Andy McSmith: My friend, the disaster

At a personal level, he was scrupulously honest. You never needed to wonder what he was saying behind your back
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There were a couple of times when I was mistaken for a close mate of Alastair Campbell. I do not wish to speak ill of him, because he was not a bad guy to work with and he served Tony Blair and New Labour very well, but as a "friend" of mine he was a disaster.

Twelve years ago, when I was a political correspondent on the Daily Mirror and Alastair was political editor, there was a Tory MP named Rupert Allason who took exception to him. Now, when people take against Ala- stair, it is generally not usually a case of mild dislike. They loathe him. Allason loathed him, to a point where Hansard once recorded him taunting Alastair, who was sitting up in the press gallery while Allason spoke from the floor of the Commons. One day, Allason spotted an unsigned article in the Daily Mirror which he considered damaging to his reputation, and decided to sue.

Some Labour MP helpfully told Allason that I was a friend of Alastair's and had written the offending piece because he put me up to it. I was not guilty on any of these counts, but I was hauled up all the same as a defendant in a long and highly publicised court case. The upshot, I am pleased to say, was that the judge believed every word I said, calling me "an impressive witness whose evidence had the firm ring of truth", while dismissing Alastair as someone much less trustworthy. So I escaped that one.

However, before the case reached a judge, it appears to have placed in the minds of the Daily Mirror's new management that I was Alastair's mate. This was also another disaster for me, because there had been a spectacular falling-out between Alastair and David Montgomery, who had taken control of the Mirror in a boardroom coup several months after the death of Robert Maxwell. Alastair resigned one day in spring 1993. Only he did not go quietly, as most people do. On the contrary, he created so many waves that his going became an item of national news.

At that time, Alastair used to do a turn presenting a television programme called What the Papers Say. He managed with singular immodesty to devote the whole of one week's programme to what other newspapers had written about his departure from the Daily Mirror, and how that might affect the Mirror's relationship with the Labour Party. He even fussily corrected one report which got his age wrong.

In the circumstances, the Mirror management obviously wanted to get back at Alastair by sacking someone in the political team. There were a number of possibilities. The other correspondents on the Daily Mirror were David Bradshaw, who now works in Downing Street, and Sheree Dodd, now at the Department of Trade. The political editor of the Sunday Mirror was Peter MacMahon, who went on to be press spokesman for the Scottish First Secretary, Henry McLeish, and Campbell's successor at the Daily Mirror was John Williams, now at the Foreign Office. But with all these future government officials to choose from, the idiots sacked me.

I cannot blame Alastair for these personal misfortunes. They were part of what made him an interesting but very difficult person to work for. He was domineering, driven, obsessive and utterly competitive. Whatever someone said or did, Alastair had to go one better. I had more than one conversation with him in which he informed me that he was a better tabloid journalist.

However, it is palpably false to suggest, as some have done, that Campbell was a liar or a sycophant. It is well known that he punched Michael White, political editor of The Guardian, for making an off-colour remark in the Commons on the day Robert Maxwell died. It is less well known that when Maxwell was alive, he was once so enraged by the way Campbell spoke to him that he had to be talked out of sacking him for insolence.

At a personal level, he was also scrupulously honest. You never needed to wonder what he was saying behind your back. There was one of those embarrassing occasions in the Daily Mirror room at the House of Commons when we were all talking about a journalist from another newspaper as the man himself unexpectedly turned up. Instead of falling into frozen silence, Campbell rose to the occasion by calmly repeating to him what everyone had just said. That was a bit brutal, but it was honest.

There was one party conference at which an attractive female Swedish journalist turned up with nowhere to stay the night. Alastair found out and told her that she could borrow one of the hotel rooms reserved by the Daily Mirror. She accepted the offer, but obviously thought there was a catch to it. We know because when we got back to the House of Commons, a postcard arrived on Alastair's desk, thanking him for his hospitality and adding: "You obviously know a great deal about British politics, and nothing at all about Scandinavian morals."

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