In the era of information overload and fiercely competitive 24x7 news channels, politics is as much about presentation as policy. In recent times, no one grasped this better than Mr Alastair Campbell, who resigned last week as director of communications of the British prime minister, Mr Tony Blair, after a controversial nine-year stint. A brilliant, if abrasive, master of media manipulation, Campbell was not a crude propagandist in the Goebbels mould. In the cloistered world of Westminster, he — along with Mr Peter Mandelson — transformed news management into an art form and earned for himself the sobriquet, spin doctor. He understood the compulsions of the media and the foibles of journalists and ruthlessly exploited these to promote Mr Blair and Blairism. He took on the soul of a dowdy Labour Party and converted it into a trendy, modern and cool New Labour. In a polity committed to the cabinet form of government, he single-mindedly devoted himself to creating presidential aura around Mr Blair. Exceptionally cynical, he was least concerned with creating history; his obsessive preoccupation was today’s headlines. He was an unrelenting bully, but he was also brilliant.
It was this brilliance that finally led to his undoing. In normal circumstances, a spin doctor is a quiet, self-effacing and invisible backroom operator, never bigger than the subject of his spin. Mr Campbell, unfortunately, became a power centre in Downing Street. Impatient with the cumbersome details of cabinet government and its tortuous process of decision-making, he created a small cabal around Mr Blair, riding roughshod over other ministers. A style of politics, familiar across the Atlantic, was transplanted into Britain. It was not Mr Campbell’s doing entirely. The change suited Mr Blair, and he was a willing player in the creation of a British presidency. Inevitably, there was a backlash created as much by a media that knew it was being remote-controlled, but could do nothing about it as much as by disgruntled Labour politicians. The charge by a BBC reporter that Mr Campbell “sexed up” an intelligence report on Iraq has not so far been substantiated. But the accusation was widely believed because it was just the type of dissembling that had come to be expected from Mr Campbell. In trying to establish his innocence — which he still may successfully manage — Mr Campbell fell victim to one thing spin doctoring cannot accommodate: an accident of history. In trying to expose David Kelly as an irresponsible loudmouth, he drove a sensitive scientist to despair and, finally, suicide. It was too much for society and the media to stomach and Mr Campbell ended up as a liability. He was a legend but finally the truth caught up.