The Sketch: A grim tale - the secret diary of a spinmeister

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The Independent Online

As diary entries go, they were hardly the stuff of Pepys, Crossman or Benn.

Yet when Alastair Campbell took to the witness box at the Hutton Inquiry yesterday, it wasn't the spinmeister himself but his personal journal that turned out to be the day's star performer.

Not so much Adrian Mole as Hunt the Mole, the "Secret Diary of Alastair C, aged 48 and three quarters" offered a fascinating glimpse of the Blair Downing Street years.

Mr Campbell has long advocated a dictum that in a 24-hour media age, no news story lasts longer than 11 days. As the row over Andrew Gilligan's "sexing up" broadcast entered its 82nd day, it was clear this was one story that was not going to go away.

He arrived in court complete with the buzzcut hairstyle and beaky nose that make him the spitting image of The Muppets' Sam the Eagle.

But the Prime Minister's director of communications and strategy is nobody's puppet and in more than four hours of evidence achieved exactly the right pitch of calm authority that makes him so feared by Cabinet ministers and permanent secretaries.

To aid his memory, he had been allowed to read from his potentially lucrative diaries. "It's not intended for publication," he stressed, to a muffled guffaw from someone.

His lawyers had earlier warned him not to "give speeches" about his bitter battle with the BBC and so he let his fingers do the talking, following each entry with his forefinger and reading its contents.

It covered not just Mr Blair, but chats with all the senior figures in Downing Street, together with "C", the head of MI6 and several other "spooks".

He has sometimes been described as the Arnold Schwarzenegger of Downing Street. If so, it was obvious yesterday that the film on show was Terminator, not Total Recall. One lost count of the number of times he got out of a tricky question by saying "I don't have a recollection of that".

The communications chief was downhearted when asked about the blizzard of complaints he had sent to the BBC's director of news, Richard Sambrook. His diary showed that he worried about the BBC's "lack of ethics" over the story. "It was grim, grim for me and grim for TB and there's this huge stuff about trust," one entry read.

He decided to talk to John Birt, the former BBC director general, for support. Hell, he was so desperate he phoned Peter Mandelson for advice at the height of the affair.

But after going before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, he felt a lot better. "I found it gruelling, I was exhausted but I felt a lot better and I had opened a flank on the BBC," he wrote.

The row was far from over, though. We learned that on 27 June, Mr Campbell was at Wimbledon with his son when he was rung by his office, who explained that the BBC had yet again refused to apologise.

"It led within me to a mounting sense of anger and frustration ... My response was angry, and was probably too angry."

The mild mannered dad on a day off suddenly turned back in to the incredible sulk, (you wouldn't like him when he's angry) ditched his Pimms and stormed off to vent his spleen on Channel 4 News.

Mr Campbell became more and more distressed about the whole affair and Mr Blair's unwillingess to let him off the leash.

Then, just as the day was winding up, Mr Dingemans offered the depressed Mr Campbell a form of electronic Prozac. An e-mail showed Mr Gilligan had contacted the Liberal Democrats in an attempt to skew the Foreign Affairs Committee's own grilling of Dr Kelly. Mr Campbell couldn't hide his glee.

With that he headed off to pen the night's diary entry for 19 August 2003. What it says is likely to cost some publisher a cool £1m at least.