the Opposition parties and the Tory press. But New Labour managed to win the papers over ... a triumph of media management. It's stood them in good stead for many years now. But is it changing ... and if it IS, what does it mean? As Paul Wilenius reports, there are some ominous signals emerging from what used to be called Fleet Street. PAUL WILENIUS: This is the type of delivery Tony Blair is not so keen to see. Up to thirteen million papers every day, full of stories of government troubles, like Mittalgate and Stephen Byers. And there could be much more to come. Tony Blair's breakfast time reading's a bit grim these days. The national newspapers appear to have gone on a feeding frenzy, biting chunks out of some of his Ministers, some of his policies and even the way he runs his government. Now every government has its ups and down with the media, but there is a fear that this could signal a return to the bad old days when relentless attacks by a hostile press and about success of Labour leaders and governments. PIERS MORGAN: I think there's a pretty choppy ocean out there at the moment full of sharks and the carcasses of new Labour are being thrown to the sharks one by one, the tough ones are coming through it and surviving, the weak ones are being chewed to pieces and the atmosphere is pretty febrile. CHARLES CLARKE MP: There are a number of newspapers in which it's impossible to get even a fair hearing for what we are saying or doing. But I think the greatest danger for us, indeed for any politicians, is to say well that's being said in a certain newspaper, we're therefore going to divert what we do and how we do it for that reason. We have to keep firm to our central path. But by the same token we have to do what we can to contest some of the distortions which are there. WILENIUS: Labour has a long history of wars with the press. Fleet Street's savagery condemned Neil Kinnock to election defeat, while fierce attacks undermined the Wilson and Callaghan governments. MARTIN LINTON MP: I've always believed that the press does in certain circumstances have quite a big influence over the voters. As I, you know, I wrote a book about the Sun's influence in the '92 election, which certainly convinced me that there are certain circumstances where the press can be influential. WILENIUS: A new more peaceful relationship seemed to be unfolding under Tony Blair. He famously won over the Sun and also a stunning election victory in 1997. But within a few years the first signs of renewed hostilities began to emerge, over issues like the Dome. Although broadly, newspapers were still supportive, attacks over foot and mouth, tiny pension increases and high fuel tax rises began to hit home. ROSIE BOYCOTT: The government were kind of outraged that we took a very strong stand against them, and it came very much down to who are you there for. I mean they seem to see us as kind of an extension of the New Labour project, but we weren't, I mean a paper is for its readers, that is your life blood, you are there to defend them. WILENIUS: The mood among newspaper political journalists, like these attending a briefing at Number Ten last week, has changed in recent weeks. It's moved from critical to hostile. The Cabinet discussed this problem at Chequers on Friday; there was concern that the newspaper agenda has overshadowed the government's message. The morning lobby meeting between political journalists and Number Ten has in recent weeks turned into a bitter Cold War. The big question is: what's happened to Labour's legendary media control and why are they facing a near daily onslaught from national newspapers? One reason is that despite some successes, the Tories are still not seen as a fully effective opposition to Labour's slick media operation run by Alastair Campbell. So many newspaper editors and journalists feel it's now even more important to question the government, and to make sure that its policies and personalities are scrutinised. BOYCOTT: I mean the press has a big role at the moment, especially in an environment where you've got an enfeebled opposition. The press is very important that it does go over things, it doesn't just take things at face value and doesn't just repeat and parrot the government line, and the problem for the government at the moment is that there are a lot of holes in the strategy. WILENIUS: The newspapers say they are only reflecting the growing concerns of their readers, who are still waiting to see things get a lot better under this government. But there are suggestions that instead of keeping the promises made to win over voters and papers at election time, the government is still obsessed with trying to get good headlines. TREVOR KAVANAGH: I think that what they've tried to do is to make every story a good story and if possible a brilliant story, and in the process they've come out with sometimes rather dodgy statistics and figures and when they've been caught out they've found that that has tainted the attitude of journalists and even voters to some of the subsequent announcements. People no longer fully believe statistics that come out of the government. MORGAN: The rather