Campbell brings a touch of the Blairs to the Woodward party

Westminster's master spin-doctor enters new arena with the same aim - everyone must be on message
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The Lions' innermost thoughts and opinions - or what passes for them in the form of ghosted newspaper columns - are to be vetted by Alastair Campbell during the six-week trip to New Zealand. Campbell, the communications adviser to Tony Blair who has been retained in a similar role by Sir Clive Woodward, wants no repeat of the dissent by Matt Dawson and Austin Healey which soured the last tour in 2001.

The Lions' innermost thoughts and opinions - or what passes for them in the form of ghosted newspaper columns - are to be vetted by Alastair Campbell during the six-week trip to New Zealand. Campbell, the communications adviser to Tony Blair who has been retained in a similar role by Sir Clive Woodward, wants no repeat of the dissent by Matt Dawson and Austin Healey which soured the last tour in 2001.

Around half the 45 players in Woodward's squad are expected to put their names to columns in newspapers and magazines, from Lawrence Dallaglio in the Sun to Matt Stevens in the Bath Chronicle. All have been warned by Campbell, well-known as a fan of Burnley FC but making his first public foray into rugby union, that they are expected to be "in control of what's being said". Campbell will fly with the team to Auckland on Wednesday and, apart from a 12-day inter-lude at home for family and business reasons, monitor the entire tour, including the three Tests against the All Blacks.

"The players have all agreed to say and do nothing which will damage the whole Lions venture, which is about winning the three Test matches," Campbell said. "With the time difference we should be able to know beforehand what a column is going to say and where it's going in the newspaper. We would like the players to find out what the headline will be."

Either Campbell or the Lions' full-time media manager, Louisa Cheetham, will review each dispatch. "There should be enough room for the vested mutual interest of both projecting the Lions properly and giving readers something they want to read," Campbell said.

There is nothing specific in the tour contract, worth up to £25,000 for a winning series, to force a player to comply with the vetting. But, as in cricket, where the England and Wales Cricket Board have no right of veto, there is a code of conduct which, if breached, could lead to a disrepute charge. There is also the personal risk of upsetting colleagues in the dressing room.

Woodward's emphasis on the "Power of 4", the tour slogan which appears on the Lions' four-colour wristbands, aims to nip nonconformity in the bud. Is it spin or sensible forward planning?

"Clive understands the importance of morale and motivation and unity," Campbell said, "and a lot of that is about what's going on in the media. His pitch to me was that there's no situation he could think of in dealing with the media that I'd not been involved in. Sport is different to politics, but often you're talking about similar sorts of decisions under pressure, dealing with frenzies, personalities and individual profiles - and events that just happen."

The lasting memories of 2001 in Australia were the 2-1 Test series defeat, Jason Robinson's exultantly taken try in the First Test - and the stinging words of criticism from Healey and Dawson. The former was fined £2,000 for derogatory comments about the Australians which appeared on the eve of the crucial Third Test. And Dawson's diary in the Daily Telegraph, also timed for maximum effect before a Test, slammed in graphic detail the management of the New Zealander Graham Henry.

"You can't have that," said Campbell, a former red-top journalist but wearing the Lions red top at the first get-together with the media in Wales on Wednesday. "There wasn't a great deal of dissent in 2001, so why allow a situation to develop where people think that's the reality?"

To that end Woodward has taken up the cudgel of Henry, now his All Black opposite number, who after 2001 recom-mended either a ban on or censorship of players' columns. Not that it stopped Henry contributing a column from that tour to the Welsh Daily Mirror, and indeed Campbell is likely to write "one or two" articles for the Times, with whom he has a contract to submit regular pieces.

He will vie for space in the Thunderer with Jonny Wilkinson and the newly retired Martin Johnson. Readers of the Daily Mail will benefit from the wisdom of Martin Corry, England's Six Nations captain. "We are comfortable with the columns being looked over," said Corry's agent, Mark Sporrs of Big Red Management. "England did something similar during the 2003 World Cup."

Woodward is clearly comfortable with Campbell, who landed the Lions job in preference to half-a-dozen candidates put forward by senior rugby journalists. Woodward sent Campbell a supportive text message during Michael Howard's "liar" attacks on Blair in the general election campaign - "stick to the issues, not insults" - and will expect the same in return. Campbell is accustomed to being a newsmaker as well as a disseminator - whether by running the London Marathon for leukaemia research or sending four-letter emails to Newsnight. He was happy to give the BBC a television interview in the Vale of Glamorgan, albeit on the subject of Leighton James, a footballing hero of Burnley and Wales. At a Lions bonding session he had his shoulders massaged by the 6ft 2in England hooker Steve Thompson.

"The difference I am finding with the rugby-reporting fraternity," Campbell said, "is that they ask tough questions but basically they hope the Lions win. With the political press, they're hoping things go wrong.

"We felt we were giving them quite a lot, and they were taking it, but at the same time they just wanted to slag you off. It got very ugly and messy."

The rottweilers of the New Zealand rugby media will have their teeth and claws sharpened for the Lions, and Campbell concedes they are "out to get me". Whether they prove as tough as the Westminster pack remains to be seen, but already he has helped raise eyebrows with the announcement, jointly with Clarence House, of Prince William joining the tour party.

As for Healey, he of the "plank" and "ape" jibes, he is beyond Campbell's control, on the outside looking in with a column in the Observer.

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