Alastair Campbell on spin, Iraq and a recurring nightmare about Tony Blair and Gordon Brown

Blair's ex-Director of Communications tells a former editor of the Independent: 'I find it very difficult not to tell the truth'

Simon Kelner: Incredibly, by the time the Chilcot report comes out, the ‘Independent’ won’t be around to report it. Given that the ‘Independent’ was one of the most vocal critics of you, Tony Blair and the Iraq war, you must be quite pleased about that. 

Alastair Campbell: Not at all. I think it’s really sad. What concerns me is that the Independent is going, and there are job cuts at the Guardian, but the wretched Daily Mail is still rampant, making lots of money by millions of people clicking on pictures of cellulited women. I think that’s sad.

SK: And what does that tell you?

AC: It tells me there’s something wrong with our culture, and our media culture.

SK: Do you expect to be criticised by Chilcot?

AC: I am not going to answer that.

SK: In your book “Winners”, you say that New Labour could have done things better. In which particular ways?

AC: This may sound arrogant, but I believe that if we’d done teamship better, we’d still be there. Where we fell down was the inability to hold together. Tony and Gordon were the most obvious part of that, but not the only part. We should have learnt from the great football teams. The players may not like each other. They have egos, they have their own ambitions, they have different personalities, but they are still bloody good teams.

SK: But isn’t that about leadership?

AC: Partly. I remember talking to Alex Ferguson about Tony and Gordon, and he said: “Why doesn’t Tony just get rid of him?” But if you sack someone in football, they can’t turn up to training the next day. In politics they’re still on the pitch. Gordon would still have been a big player. 

SK: Was it a failure of Blair’s leadership not to have got rid of Gordon Brown?

AC: Sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I left in 2003 hating it, glad to get out, even though I then went into a massive depression. Tony slowly sucked me back in for the 2005 campaign, and from six months out, I was basically working full time trying to keep the Tony-Gordon thing together for the campaign. It was awful. How much better could we have been if we hadn’t wasted so much energy on this? As Tony said in his book, Gordon was brilliant and impossible. If he’d just been one of those things, the options are obvious. 

SK: But Ferguson was right, wasn’t he? 

AC: Maybe. But the other thing we should have done better, which explains why we’ve now got Corbyn, is that we didn’t bring people on. If you look at the other people around at the time – Charles Clarke, Alistair Darling, Byers, Jack Straw, Blunkett – they’ve all gone. And they’re not old. What’s happened is that someone who is quite old – Jeremy Corbyn – is now leader. We have to take some responsibility for that. 

SK: Is that because you had a bunker mentality, and couldn’t see the bigger picture?

AC: No. We were control freaks. That’s different.

SK: In his “feral beast” speech in 2007, Tony Blair says no one is to blame for the breakdown in trust between politics, media and the public. You appear to blame the media, who, you say, spin the whole thing in one direction. But wasn’t this what you did in government?

AC: For all that the papers would say I was a liar, I took the words I was saying at briefings as seriously as Tony Blair took what he would say at the Despatch Box. I find it very difficult not to tell the truth. I felt I was accountable for what I said. I don’t believe that large numbers of political reporters are remotely accountable for what they say. And what’s more I think a lot of them don’t give a fuck. We have newspapers printing stuff which they know is not true. I think that’s the difference.

SK: But as a journalist, you worked for the “Daily Mirror”, a paper which slanted things to suit its political agenda.

AC: I was biased. 

SK: You were biased. So what are the journalists you complain about?

AC: They’re dishonest. 

SK: Do you not feel any responsibility for the lack of trust between politics, media and the public?

AC: I don’t, really. I don’t see how I could have done things differently.

SK: Did you write the “feral beast” speech, which singled out “The Independent” as the example of all that’s wrong with modern newspapers? Do you think that was unfair? 

AC: No, it was very much Tony’s speech. I thought it was wrong to make The Independent the emblem of the “feral beast”, because the real drivers of it were Murdoch and Dacre. And he should have said that.

SK: Why didn’t he say that?

AC:He was always ambivalent about the Murdoch papers. But he gave other papers the chance to believe it was just about The Independent. And that was wrong.

SK: From the inception of New Labour, you and Tony Blair set about wooing Rupert Murdoch. Do you think the relationship you fostered was an expediency too far? 

AC: Paul Keating told us before we were elected that you can do deals with Murdoch without saying you were doing a deal. Did we do that kind of thing? Maybe. But from around about the turn of the century, I felt strongly that we had to do something about media ownership and self-regulation. Tony disagreed. 

