Campbell brings in dark arts as Lions and All Blacks clash

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The Independent Online

There have been allegations of censorship, media manipulation and favouritism towards journalists prepared to toe the party line. But this is not the communications strategy of a political party in campaign mode, but the matter of a rugby tour to New Zealand.

The man at the centre of the controversy - a place that is his natural habitat - is Alastair Campbell, the former director of communications at No 10 who now performs the same role for the British and Irish Lions with as much spin as a scrum-half's pass.

Mr Campbell, 47, was appointed - apparently on the suggestion of two rugby union writers - by the Lions manager, Sir Clive Woodward, who was knighted for turning the England team into world champions.

When journalists and communications chiefs come into contact in the pressured atmosphere of such a tour, tensions are never far away. And relations soured at the weekend after the Lions' 21-3 defeat by the All Blacks in the first Test match of their three-Test tour.

Two minutes into the match, the Lions' captain, Brian O'Driscoll, was invalided out of the tour when he suffered a dislocated shoulder in a tackle that was either robust or a cynical assault, depending on your viewpoint.

After the match, Sir Clive and Mr Campbell made a midnight visit to the media's hotel in Christchurch to announce his intention to report the two "offending" Kiwi players to the disciplinary authorities in what appeared to be an attempt to divert attention from an abject performance. For the second press conference of the day, a large screen was erected to show repeatedly in slow motion the O'Driscoll incident, which occupied two-thirds of the session while questions over selection remained hanging.

Certainly, the rules of engagement for the media have changed since the previous Lions tour, to Australia four years ago, when players revealed their frustration with the team's management in newspaper columns. Now such musings must first be vetted by the media team - about half a dozen press officers, with Mr Campbell at the helm - before they make it into print.

In an attempt to demystify the opposition, no player is allowed to write about the All Blacks - they must be referred to as New Zealanders. When one player dared to write that after stepping off the flight from the UK, some of the squad went for a beer, that was altered to say "stroll" before it was printed. And for those prepared to lavish praise on the team's new anthem, "The Power of Four", improved access to players has apparently been offered.

The British Rugby Writers Association complained about such editorial influence, considering Mr Campbell writes his own column for The Times.

Hugh Robertson, the Tory sports spokesman, said: "You need a sophisticated communications specialist, but not a controversial political figure who has made his name in the black arts of politics.

"It has reached the silly stage and sounds very unreasonable. He is employing the techniques learnt at No 10, where he came unstuck at the end. I have always doubted the wisdom of taking a politically controversial character such as Campbell ... It's more trouble than it's worth."

Others see Mr Campbell's role as fitting for an outfit that has has embraced professionalism to the extent that for 45 players there are 30 assistants in the tour party, at a total cost of £9m.

Derek Wyatt MP, a member of the select committee for culture, media and sport, said: "My own feeling is that you should do it on the pitch and if you don't do it on the pitch then don't moan."