Campbell revives roving press unit to 'spin the war'

By Paul Waugh, Deputy Political Editor

08 March 2003

A dedicated "war unit" is being set up by Downing Street to organise press and PR coverage during the forthcoming conflict in Iraq. The unit will be staffed by senior press officers from across Whitehall, many of whom have already volunteered for the project.

It will be modelled on the Coalition Information Centre (CIC) devised for the Afghan-istan conflict by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's director of communications and strategy. The CIC was based in Islamabad and provided journalists from around the world and locally in the region with the US-UK position during the campaign against the Taliban.

The centre was criticised by some as a pure "propaganda machine" and its reputation was questioned after some members were tied to the notorious "dodgy dossier" on Iraq published by Downing Street last month. Tam Dalyell, a Labour backbencher, said: "It's quite wrong to have a spin unit. The dodgy dossier was the work of what Nigel Lawson would call teenage scribblers. It proves, once again, that Tony Blair is a disgrace to the Labour Party's traditions."

The new unit is expected to have a roving role, but it is likely it will initially be based in London, Washington and Kuwait. As the conflict changes, it could move into southern Iraq or Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman would not go into detail, saying only: "We are making suitable contingency plans."

Mr Campbell suggested the CIC be created in Afghanistan to clarify and co-ordinate the messages coming out of Washington and London.

Staffed by three British government press officers, four Americans and one Dutch representative, it was seen as a huge success by Downing Street, injecting a professionalism that local press operations lacked. Crucially, it had the latest technology to organise press conferences, give journalists background briefings and combat Taliban claims.

Mr Campbell is in daily contact with his counterparts in the White House communications team, and a joint strategy for "spinning the war", as well as winning it, is seen as a main priority. Conference calls discuss the details of when and where the unit should operate, what its remit will be and to whom it should report before briefings.

Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, is a central figure in the initiative. He is helping set up the US's planned office of global communications to sell a more positive image of the country abroad.

Winning the propaganda war will be essential for Mr Blair and President George Bush, and the Americans have decided to allow a new strategy of "embedding" journalists with specific military units to follow their progress.

But as well as getting television pictures of troops in action, Washington and London are keen to co-ordinate their approach. A key job of the unit will be to get the coalition's message across to the people of the Middle East.

One of the CIC's triumphs during the war in Afghanistan was an interview with Mr Blair on al-Jazeera TV, the station chosen by Osama bin Laden for many of his messages. The CIC in Islamabad helped get across the daily tactics, statistics and spin of the allies, particularly to Islamic media outlets.