SK: Was that because of his relationship with Murdoch?

AC: No. It was because it would have taken a lot of political energy and capital.

SK:The perception was that Blair was in Murdoch’s pocket.

AC: It was not good. The relationship was too close. It was not healthy. 

SK: Have you ever fallen out with Blair?

AC: Not really. Only when the personal and the political collided. Over the Bristol flats, for instance, we ended up saying something that wasn’t true, and that was very difficult. 

SK: Is Blair more interested than you in money?

AC: I think he is more impressed by financial success than I am. 

SK: On Iraq, do you feel that this paper’s opposition to the war has been vindicated?

AC:Under your editorship, you moved to a fusion of news and comment. I never had a problem with that, but I couldn’t stand it when you questioned our motivation, saying it was because Bush wanted us to, or because of oil. That was bollocks. And on the question of vindication... Is Iraq now where we want it to be? The answer is clearly no.

SK: So much was written and said about you. Why did you create such a furore over a BBC news item broadcast only at 6.07am?

AC: It was a report that went around the world. [Andrew] Gilligan said that, according to his contact, No 10 had put intelligence into the Iraq dossier knowing it to be untrue. I never met David Kelly, but I knew from what he told other people that this was not his view. The BBC were saying that Tony Blair was making up lies so that he could send young men and women to war, maybe to die. I think that if the BBC had done their jobs professionally, they’d have realised that you couldn’t justify what they said. And nothing has emerged since to justify that report. 

SK: The BBC lost a good DG and chairman over the row. Do you worry about the damage you did  to one of Britain’s most trusted institutions?

AC: I wish the whole thing hadn’t happened. Greg Dyke is on record as saying that once the BBC was attacked, it was their job to defend themselves. But that is not their job. 

SK: Does David Kelly haunt you? 

AC: I’m not going to answer that question in those terms. I just find the whole thing incredibly sad. Such a waste, but I won’t take the blame. That happened because a journalist with an agenda broadcast something which should never have been broadcast, and the BBC’s handling of it was woeful. And that’s never going to change for me.

SK: You are bolstered by certainty. Did you ever have second thoughts about the war? 

AC: No, but sometimes Jonathan [Powell] and myself would go to Tony and ask him if he was absolutely sure about this or that. That was our job. But ultimately it was his decision. 

SK: Was there a pact between Blair and Bush that you weren’t party to?

AC: Absolutely not. 

SK: But Christopher Meyer [ex-ambassador to the US] said there was a “deal signed in blood” between the two leaders.  

AC: Seriously? He wasn’t there and I suspect he was rather annoyed not to have been invited.

SK: How do you explain the rise of Donald Trump?

AC: You could ask the same question about Corbyn. Or Le Pen. All of this is happening because there has still been no reckoning post the financial crisis. So governments have fallen, one bloke has been to prison, the banks have gone pretty well back to status quo, the rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. And it’s fuelling anger. And somehow Trump, who represents the worst aspects of capitalism, has persuaded people he can deal with that. 

SK: How long will Labour be out of power?

AC: We lost the last election to a Prime Minister who’s not that popular, to a government with not that good a record, and that worries me. A leader who’s considered unelectable is also unassailable because of what’s happened in the Labour Party. And that’s dangerous. 

SK: Do you “do God”? 

AC: No. Tony’s convinced I’m going to find God. I do have spiritual moments, but I don’t think it’s God. 

SK: Do you have nightmares? 

AC: Yes. I have a nightmare about Tony and Gordon killing each other. Not every month, but now and then. I also have a recurring dream about losing. We’re about 20 points ahead in the polls, and the results come in and we’ve lost. 

SK: How do you see your place in history? 

AC: I do think it’s strange that I get associated with Iraq more than the people who were Foreign Secretary or Defence Secretary. It’s because of my closeness to Tony, which I don’t regret at all. I think that was a privilege. Now I get paid to talk to people about how to keep a good reputation in the modern media age. I feel like thanking Paul Dacre every time, because the reason they ask me is because they think I’ve come through the other end with a pretty good reputation. Loads of people get a bad press but have a good reputation.  Beckham – think what he went through. Clinton, likewise. You just have to be true to yourself. 

Simon Kelner was editor of ‘The Independent’ from 1998 to 2008 and 2010 to 2011. He is now chief executive of Seven Dials PR