confident maybe arrogant streak that they've always had in government has been replaced by a more defensive, edgy, tetchy, not quite so confident, not sure of where they're going attitude, which is dangerous for them, because it will increase the feeding frenzy atmosphere with the media who sense vulnerability for the first time in New Labour, and it's dangerous for the country because it means their eye is off the ball on policy, which is where it should be. WILENIUS: At first Labour's media machine seemed to be in control. But recently the worm has turned. It's looked as though the government may have something to hide, and that it may not be as honest as people thought. So now papers want to assert their own independence, and follow their own political agendas. MORGAN: I think for a period in opposition ironically when Alastair Campbell was here working as political editor for example, we became a sort of Pravda, an extension of the PR machine. But it went too far and we became, certainly Alastair has used this phrase with me recently, a Labour paper and his whinge now constantly is we're no longer a Labour paper, as if in some way I'd sit back and say oh I'm really sorry about that. You know I don't want us to be a Labour paper, I want us to be a Labour supporting paper and they're two different things. KAVANAGH: Well I don't think that the Sun could ever be taken for granted by any political party or any polit..., or any government in office. I think that we watch and observe and I think that we will make our decisions as we've done in the last several election campaigns on the basis of the arguments that have been put forward. WILENIUS: Delivering better public services in Britain is the prime aim of Tony Blair's government, although achieving that aim could become harder if the newspapers keep up their onslaught. That's a real danger, according to those who should know. LINTON: When the press takes to criticising the government, whatever it does you know, there is certainly a danger that they will succeed some time in, in forcing a minister to step down when maybe the facts don't justify it, or forcing the government to abandon a policy that is actually justified . CLARKE: I think the electorate would be very, very distressed if they thought we were saying okay, let's forget what we need to do on schools, let's forget what we need to do on hospitals, let's concentrate on dealing with what the Mail said yesterday. What they want us to see us doing is focusing on really making sure we do try and deliver and as I say they'll judge us on that and rightly so. WILENIUS: But it's the sheer scale and the intensity of the attacks which is worrying senior Ministers. Opinion poll support for the Labour government is still extraordinarily high. But have the first signs appeared that Tony Blair's own ratings are starting to suffer. BOYCOTT: I think it's perfectly possible that the Teflon coating could be eroded yes, I mean if, if it drip drip drips, if there aren't enough good things to put in its place, if we have more instance like Steven Byers, if we start attacking Iraq and we stay that on side with the Americans, especially after the steel tariffs announcement of the earlier part of the week. I think that if this drip, drip carries on or turns in to a flood that the next election could see a marked swing away from Labour. I think you'll get fewer people voting. LINTON: If this line, the current line is pursued where everything the government does is attacked by almost every paper, then that will have a corrosive effect, I mean it gets into the political system, politicians spend less time talking to journalists because they don't see any point because they're going to be criticised anyway. WILENIUS: But what's more, battle remains to be joined on the one issue which could spark a full scale war with parts of Fleet Street - the Euro. Sceptical newspapers have already vilified Tony Blair over it, and some inside the Cabinet believe this opposition to the Euro could lie behind growing newspaper antagonism. KAVANAGH: On the Euro I think we have more than a difference of opinion. We are utterly at odds with one another. Tony Blair appears to want to take Britain into the single currency and we think it would be a grave and enduring error. CLARKE: There's some of the newspaper groups who are owned by people totally hostile to any development of the European union, and they're concerned about how things are going to go in that direction. They want to put the government under more pressure because they fear that we will decide to, to go down that course. WILENIUS: We all know that today's headlines are tomorrow's fish and chip paper. But despite the ferocious attack of the national newspapers on the government, Labour is still popular with the voters. But those attacks could become more intense and sustained and the government may have to make a choice between headline chasing or standing up to its critics. MORGAN: What I sense with, with Labour at the moment is they're still trying to fight the media, nothing they like more than, than insulting us, in berating us, in deriding us because they're