Alastair Campbell: From newsdesk to New Labour

It isn’t only journalists for whom Alastair Campbell feels contempt. He hates just about everyone, he says in his diaries. But he does maintain a special loathing for us.

My problem with his memoirs, as it was with him during his time in Downing Street, is that I can’t help remembering Alastair when he was a human being, if that is what you would call a trainee reporter on the Daily Mirror. He wasn’t someone you would particularly notice, especially as he lived in the shadow of his late, great friend John Merritt, a journalist of genius.

By contrast, Campbell wasn’t highly rated. Which is why, when the newsdesk needed someone for the thankless task of “babysitting” the Kinnock family one weekend shortly after Neil became Labour’s leader, Alastair was considered expendable.

But, despite his image, he can be charming, funny and good company.

The Kinnocks took an instant shine to him and he nurtured them. Soon he and Fiona, his long-time partner and the one in the relationship with real political feeling, were close friends with Neil and Glenys, a rare position for any journalist to be in.

So it was natural that when the Mirror needed another political reporter, Campbell got the job. That was where I came in. I was given the task of introducing him to Westminster.

We spent much of the autumn of 1986 together at the party conferences.

A lot of fun was had, but he never took up his job at Westminster, moving instead to Sunday Today. One evening he and Fiona came over to have a drink with me at the Stab, the Mirror’s legendary pub. He was very agitated and wanted advice about getting into the count at a by-election the next day so he could cover it. I pointed out that he didn’t need to – his paper wasn’t starting publication for three months.

Two nights later, in Scotland, he had his nervous breakdown and some time after that returned to the Mirror as the most junior of junior reporters on permanent night shifts.

And that is the man who 11 years later was the second most powerful person in the country. So I naturally approached his diaries with a somewhat more jaundiced eye than most.

His fascination with powerful people comes through clearly. Princess Diana, Bill Clinton, Rupert Murdoch – Alastair Campbell has not only met them all, but been admired by them.

When Diana first met Blair, she asked him to introduce Campbell to her, he records. Clinton said he would like him to come and work in the White House. And Murdoch, he says, was spun by him so the world’s biggest media baron then spun his editors in support of Blair.

I suppose it was possible to spot Alastair’s fixation with the powerful at the Mirror. He was one of the few journalists who felt comfortable around Maxwell, smoothing his path seamlessly from junior reporter to political editor of the Sunday Mirror and then the Daily.

As a journalist, he was a great propagandist.

He wasn’t really working for the Mirror, not even for the Labour Party, but for the leader of the party, a role in which his prejudices were crucial. He once told me that he so despised Roy Hattersley, the deputy leader, that he would not let his name appear in the paper – the only Labour-supporting national daily.

Campbell was responsible for drawing up and circulating an early day motion against two MPs who had attacked Maxwell. In the subsequent libel case, Campbell’s evidence was severely criticised by the judge.

I had left the Mirror at that time, but was brought back over Alastair’s head.

His response was to have a blazing row with the editor, David Banks, who reacted by throwing a chair at him. He missed. How different history might have been if he had not.

Was it at that point he made the final turn against journalists? The diaries do not hide his loathing for us, individually and collectively. We are all wankers, including Simon Jenkins – about as distinguished a member of our profession as you can find – who is “a total wanker”.

He dismisses Piers Morgan as “barely worth talking to”, although when I apologised to Alastair for a particularly bad piece of Piers behaviour at a lunch in Brighton, he said: “That’s OK – I like Piers.” No hypocrisy there, then.

Most starkly, he describes Paul Dacre as “evil”. Whatever else he may be accused of, as far as I know, the Mail’s editor is not responsible for anyone’s death. Whereas Campbell, in my opinion, should shoulder much of the responsibility for the suicide of Dr David Kelly – and his involvement in the dodgy dossier that took us to war in Iraq leaves him at least partly culpable for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

In January 2002, Campbell confided to his diary that “We are in power and doing nothing to change the poisonous media culture.”

So there we have it – Alastair Campbell, one-time journalist, wanted Tony Blair to institute some form of censorship against the media.

Let me reveal a little secret which does not appear in the Campbell diaries. Not long into the Blair regime, I was rung by the Mirror’s then political editor John Williams, who told me he had just had a remarkable conversation with Alastair in which he had gone out of his way to describe Gordon Brown as “psychologically flawed”. John was agonising over whether to use it. I said he really had no option. He wrote his column and the ever-courageous Piers Morgan spiked it.

However, the following Sunday, lo and behold, there in Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer column was the same phrase, unattributed, of course. Neither John nor Andrew has ever been able to reveal where it came from and it is mysteriously absent from the diaries. In fact, Alastair has on several occasions vehemently denied that it was he who said it.

So, just in case he is suffering from amnesia, I thought I should jog his memory.

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