Alastair Campbell: The spin doctor who became the story

Donald Macintyre
Saturday 05 July 2003 00:00 BST

Alastair Campbell was at Wimbledon's Centre Court watching Venus Williams' easy fourth round win over Nadia Petrova when he took the call on his mobile phone that started the chain of events leading up to his electrifying, finger-wagging interview with Jon Snow on Channel Four News last Friday evening. It was only his second visit to the tournament since, assigned as a young reporter by the Mirror newsdesk 19 years ago to harass Martina Navratilova over rumours of a lesbian relationship, he breezed ticketless through the gates by the simple expedient of donning a logo-emblazoned tracksuit, carrying several rackets and signing a few autographs for some students in the queue, who, like the staff, simply assumed that he was a top player. This time, however, he was legitimately there to watch the tennis, accompanying his son who is much more of a fan of the sport than he is.

The call was from Downing Street with a playback of the response from Richard Sambrook, the BBC's director of news, to Campbell's demand for an apology for the story that he had "sexed up" the previous September's intelligence dossier on Iraq by inserting the claim that Saddam Hussein's chemical weapons could be used at 45 minutes notice. Sambrook, Campbell was told, had raised the stakes by accusing Downing Street of "intimidation" and of conducting a "personal vendetta" against Andrew Gilligan, the correspondent who had produced the story. True to the doctrine, coined by James Carville, the 1992 Clinton campaign boss, that "speed kills", and less than gripped by Ms Williams's command of Centre Court, Campbell dictated then and there what he himself would later call a "very heavy" rebuttal for transmission to the Press Association.

By the time he returned to Downing Street, he discovered first that his own counterblast at the BBC's "defence of the indefensible" had failed to dislodge Mr Sambrook's statement from the top of the bulletins, and second that he had had a request to appear on Channel Four News. The press office had routinely turned it down. But the sudden co-incidence of motive and opportunity was irresistible. Campbell left a message on Jon Snow's own mobile phone, saying that he was ready to appear - provided that he could get clearance from Donald Anderson, the chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, to draw on his own written evidence to the committee. Which he duly did, before setting out for the programme's Gray's Inn Road studios. Where he was met at the door.

The story is instructive, because it cuts across the fanciful but almost universal inference that Campbell's "unannounced" arrival at Gray's Inn Road was the super-impulsive act of a man under strain rushing uninvited into the nearest TV studios to plead his case. Campbell is indeed an emotional man, but he can also be a calculating one, and his decision to appear was a good deal more orderly and premeditated than the subsequent accounts suggested.

Rather the same applies to his original decision to appear before last Tuesday's hearing of the select committee. It was his own and it was high risk. If the committee were still to find against him on the central charge of doctoring the September report, sanctioned by the Joint Intelligence committee (as the committee now looks almost certain not to do when it reports on Monday), he would surely have to go. Which illustrates two truths about Campbell. First, that he still has very good political judgement. And second - as even his fiercest critics are obliged to acknowledge - he has, well, balls.

But the hostilities that this has created between the Government and the BBC - or parts of it - were evident in little ways at Sir David Frost's annual bash, on Thursday night. Campbell had amiable if diplomatic exchanges not only with Frost but with John Simpson, the BBC's world affairs editor. But there was no contact between Campbell and the BBC's chairman Gavyn Davies and director-general Greg Dyke.

Campbell may be unelected, but he is hardly underscrutinised. Virtually every detail and incident of his life is already known, But none of it much helps to answer the big questions this row has now raised about the power of Campbell, along with his own future and that of relations between the Government and the media, for which he is the fulcrum. His sellout performance at the select committee gave a telling glimpse of his formidable reach across Whitehall, possibly greater than that of any single official in modern times. There was actually something in his claim at the hearing that he didn't do policy. Because he is almost unique in the ability to say "no" to Tony Blair, it's easy to assume the claim is absurd. But on the great issues Brown, elected where Campbell isn't, has, as he should do, greater weight. And Campbell is not by nature a policy initiator - though he has owned up to the policy of trying to force yobs to pay fines at cash points.

But that doesn't mean that his strong opinions don't matter, given that he is present - and often vocal - at nearly every meeting that matters. Ninety per cent of his opinions are passionately modernising and Blairite; but he is much more traditional Labour on education - demonstrated by his deep sulk after Harriet Harman was allowed to get away with sending a child to a selective school in 1996. In private he is uncomfortable about specialist schools and even more so about his boss's championship of faith schools. Yet none of this has ever much affected a personal relationship in which Blair, the mimic, and Campbell, mocker of the pompous, are able to make each other laugh extravagantly when alone together, even at moments of tension.

