I thought the Alastair Campbell at the Leveson Inquiry was an impersonator
Winston Churchill said: “History is always written by the victors.” I was reminded of this quote when listening to and reading Alastair Campbell’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry this week.
Alastair has always been a compelling performer, and his appearance at the probe into press standards did not disappoint. Lip-curled with disgust, he railed against the appalling collapse in press standards since his day as Political Editor of the Daily Mirror.
So convincing was his performance that I began to wonder if I was, in fact, watching a very clever impersonator. Was this really the Alastair I have known for 15 years, since my days as a young political reporter for the Liverpool Echo?
Was this the Alastair who invented the “fact” that Sir John Major wore his shirt tucked in his underpants? Was this the Alastair who hinted to me and other Sunday Lobby journalists that Peter Mandelson may have been mentally unbalanced during his second resignation? That conversation doesn’t appear in his diaries, but it happened.
Was this also the same Alastair who persuaded Tony Blair to support numerous News of the World campaigns – to tighten up the law on sex offenders and to increase the compensation paid to the victims of the 7/7 bomb attacks?
Was this the same Alastair who arranged annual lunches in Downing Street with the News of the World senior editorial team, and forged friendships between Tony, Cherie and our senior executives?
Was this also the same Alastair who encouraged Andy Coulson and me to ask Tony and Cherie Blair if they were members of the Mile High Club, knowing it would make a fantastic headline in the News of the World just before the 2001 General Election? He liked that trick, because in the 2005 campaign The Sun was encouraged to ask the same question!
Don’t get me wrong; I have enormous respect and admiration for Alastair. The media operation he built at the Labour Party and took into Government was the best we have ever seen. I believe he is honest, committed and a very courageous man.
Also, I never wrote any of those “process” stories about the Downing Street spin machine. They were doing their job, we were benefitting from it sometimes and fighting against it the next. To analyse that always seemed a pathetic form of navel-gazing to me.
In many ways, I owe him a lot. I’m told that he recommended me for my first job on Fleet Street, as Political Editor of the News of the World.
Winston Churchill’s comment about being able to shape history is precisely what Alastair is doing now, from beyond the political grave. But Churchill was aware that he who writes first only gets to write the first draft.
Millions of words have been spent on New Labour’s relationship with the media, and with News International in particular, and I don’t propose to add too many more to them.
But a few memories of Alastair’s way of operating should be remembered when listening to his comments on the state of the Press today. His memory is selective.
I recall him telling Rebekah Brooks when she was Editor of the News of the World that his infamous “grid” of government announcements had never been leaked to the Press. I was stood beside them at the time, with a copy of next week’s grid in my inside pocket, faxed over by a mate at another government department ... a weekly event.
I also remember being summoned into the editor’s office about six months before the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Rebekah had seen Alastair and wanted to know why I had not put up a story detailing human rights abuses by Saddam Hussein’s soldiers in a little known prison called Abu Ghraib. I explained that the story was old. The United Nations monitors still operating in Iraq had concerns about it and the only paper to run it unchecked was a broadsheet. This was vintage Alastair – if those nasty hacks in the Lobby didn’t buy a story he would simply, undeterred, flog it to editors or columnists and warn that their own useless reporters were missing a belter!
Even at the last election, Alastair was instrumental in Labour’s strategy, which was a good plan, to stay close to the News of the World after The Sun came out for Labour. It was the tight thing to do, as many former Cabinet Ministers will acknowledge we gave them a fair hearing.
The Leveson inquiry has been uncomfortable viewing for many journalists, especially those of us who spent a long time working at the News of the World.
We are as shocked as anyone at the appalling behaviour displayed by some of our former colleagues. Many of us also feel ashamed crimes were committed on behalf of the paper we championed for so long.
However, some parts of the media, and News International in particular, have forgotten to point out that so far little more than a dozen of the 400 plus people who worked at the News of the World during the time that phone hacking was occurring have been arrested. When we say we did not know it was going on, most of us are telling the truth.
In his evidence, Alastair said: “All I will say is that in relation to all of us who were in government at that time, all sorts of stuff got out ... You'd just sit there scratching your head thinking how did that get out? Given what we know now I have revised my opinion in several regards as to how stuff may have got out.”
Politics leaks like sieve. If you know who to ask it is possible to find out almost anything. Recent stories such as the fall of Liam Fox are proof of that. I’m afraid that Alastair may have forgotten that too when he tried, once again, to settle old scores.