Like many political journalists, the authors of this book cannot make up their minds about Alastair Campbell. They portray him as the unelected deputy Prime Minister, the second most powerful figure in Britain. Yet they point out that Campbell often disagreed with what Tony Blair was doing, on education, relations with the Liberal Democrats, Europe and, possibly the war against Iraq.
Like many political journalists, the authors of this book cannot make up their minds about Alastair Campbell. They portray him as the unelected deputy Prime Minister, the second most powerful figure in Britain. Yet they point out that Campbell often disagreed with what Tony Blair was doing, on education, relations with the Liberal Democrats, Europe and, possibly the war against Iraq. Apparently his power did not extend to the formation and implementation of policy.
Even when it comes to Campbell's own remit the authors convey a conflicting message. He was the great master, manipulating the media in a way that they regard as sinister and shocking. Yet most of the time the media remained stubbornly in place, their prejudices intact and their methods unchanged. In the battle between the media and Campbell, it was Campbell who buckled in the end.
Oborne and Walters acknowledge the power of the media, what Campbell was up against. In a striking section, they describe vividly the rise of the media class, pointing out that some journalists "wield immense social, economic and political power which the media class has gathered unto itself at the expense of the great institutions of the state, monarchy and the church". They should know. Oborne is a stimulating, mischievously provocative political columnist, who writes for several magazines and newspapers. Walters is the political editor of the Mail on Sunday, producing front pages that have supposedly powerful ministers sweating with fearful anxiety. In some ways they wield as much power as some of these ministers. In one particular way they are as powerful as Campbell used to be: like other journalists, they have the last word. Campbell could attempt to wave his wand; the journalists wrote what the voters read.
In this case, the two journalists go out of their way to be scrupulously fair in setting the context to Campbell's feverish spin doctoring, the rise of the media class. They also describe in some detail the extent to which the media's treatment of Neil Kinnock was a driving factor in Campbell's approach. Campbell was determined that Blair would not be slaughtered in the same way. And the authors acknowledge that Kinnock was, to some extent, unfairly slaughtered by parts of the media class.
But having brilliantly outlined the extraordinary powers of the media, the authors largely ignore them for the rest of the book. Each day, each hour, Campbell was dealing with the unpredictable activities of the expanding, unaccountable media class - the army of BBC correspondents phoning him obsessively and then complaining about government "spin"; the right-wing newspapers making mischief; the more timid liberal newspapers following the agenda of the powerful right-wing newspapers; the tabloid branch of the BBC trying to join in the fun, seeking to be players like the newspapers that are their only contact with the outside world. The so-called spinning operation that Campbell masterminded was an essentially defensive operation. How do we prevent the attack from happening? Now the attack has happened, how do we deal with it?
Readers of this compelling book must make a choice. If they believe the media to be largely fair, they will be shocked by some of Campbell's tactics. If they do not, perhaps they will understand some of his increasingly manic and hyper-active attempts to do something about it. Let me state that I veer towards the Campbell view. He once stated at a Commons Press Gallery lunch that he spent each day observing ministers work nightmarishly long hours, seeking to make some improvements to the country. Each morning, he woke up to hear them portrayed as dodgy bastards on the BBC and as worse than that in some newspapers. This is where his anger came from, the dangerous corrosive gap between the reality of most politicians' lives and the way they are presented in the media.
Oborne and Walters chronicle the familiar sequence of alleged scandals - Mittalgate, Cheriegate, the Black Rod affair, the Gilligan crisis. They are shocked by Campbell's behaviour. I am not. In each case, the stories were far more complicated than presented in the media. Campbell sought to put the Government's side. Quite often, no one would listen, so he went to more extreme lengths to be heard. Most of the time the task was beyond him. In Britain we live in a reverse police state where the media determines the way a government is perceived. If the government's case is vindicated, as it was by three independent inquiries reviewing the Gilligan affair, the media make sure that most voters still believe their version.
Still, each saga, each story that seemed so big at the time, is narrated with great fizz and seems alarmingly fresh once more. Oborne and Walter also capture brilliantly the political rootlessness of Campbell, suggesting convincingly that his political views were formed largely by his fascination with powerful personalities - and his extraordinary ability to form friendships with these figures. They also offer some of the best descriptions of the small group that formed New Labour in 1994. Most authors of the many books on New Labour come from the centre-left and are perhaps too close to the players to capture their extraordinarily colourful eccentricities. These authors come from other parts of the political spectrum, observing from a distance the Mandelsons, the Goulds, and the Browns, describing them as "some of the most fascinating men that British politics" threw up in the 20th century. They also reveal alarmingly the degree to which Rupert Murdoch calls the shots in this Blairite court. If anyone emerges as the true master in this book, it is Murdoch rather than Campbell.
Campbell's role in the court was to ensure briefly that Labour got a doting press and for a time after that a fair hearing. This was not down entirely to him. The collapse of the Major administration was an equally important spur for disillusioned right-wing newspapers. But Blair once told me he regarded Campbell as a genius in his ability to read the rhythms of news stories. He spent more time with him than any other figure in New Labour. This meant that Blair had a clear sense of the way the media was portraying him and his policies. There was a big downside to this relationship - a Prime Ministerial obsession with the media, as if a front page mattered as much as the successful implementation of a policy.
In the end, Campbell came to care too much. He knew he could not beat the media, but he tried none the less. He has gone, touring with his one-man show, wondering what to do next. We are still here. We are always here.
Steve Richards is the chief political commentator for 'The Independent'Reuse content