Campbell was not as bad a journalist as some claim

We have seen acres of newsprint filled with extracts and reactions since Alastair Campbell’s diary hit the bookshops. Most commentary has been hostile, though for sheer venom there has not been anything to beat David Seymour’s contribution in the Press Gazette two weeks ago.

Seymour’s thesis is that before Campbell went off to launch the Iraq War and all that, he was an ‘expendable’journalist at the Daily Mirror. It is implied that Campbell lost his job as political editor in 1993 through ineptness, because of a libel case in which he was severely criticised by the judge.

Campbell’s habit of calling journalists ‘wankers’has not done his popularity within the trade any good, so it has now become common practice for journalists to say that he was never any good as a hack.

I worked alongside him in the Daily Mirror political team for over three years. Relations were so-so: I was never asked nor tempted to work for Labour while Alastair was there; and he was much criticised for being too close to ‘New Labour”, but the general view of his peer group then was that he was a very sharp tabloid journalist.

It is true that a hostile management hoped to use a complaint by a Tory MP, Rupert Allason, to get rid of him, and the case resulted in a famous comment by a judge about Campbell’s arrogance in the witness box.

That was three years after he had left the Mirror, and anyway, the judge dismissed Allason’s case. (By the way, during his much-quoted summary, the judge called me a ‘very impressive’witness. Shrewd fellow, that judge.)

To understand what was really going on at the Daily Mirror in those days, you must remember that the Labour Party had just suffered a shattering fourth general election defeat and serious people wondered if it would ever be capable of winning. The Mirror was the only daily tabloid that had stuck by Labour through its barren years.

After Robert Maxwell fell overboard, there was an idyllic year in which the paper was run by its Labour-supporting editor, Richard Stott.

Then there was a boardroom coup, in which David Montgomery, an Ulster Unionist, took control. The directors most visibly linked to the Labour Party, like Joe Haines and Clive Hollick, resigned or were pushed, and Stott was sacked, on the same day as 100 casuals.

The board’s new chairman was a Tory. We were told that the Mirror’s political traditions were to be guarded by two new arrivals – Amanda Platell, who later served as chief spin doctor for William Hague, and Seymour, who subsequently joined the board of the Countryside Alliance.

When Alastair Campbell was levered out of his job, by having Seymour introduced over his head, it hardened the widely held suspicion that the Mirror was about to switch allegiance, with the result that every national tabloid would have been backing the Conservatives.

This fear provoked a protest motion on the Commons order paper, signed by about 180 backbench Labour MPs. It was treated as national news. Campbell was a guest presenter on the half-hour television programme What The Papers Say, and insouciantly devoted the whole of one edition to what other papers were saying about his departure from the Mirror.

The Mirror tried to repair burnt bridges by inviting the Labour leader, John Smith, to dine with the editor. The meal was a disaster.

First, Smith was very annoyed to see Seymour at the table, given his reputation for holding a personal grudge against the party.

Second, Smith had just fought a difficult battle to stop Labour MPs from ganging up with right-wing Tories to call for a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, and no one had the courtesy to forewarn him that the following day’s Mirror had an editorial backing a referendum.

Last, and least, that same weekend I was sacked, just after I had completed a biography of John Smith. This so annoyed Smith that he encouraged Labour MPs to put another motion on the Commons order paper objecting to my dismissal, which attracted about the same number of signatures (though there was an MP called Mandelson who featured prominently on the first motion, but did not sign the second).

In fairness, I should add that there was a counter motion welcoming Seymour’s arrival as Campbell’s replacement. If memory serves, it attracted six signatures, including George Galloway’s.

On a general point, I dispute the assumption that if a reporter is known to be very partisan, he must necessarily be a bad journalist, or conversely that the real professionals are the ones with portable beliefs that change when they switch employers. The late Paul Foot, who was also forced off the Mirror by the Montgomery regime, was in the Socialist Workers Party most of his life, and was a fabulously good hack.

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