Magazine article The Spectator

Alastair Campbell's Mistake Is to Assume That Everyone Else Is like Him

Magazine article The Spectator

Alastair Campbell's Mistake Is to Assume That Everyone Else Is like Him

Article excerpt

It is impossible to dislike Alastair Campbell, the PM's press secretary; he is such a cheerful rogue. At the moment, in the wake of the Blair-Prodi telephone calls, Mr Campbell is more than usually pleased with himself, because no journalist has yet taken up his invitation to call him a liar. But this is a more fragile basis for self-esteem than Mr Campbell seems to realise. There is no need for semantic disputes over the word 'lie'; it is clear that No. 10's initial account of Mr Blair's dealings with Signor Prodi was misleading, as was the Prime Minister's subsequent clarification. He did no more for Mr Murdoch, he tells us, that he would have done for any British businessman. Really? Any businessman? Perhaps it would have been wiser - and more truthful - of Mr Blair to say that the help available to Rupert Murdoch would also be available to any American citizen who controlled important media outlets, and was prepared to instruct some of them to support the Labour party.

Nor was the Prodi affair an isolated lapse. A pattern is emerging. As we saw with Lord Simon, Lord Irvine, Bernie Ecclestone and Geoffrey Robinson, if an inconvenient truth emerges, No. 10's first instinct is to suppress it by giving briefings which are deliberately designed to mislead. The new government has still not learned the Nixon lesson: that the cover-up can get you into more trouble than the original crime would have.

Mr Campbell himself is at fault here, though the blame has to be qualified, given the inadequacy of his moral training. He spent most of his journalistic career at the lowest end of the tabloid market, on newspapers where truth is an optional extra in news stories, as is self-respect among the journalists who write them. Mr Campbell hero-worshipped Robert Maxwell, and appears to have learned some tricks from his late master, especially braggadocio and bullying, as in his memos to Harriet Harman and Frank Field. This is the way he generally writes to most ministers, and that is unprecedented.

Whitehall is notorious for its elaborate courtesies, with rebukes administered - if at all - by raised eyebrows and clearings of the throat: 'Ah, Perkins, old man; the Pelican affair doesn't seem to be turning out quite as we had anticipated.' There are also conventions which used to govern prime ministerial tellings-off. Instead of the PM writing directly to the defaulting minister, a member of the No. 10 private office would write to the minister's private secretary, using him as a whipping-boy. Margaret Thatcher was fully capable of being peremptory with her colleagues, but even she observed the proprieties. When which was often - she wanted to blast Geoffrey Howe in his days as foreign secretary; Charles Powell would send a note to Sir Geoffrey's private office. Everyone in Whitehall knew what was meant, and Mr Powell's notes occasioned much discreet chuckling; his prose usually had a sharp edge. But even Charles Powell - or Bernard Ingham-would never have written directly to ministers in the way that Alastair Campbell does.

Nor is he always wise in his choice of targets. It is fair enough to bully Harriet Harman. She deserves it, and has no means of retaliation. A charmless incompetent, who owes her survival in government solely to her photogenic attributes, Miss Harman will endure any humiliation if only she can cling to office. But Frank Field is another matter. Mr Field is a proud, fastidious and sometimes prickly man. …

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