Campbell fears tough PR battle with Arab world

Communications chief on the propaganda challenge

Sarah Hall, political correspondent
Tuesday April 1, 2003   

The government faces a "huge uphill battle" to win the public relations battle in the Arab world over war in Iraq, Alastair Campbell has admitted in a rare interview. In a broadcast recorded last Wednesday on the prime minister's plane en route to Camp David, Downing Street's director of communications accused Arabic channels such as al-Jazeera of "complete fiction", and said Saddam had a "huge inbuilt advantage" in that he could peddle lies. He also expressed frustration that British and American journalists "embedded" with the military are offering coverage of each setback around the clock before ministers can "contextualise" such events and offer a response.

In his highly unusual interview, arranged with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation six months ago, Mr Campbell also revealed that the government is so concerned to win the propaganda battle that it has set up a dedicated Arabic media unit at the Foreign Office to rebut allegations appearing on Arabic news channels. "We have a Foreign Office official who virtually full-time appears, speaking Arabic, on Arabic stations," he added. In addition, one minister designates an hour each day to appearing on the Arabic media and revealing "what we're genuinely saying".

The prime minister has also given a series of interviews with Arab newspapers in an attempt to get across the UK perspective on war. Mr Campbell admitted: "When you look at some of the output from not just al-Jazeera, but some of the other Arab media, we have got a huge uphill battle on our hands and we have got to engage in it. "So, for example, we had a meeting this morning [last Wednesday] with the prime minister and Jack Straw [the foreign secretary] and other ministers where we were discussing this very problem. "The fact that, for example, you had a report in al-Jazeera the other day where the guy in Baghdad was asking their correspondent in London whether the issue of British troops executing Iraqi prisoners of war came up in the debate. "Complete fiction, but there it was aired. Now that is something that we have to get out there, knowing that it is happening, dealing with it, challenging it, rebutting it." He went on to bemoan the fact that dictatorships like Saddam Hussein's had a "huge inbuilt advantage in the battle for public opinion". "In democracies we are expected to explain, we cannot tell lies in the way that dictatorships tell lies all the time, both about themselves and about us. "And I think that gives them - I am not suggesting, by the way, that we should be telling lies - but it gives them an advantage in the way this thing is prosecuted," he went on. "Saddam Hussein can go up and do a broadcast, and how many of our media then stand up and say what an amazing propaganda coup that was? Bin Laden can sit in his cave and throw out a video and you get BBC, CNN, all these other guys, saying 'What a propaganda coup'. "All that has happened is they exploit in their eyes the weaknesses of our democracy, the weaknesses of our media systems, they exploit them to their own advantage and I think sometimes our media allows them to do that." On the question of reporters working alongside the military more closely than ever before, he said: "The downside is that sometimes events can be reported before we're in a position to contextualise and give comments upon them."