If you search for images of Alastair Campbell on Google, you will find, many times over, a picture taken by a Press Association photographer during the Hutton Inquiry. The photo is proliferating: it even graced a recent cover of Poetry Review. It shows Campbell standing outside, wearing a suit and tie, his right arm folded across his body, a scroll of paper in his hand. His left elbow rests on the back of his right hand, and the knuckles of his left hand are pressed to his chin. Watching something out of the corner of his eye, he resembles a wolf, or a bird of prey. The picture could be a physiognomical paradigm of a conspirator, a machinator, a schemer, a Machiavel. It shows Campbell as those who don’t like him like to see him.
When Campbell likes someone, he’ll describe him as a ‘good bloke’; the opposite of a good bloke is Clare Short. Since taking early retirement from directing the prime minister’s communications, Campbell, eager to parade his own good-bloke credentials as well as those of his mate Tony, has not fled the limelight. He writes a column for the Times about sport and, following the lead of Tony Benn and Ann Widdecombe, has recently embarked on a tour of the nation’s theatres and concert halls, hawking to the great British public a truly magical evening out: An Audience with Alastair Campbell. It’s hard to think of Campbell as an act with an established fan base, and it seemed little short of hubris that, for the inaugural night of his progress, he should have secured the Royal Festival Hall (capacity in excess of 2500). But my naive expectations of an evening of innocent schadenfreude were disappointed: the auditorium was full.
The audience was overwhelmingly friendly – hundreds of thrusting young Fabians and other ambitious New Labour apparatchiks, not to mention Michael Portillo – with just one heroic heckler. She tolerated the cant for well over an hour, her reticence finally breaking when Campbell said that there are good people who go into politics, and bad people: ‘Like you, Campbell, you lying bastard,’ she retorted, before being ushered out. This was during the second half of the proceedings, when Campbell was variously answering and evading questions from the audience. The exchange was mediated by Ross Kemp, the ersatz hard man who used to play Grant Mitchell in EastEnders and is married to Rebekah Wade, the editor of the Sun. Kemp congratulated the heckler on having exercised her freedom of speech, then told her to get out. ‘And I thought I was hard,’ Campbell said. Someone asked if he was still writing a diary. He said he is, though it’s not as interesting as it used to be: ‘Went to Festival Hall. Got called a lying bastard. Sat next to Ross: good bloke.’ Someone else asked if the reason Campbell had not once mentioned the Sun during his many and extended attacks on the press was that he was sitting next to the editor’s husband. ‘Yes,’ he replied.
The first half of the show was an autobiographical monologue, which combined one or two interesting insights (he took the job as Blair’s press secretary determined that the media should not be allowed to do to the new Labour leader what they had done to Kinnock) with a few crowd-pleasing jibes at uncontroversial targets (Michael Howard, racist football fans, the Mail) and several preening anecdotes, dressed up as self-deprecation. He once went to the help of a man who’d been mugged on Hampstead Heath. When the man realised who the good bloke who’d saved him was, he said: ‘You’re Alastair Campbell? I fucking hate you.’ In Waco, Texas, Campbell met in the hotel gym a woman who was a member of a George W. Bush email prayer group. She wondered if Campbell, standing there in his physique-revealing gym kit, was one of Blair’s bodyguards: she prayed for them every day, because they keep the prime minister safe and he keeps the world safe. A bit of a nut, in other words. What Campbell found most inexcusable, however, was that she was both very fat and monopolising the gym’s only treadmill. You might think that, as a socialist, or simply as a good bloke, he’d have appreciated that her need was greater than his, but no.
The speech culminated in an assault on Britain’s ‘culture of negativity’, which Campbell perceives as being ‘Daily Mail driven’ and ‘undermining trust in politics’. (There’s a jingoistic glint in his eye when he rails against the cynical journalists who disparage the country: he’d said earlier that he feels English in Scotland, Scottish in England, and British everywhere.) His defence of spin is not unreasonable: of course politicians do what they can to present matters in the light that reflects best on them. Yet at the same time he expects journalists to report ‘objectively’. He believes, or claims to believe, that, by and large, politicians are more honest and more moral, more likely to be good blokes, than journalists are: but this may be because he judges politicians by different standards – he seems to think, for example, that it’s more important for them to be well intentioned than to get things right.
Behind these opinions lurks a larger and more troubling notion: that journalists may in fact be more powerful than politicians, that it really was the Sun what won the 1992 election for the Tories, and 1997 for Labour. One of the images in the evening’s introductory slideshow was of the headline announcing that the paper was switching its allegiance to Labour. The Sun has long had an inflated sense of its influence over its readers. That Campbell agrees, mistaking the shadow of the press for something more solid, is testament to his vanity: he was the government’s press secretary, and used to be a tabloid journalist, so of course he thinks the tabloids matter more than anything. The media may well wield more power than they used to, precisely because the government fervently believes that they do: but that’s not really Campbell’s fault, because he didn’t mean for it to happen. And anyway, he’s a good bloke.