like the, the school bully who suddenly has an uprising amongst the other boys in the school, can't win, but still thinks he can. That's how I describe it. They can't beat the media. CLARKE: There's no way we can be blown off course. Our course is set by the election and the electorate that voted on June 7th. They said to us you have to deliver good quality schools, good quality health care, good quality transport, safe streets, strong communities, and a strong economy which is really trying to deal with poverty. That's the message that we've been sent and that's what we're going to carry through. WILENIUS: The government may hope that if it ignores the newspapers, yesterday's nasty headlines will soon be forgotten. But as history tells us, after a while bad news does tend to stick. HUMPHRYS: Paul Wilenius reporting there. JOHN HUMPHRYS: The American Vice President Dick Cheney arrives here this weekend. He's meeting Tony Blair tomorrow and then he's off to the Middle East, trying to whip up support for America's next stage in the so-called war against terrorism - an attempt to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He's got a job on his hands. There is great unease at the prospect of an attack on Iraq, not least in the Labour Party's own ranks. Nearly seventy backbench MPs have signed a motion effectively warning Tony Blair to tread cautiously. What about the Conservative Party? Bernard Jenkin is the Shadow Defence Secretary. Mr Jenkin, you've been....your party has been standing as it were, to use a phrase 'shoulder to shoulder' with the government until now in the war against terrorism. Is there in your view enough evidence, as it stands, to take military action, justify taking military action against Iraq? JENKIN: Well, we're a very long way from making a decision about military action, either the British or the Americans. There's a huge amount of diplomatic effort and political effort backed by perhaps the threat of military action which must be brought to bear, but the issues are not just the direct involvement of Saddam Hussein in promoting international terrorism, and I've reason to believe that there will be increasing evidence that he is involved. For example, I understand that Abu Nidal, the guy who organised the hijacking of the Achille Lauro is not only being given shelter in Baghdad, but is actually being made use of by Saddam Hussein. HUMPHRYS: But you've not yet seen any evidence that proves that he has been involved in any way supporting the September 11th.? JENKIN: Well, the al-Qaeda terrorists, there is evidence to suggest that he is sheltering some al-Qaeda terrorists. HUMPHRYS: Have you seen that evidence yourself? JENKIN: I've not personally seen that evidence, but I think we would need to produce that, but there is a more important point such as ... HUMPHRYS: Just before we leave that. Would that itself be enough. I mean is the evidence that you believe to be there, would that be enough to justify an attack. JENKIN: There's a more important point here, if I may move the conversation on, which is that in the United States they have made the link very quickly between what happened on the September 11th and the development of weapons of mass destruction by dictatorships like Iraq. HUMPHRYS: Have they? JENKIN: Yes, they have. Well the real message of September 11th is that we live in a much less predictable, more dangerous world than many of us hoped and one of the major sources of that instability and danger are countries developing weapons of mass destruction who we know have connections with all kinds of terrorism, and therefore to contain and preferably remove these threats is now a prime element of American and British policy. HUMPHRYS: But, would you agree with your colleague.... JENKIN: That's why the Prime Minister said in Australia that he completely backed what Bush was saying about weapons of mass destruction and Iraq in particular. HUMPHRYS: But what about your own colleague, Alan Duncan who was on television this morning saying that there has to be clear evidence, clear evidence, note he said it twice, that Saddam has this capability and might use it, and Blair should come to the House to explain his policy. JENKIN: Well, exactly, I think that clear evidence will be forthcoming, and I was in Washington a few weeks ago, I was given a very extensive briefing by the Missile Defence Agency about the information that they're gathering and I've no doubt that there will be very clear evidence, and in fact - many people have been writing about this for some time and Iain Duncan Smith produced a pamphlet during the last Parliament, and in fact was speaking about it in the 1992 Parliament, that these countries are developing serious missile capability and possibly nuclear, certain chemical and biological weapons. They will have the capacity to threaten European and even American cities within the next few years, so therefore we've got to deal with that. HUMPHRYS: Some people would agree with that, others, some of whom know a great deal about the situation and have spent many years there, like Scott Ritter of the United Nations, one of the senior inspectors