Francis Beckett

Spent this Sunday morning doing a live BBC1 programme called Sunday Morning Live, and found myself engaged in a surprisingly bad-tempered battle of the biographers with fellow Blair biographer John Rentoul, which took a rather odd and disturbing turn.

John, having heard all three panelists (me, Christian commentator Anne Atkins and right wing American Jewish broadcater Charlie Wolf) all being unkind about Tony Blair, from our very different standpoints, phoned up, clearly upset and angry, and came on air on the webcam (a bit of technology which, to put it mildly, isn't yet suffficiently well developed for broadcasting purposes.)

Now, I have to say that I've never thought of John as a tame and obedient Blairite; and his Blair biography is a good professional piece of work, from which David Hencke and I, in our later book, borrowed freely. True, John was much less critical than I'd want to be, but that changes nothing.

So I was surprised how cross he was to hear Blair attacked. But what was disturbing, I thought, was one phrase he used. Anne Atkins had used the phrase "war criminal" to describe the formner PM.  I have to say it's not a phrase I'd use about him - I feel it devalues the phrase - but I can see why someone else would think it appropriate.

John Rentoul's take, though, was that the BBC - not Anne Atkins - should stop calling Blair a war criminal. He said the BBC should stop peddling this line.  He seemed to think that the BBC should somehow have censored what Anne was saying.

And this, for me, had uneasy overtones of the bullying campaign waged against the BBC by Blair and Alastair Campbell in the runup to the Iraq war. I've studied carefully all the letters between Downing Street and the BBC, and what comes across quite clearly is that Blair and Campbell were cynically using their leverage over the BBC- the government's power to set the level of the licence fee - to stifle criticism and even accutate reporting of their dash to war in Iraq.

And the worst thing about that is that it was competely successful. The BBC fired not just the jorunalist concerned but the director general who had tried to defend the BBC's independence and his journalist, in order to mollify Downing Street.

It was an utterly shameful episode, and it sends a shiver up my spine to hear a pro-Blair journalist appearing to renew the campaign of terror, almost a decade on.