As long as he was prime minister, Tony Blair bottled up his feelings. But last month he said bitterly that competition had led the British media to hunting in a pack: “In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits, but no one dares miss out.” Interestingly, he also said that in his early years, his determination to convey the Labour Party’s message had made him complicit in the decline of the press.
What he did not mention was that his incestual relationship with the media had then been managed by Alastair Campbell. Campbell was political editor of Daily Mirror in the early Nineties. The Mirror had lost out in the race for mass circulation in the Eighties to the Sun, and in the competitive process, had been dumbed down. Its headlines were screaming, its news trivial and its appeal crass — that was the formula British editors developed to sell newspapers to the masses. Campbell was one of the exponents of the art of opinion manipulation.
In 1994, Tony Blair, who had just been elected leader of the Labour Party, persuaded Campbell to join the party as its media manager. When Labour won the 1997 general elections and Tony Blair became prime minister, he made Campbell press secretary — that is, the government’s media relations manager. He used to give daily briefings to the media for three years. That gave him greater exposure than the prime minister. On one of his foreign trips, Blair went to the back of his plane to talk to the press, followed by Campbell. Blair joked, “The Prime Minister will be along in a minute.” In 2000, Campbell stopped his daily press briefings.
In 2002, George W. Bush wanted to invade Iraq, and Tony Blair wanted to keep him company. Saddam Hussein was a belligerent, cruel and unwise dictator. But dictatorship is not a good enough reason for outsiders to invade a country. If he was to carry parliament and the British people with him, Tony Blair needed a stronger argument. The argument chosen was that Iraq had chemical and biological weapons — so-called weapons of mass destruction — and could deploy them in 45 minutes. Tony Blair announced this on the basis of a dossier prepared for him by the joint intelligence committee.
In March 2003, American forces invaded Iraq and occupied it; British troops joined them and were allowed to occupy an area around Basra. In a sort of victory expedition, Tony Blair visited Baghdad on May 29. That morning, in a report on the imminent visit, Andrew Gilligan, a BBC reporter, claimed that a week before the publication of the dossier that justified the invasion, the prime minister’s office — meaning Alastair Campbell — had asked that the dossier be “sexed up” — made more sensational and alarmist — and ordered more facts to be “discovered”. In particular, there was no evidence to support the claim that WMDs could be deployed in 45 minutes. As it turned out in the end, the entire claim of Saddam having weapons of mass destruction was a convenient invention, a lie now buried in the ruins of a burning Iraq.
Lying by the government is a very serious offence in Britain. It was then put out that Gilligan’s source had been David Kelly, a scientist working in the department of defence who had made 37 visits to Iraq in the Nineties as weapons inspector; Kelly identified himself as the source in a letter to his superior. Soon his identity was leaked to the press. Kelly was terribly disturbed that he had been misquoted by Gilligan, and that he had been identified as a source and as having breached government rules about its employees talking to media. He killed himself. There was an official inquiry headed by Lord Hutton. Although it exonerated him, Campbell could not shake off the suspicion that he was the source of the leak that had led to Kelly’s suicide, and he had to resign.
While he was in government — and probably before — Campbell kept a diary. He was known to have kept one; some prankster had put out credible excerpts supposed to be from it on the internet. But he kept it under wraps till his friend, Tony Blair, stepped down as prime minister. It will be published on July 31 (some of it; it is said that he has kept back the juiciest bits for a future occasion).
The excerpts have become a sensation in Britain. Part of the reason is Campbell’s language. He is intemperately abusive about so many: “Ken f**king Livingstone” and “some twat with a Trot poster” are par for the course. But some of the insults are witty: I liked Campbell’s term for the media, “the babble industry”, and what he has to say about it: “There is a culture of grievance element to all media but the Jocks have it with knobs on” (“Jocks” is Campbell’s term for Scots). One has to look for someone whom he does not run down. One of them was Clinton, whom he asked what it felt like to have everyone discussing his sex life. As long as he could not hear them all at the same time, he could get by, said Clinton.
Besides being rude, Campbell is also extremely indiscreet. He discloses the colour of Tony Blair’s underpants — and some of the exchanges he relates took place among people in the buff. He reports on the problems of releasing news of Cherie Blair’s pregnancy to the media. She tells a friend of hers, who works in one newspaper. That would have upset another newspaper which was a great friend of Labour, so Tony rings up its editor and tells him the same day.
Politics is a sport in which the pace of events cannot be controlled; life is especially frenetic in the prime minister’s office, where all the explosions are heard. When this sort of tumult comes to someone with the emotional intensity of Tony Blair, life around him must become fraught. He would have best been served with a solid, unflappable deputy. Instead, he chose a high-voltage, foul-mouthed misanthrope. One or the other was bound to fail. It was Campbell’s bad luck that Kelly committed suicide and he had to go first.
The story I liked best was one about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. After John Smith’s death in 1994, Blair wanted to become leader of the Labour Party, but for that he needed Brown’s support. Once in Edinburgh, Blair was well on the way to persuading Brown when Brown said he had to go to the toilet. Time passed, and there was no sign of Brown. Blair began to fear that Brown had run away. Just then the telephone rang. Blair did not take it. So then the answering machine went, “Tony, this is Gordon. I am locked in the toilet.”
Campbell faced an extremely hostile interviewer on BBC last week. As usual, his lips were pursed, his eyes watchful. He never lost his temper and he never faltered. Given his self-righteousness, he must feel very hard done by. But there was not a trace of self-pity or self-justification, just natural impudence.