Oddly Campbell has always had an irresistible appeal for a select group of Tories - one of whom is Nick Soames, who rang him at Number 10 this week to say he was having trouble getting on the Today programme to describe a conversation in which Sir Richard Dearlove, the head of MI6, had acquitted Campbell of any doctoring charges. Another intense admirer was the late Alan Clark who describes in his diaries a "gratifying" phone call from Campbell in 1998 during which he was twice offered a peerage, presumably if he came over to Labour.

Yet another is David Davis, who sat through Campbell's entire select committee hearing and went on to a reception held in Campbell's honour by the Leukaemia Research Fund. But none of these would have doubted for a second Campbell's tribal Labourism; rather they were animated by a kind of beyond-party patriotism mixed with an almost morbid fascination for the destruction he had helped to wreak in their own party.

Campbell is undoubtedly vulnerable to the charge that he risked undermining a specific case about one BBC story by opening a wider front against the Corporation when he accused the BBC of having been anti-war and anti-politics. He would argue that he is actually a passionate admirer of the BBC as an institution, and that his hostility is reserved only for parts of it, like Today, which he accuses of peddling "unadulterated cynicism". What is true, is that his real hatred is for the Daily Mail, whose agenda he tends to see elements in the BBC as all too often following. There are ironies here; no one was more dedicated to trying to seduce the Mail - as well as The Sun - in opposition with a manipulative policy of granting exclusive stories in return for favourable coverage, which many Labour supporters argued was always going to backfire in the end. What's clear now, however, is that if Blair is serious about taking on the eurosceptic press, no one will relish it more than Campbell, who converted to the euro a couple of summers ago.

If he's there. On one level, the crucial vindication (however qualified by criticism over the botched second dossier) that Westminster increasingly expects over the 45-minute charge, would make it easier to leave Number 10, as he has several times thought of doing. What's more, he always said he would never go unless his own reputation was in better shape than his enemies'.

Fiona Millar, his partner, will soon be leaving Number 10 (probably for something related to her greatest passion, education), essentially a casualty of the row over Cherie Blair's lifestyle adviser Carole Caplin, who both Millar and Campbell thought and think should never have been allowed by the Blairs to get so close to the family. Certainly in the discussions with Millar over her future beyond Downing Street, Campbell has started seriously to contemplate his own. He was sounded out to run the FA when Adam Crozier left, as he was to run the Olympic bid. He is unlikely ever to make a complete break with public or political life. It would be hard, though not impossible, given his views on what he sees as the decline in much of British journalism, for him to go back to newspapers. And the diary he has kept - not every day but but very frequently, as Dick Crossman did - is a huge property that he has hardly begun to think about ever publishing.

On the other hand, loyalty is part of his addictive and teetotal personality. His closest friends still tend to bet on balance that he will last the course with Blair, leaving as he would a huge vacuum as the Prime Minister's political bodyguard if he didn't. His critics include some in Labour, and ministers have self-interestedly largely left him to defend himself - as he has now so dramatically done. But many across a broad spectrum of the parliamentary party would be distinctly nervous if went. After his Channel Four appearance, Dennis Skinner, the old warhorse of the left, rang to congratulate him. After the select committee hearing, Oonagh King, among others, wrote to him, congratulating him for "making the good case for politics so effectively" - the very thing Campbell frequently complains politicians don't do enough themselves. In answer to the question "what's wrong with Campbell?", the press has filled hundreds of pages over the past few weeks. For the Kings and Skinners, however the answer is still pretty clear: "Not much."



Alastair John Campbell, 25 May 1957, Keighley, Yorkshire


Father Donald a vet, mother Elizabeth. Partner Fiona Millar, two sons and a daughter


City of Leicester Boys' School; Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge (BA, Modern Languages)

Journalistic career

After university, made money writing pornographic stories for the men's magazine Forum.

Mirror Group training scheme, 1980-82;

reporter, Mirror, and Sunday Mirror, 1982-87; appointed news editor of Sunday Today at 29, but the publication faltered and the experience led to an alcoholic breakdown;

political editor and columnist, Mirror and Sunday Mirror, 1987-93; columnist, Today, 1993-95

Political career

Press adviser to a Conservative councillor in Tavistock, 1980; unofficial adviser to Neil Kinnock, 1987-92; press secretary to Tony Blair from 1994 (as Prime Minister since 1997). In 2000 he became the Prime Minister's Director of Communications and Strategy

He says

"Go to a town, find a busy bar, find a journalist, preferably pissed. Buy him a Bloody Mary, tell him you love his town; the morning paper does a nice article and for a day or two you're a local celebrity".

They say

"He despises the parliamentary lobby, but plays it like a violin." - Peter Oborne, Campbell's biographer

"This is Alastair Campbell. He gets more publicity than I do." - Tony Blair

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