Back when he was the all-powerful, expletive-happy director of communications for Tony Blair, most journalists dreaded the thought of being lectured to by Alastair Campbell. But when he delivered the prestigious Hugh Cudlipp Lecture last week, named after the legendary editor of his former employer, the Daily Mirror, there was a queue to get in. According to those running the annual event, it had never been so well attended. Invited guests struggled to find a seat, and students from the London College of Communication, which hosted the event, were asked to watch the lecture on a video link in a nearby hall.
As the audience of journalists and old sparring partners settled down, Campbell, so often depicted as the villain of the piece by the media, entered stage left – the former journalist who turned his fire on his old profession. In true pantomime style, there was a hiss from Campbell at the mention of last year's lecturer, the Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre. He made no attempt to conceal his contempt for Dacre and his "poisonous" paper.
His criticisms of modern media were familiar, echoing points made in speeches by his former boss Tony Blair, and more recently by Jeremy Paxman. While the output of media has increased, standards have fallen. There is less fact-checking, and a strong pack mentality, demonstrated most recently by the obsessive coverage of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. A "culture of negativity" has developed, along with a "language of extremes", in which shades of grey are not allowed. Now, he said, the public are wise to the media's ever-louder shouts, and are switching off. At the end of the lecture, there were nods around the auditorium.
But while Campbell's speech was compelling, it demonstrated a lack of self-criticism. His role in the media's treatment of politics remained unexamined. No mention of Iraq. Or of the "dodgy dossier". Where was the admission of constant briefing? The berating of journalists? The doling out of exclusives to those who abided by his rules? Only once, in a brief bout of questions from the floor, was he confronted. Asked how he could justify his shouting matches with journalists, Campbell replied: "Full and frank discussions."
When Campbell adjourned with a small group to a restaurant nearby, he continued to show an uncanny ability to erase his own actions from history. He made few direct concessions about the more dubious side of his media handling at No 10. He was unable, or unwilling, to link the feeding of half-truths to lazy journalists (it was their fault for not checking) to the issue of the breakdown in trust between politicians and the media. He also struggled to offer solutions to the media's failings. How do we solve the fact that Madeleine McCann's image sells papers? "I don't know," he admitted.
Over the course of dinner came reminders that Campbell was not so very different from the journalists he had been criticising earlier in the evening. He held forth on the infamous episode when he punched The Guardian's Michael White on the day it was announced that the Mirror proprietor Robert Maxwell had died. And he recalled how "Uncle Bob" had demanded a butler on a visit to famine-hit Ethiopia. (Campbell's coverage of the mercy mission scooped him the Cudlipp Award, judged by one R Maxwell.)
Suddenly, he was every inch the political journalist, discussing his last-minute trips to cover obscure stories at the whim of his proprietor. Does Campbell miss those days? A wry smile appeared across his face. "It was a lot of fun," he said. "You're still a journalist!" chimed in one guest. "I don't think so," Campbell said, thoughtfully, resting his head on his hand.
Although he may attack the media now, Campbell was held in high regard by those with whom he worked as a journalist at the Mirror. Former colleagues recall him as extremely driven and ambitious. "A really good tabloid hack," remembered one. Legend has it that, as a young reporter, he would go to the pub for the early editions, and then phone the night editor if his stories weren't given sufficient prominence, displaying early signs of the obsessive streak that would later emerge in Downing Street. Nor did he lack confidence. As one former colleague recalled: "He is the only journalist ever to tell me to my face that he thought he was a better writer than me."
After a career pitting his wits first for and then against the media, Campbell claims that he now rarely watches television news or reads papers, and insists that he has no interest in his media profile. "I don't know how much coverage it will get, not much," he said of his lecture, dismissively. "I really don't think the media is interested in having the debate." But no sooner had we sat down than he was on his BlackBerry, finding out how his speech was being reported. Old habits die hard. He showed The Guardian's coverage to a young, female journalist sitting opposite him, and she began reading aloud. "OK, OK, don't read all of it!" he protested.
In fact, Campbell's speech received wide coverage in the media. True, some diarists lent weight to his argument that there is too much attention paid to the trivial by choosing to concentrate on the revelations of the "huge file of invites" he receives to appear on celebrity and reality TV programmes, including, he said, "Celebrity Big Brother, I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!, celebrity Come Dancing, and celebrity ice-skating [sic]". He added that his favourite request was being asked to go to the US, "have medical treatment to turn me into a black man", and then "make a film exposing racism in the Deep South". However, his lecture was also given attention on news and comment pages.
While Campbell is right about the need for a debate on the relationship between politics and the media, is he the right man to start it? In his post-Downing Street incarnation, just as when he was a young reporter on the Mirror or media manager at No 10, his greatest grievance against the media appears to be its continuing inability to do exactly what he demands of it.