who was head of their intelligence and he spent a long time in Iraq as you will know, and he said that by the end of 1998 Iraq had been de-militarised in a greater way than any other country in history, and in June of last year he said Iraq today represents a threat to nobody. Well, you know, Mr Ritter, former American Marine knows a thing or two, spent a lot of time in Iraq. JENKIN: If you speak to other people in the UNSCOM inspection team first of all you've got to ask yourself why did Saddam Hussein chuck them out. All those palaces he was building, they've all got weapons development facilities. If it's as simple as that no doubt he will let us in, he will give the UN inspectors full rein and I'm certain that the issue of UN inspection is going to have a big bearing on how Saddam Hussein is treated by the international community. HUMPHRYS If he were to allow inspectors back in again would that mean as far as your party is concerned there is absolutely no question of an attack? JENKIN: Well, I keep saying we're a very long way from... HUMPHRYS: Indeed, but I'm trying to gauge.... JENKIN: But it depends how the UN inspection team is treated. I think the difficulty that we're going to be faced with is that Saddam Hussein has pretty well decided that for his personal survival as ruler of Iraq he requires weapons of mass destruction and a missile programme, and that is on collision course with the United Nations which says that he should dismantle these weapons. HUMPHRYS: Do you agree that...Charles Clarke said this to me yesterday, that whatever is done, there must be international agreement before it is done and we have to be very, very cautious indeed and Charles Clarke of course is the Chairman of the Labour Party. JENKIN: Well I think that's why Dick Cheney's coming over to Europe and Asia over the next, and the Middle East, over the next few days. It's why President Bush has been travelling abroad, it's why Colin Powell is pursuing a very, very extensive initiative. It's because there has to be an international coalition against these countries to be effective, America cannot - it will be very much harder for America to act on its own and achieve its objectives. HUMPHRYS: But as things stand, you seem not to need very much persuading yourself. You seem to believe there are grounds... JENKIN: ...well persuading of what? That we need to confront countries with a dictator... HUMPHRYS: That we need specifically to confront Saddam Hussein and replace him in office, kick him out and put somebody else in. JENKIN: Well both the Prime Minister and Colin Powell, Colin Powell was the first person to talk about regime change, and he's not regarded as a natural hawk. And the Prime Minister has confirmed the need to seek a regime change, unless things change dramatically, unless Saddam Hussein changes character, it seems difficult to believe, that we're going to be able to stabilise the Middle East and reduce the threat, the ultimate threat to European cities from a country like Iraq, unless there is a change of regime. HUMPHRYS: And what about the potential use, I emphasise potential obviously, of nuclear weapons, and I raise this because of having read something that your present leader, Iain Duncan Smith, said a few years ago: We would contemplate the use of nuclear, would we con......he asked this question, 'would we contemplate the use of nuclear weapons as the United States seems prepared to do, the possession of such weapons is of no use unless we have the will to use them. We must make it clear that we are prepared to use them'. JENKIN: Well that's exactly right, otherwise it's not a deterrent and you hear the left complaining about, about the west's attitude towards Iraq, and say, well if it's just say sabre-rattling that's alright. Well, if it's just sabre-rattling, and the dictators know it's just sabre-rattling and there is no resolve behind that sabre-rattling, then you might as well not bother to all. HUMPHRYS: Just a final quick thought on what help we could give the United States, we learn this morning that they'd like us to send twenty-five-thousand troops if it comes to a big invasion. Where would we get them from? JENKIN: Well that's a very good question. I mean, this last couple of months have been characterised by a whole lot of unexpected cuts in capability, the latest one being the scrapping of Invincible, the scrapping of the Harriers...the joint force Harriers, the Sea Harriers, the scrapping of the Fighter Squadron at Coningsby. These, if we going to get involved in a big military operation, let's not forget that it was Geoff Hoon that wanted to cancel the ...Syria desert operation earlier last year, we're gonna have to, I think the government's going to have to put some money where its mouth is, otherwise that shoulder-to-shoulder with the United States might mean rather less than it should do. HUMPHRYS: Bernard Jenkin thanks very much indeed. HUMPHRYS: And in a bit of a hurry, that's it for this week. Don't forget about our web site if you're on the internet. Until the same time next week, good afternoon.. 20 FoLdEd
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.