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Last Updated: Monday, 19 April 2004, 15:38 GMT 16:38 UK
The court of public opinion
By Dickon Hooper
BBC News Online, Bristol

"The national press can only operate at the level of frenzy, scandal and crisis. Most scandals and most crises [in government] are not that.

"They are the daily business when difficult things are being handled at 120 miles an hour."

Alastair Campbell

Alastair Campbell's words - and he should know.

So what questions do you ask the man who spent years at Tony Blair's side?

The former spin doctor is in Bristol to play the city's Colston Hall on Tuesday as part of 15 UK "tour" dates.

He regales the audience with a 30 minute introduction of "anecdotes and the big moments" before taking questions from the floor.

"There have been some, um, forthright questions, yes. But very little abuse compared to what I thought there might be," he told BBC News Online.

During the time of the Hutton report, Campbell says there were demonstrations outside his house and that his nine-year-old daughter was presented with pictures of dead Iraqis.

So abuse is something he knows about.

For all the media rumours about the former journalist's personality, he is charming and answers questions with a forthrightness sometimes lacking in politicians.

But this is part of his point, and reason behind the theatre tour: the need for a "new working relationship between the media and politicians".

The code of the Press Complaints Commission is very good. If it was upheld, it would be even better
Alastair Campbell
Hold the inevitable sense of irony for a moment and let the man speak.

"There has to be a change as it is so poisonous, and it needs to come from both sides.

"Politicians need to re-legitimise political communication and get rid of the whole notion of spin.

"And they need to be more engaging. The public aren't stupid. If the public believed the image of me as depicted by the press, I wouldn't be able to go anywhere.

"The papers can only say everything is brilliant or terrible - there is no in between.

The Daily Mail

"The code of the Press Complaints Commission is very good. If it was upheld, it would be even better."

But isn't the government itself in hock to the most vitriolic media out there?

Surely, it should take a stand and face down the doomsayers as part of its side of the bargain.

"The government gave up on The Daily Mail a long time ago. I haven't spoken to editor Paul Dacre, and the PM hasn't, since some time before the last election.

"There is no point. It is a horrible paper.

"But I don't think the government plays its policy to the tabloids."

Alastair Campbell

What about reengaging the public - and in particular the disenfranchised element who feel no connection to the political process and are concerned that their voice is not being heard.

Campbell rules out electoral reform to address this: "I am totally against Proportional Representation.

"Maybe it is different at a regional level. But for Westminster, you need a strong government.

"Look at other European models. I don't believe there are more effective governments with PR.

"People have a responsibility to get involved and I am certainly in favour of compulsory voting.

"If people vote, they take time to think about the issues."

Iraq legacy

He rejects the notion that even activists become disengaged when they feel their voice isn't being heard: like over Iraq war, or the promise - broken or otherwise - on top-up fees.

"The promise has been upheld: top-up fees are not happening in this parliament - you can say that is weasely and I can see why you would.

"In the end, is the government making the right decision for the future of this country?

"Circumstances change and you have to adapt."

So, practical politics wins out over idealist politics: but then, students of New Labour do not need Campbell to tell them this.

Some left wing critics have even argued that Labour has moved so far to the right that the Tories have no room to manoeuvre in.

"We're a centre-ground party. A centre-left party. Labour is dominant in the centre ground in British politics, a progressive, social democratic party."

The opposition, he says, is now "a better attack machine than they were, but has no agenda for the country.

"We had a big agenda and Tony captured a sense of optimism: he still has it. If you say to people, Blair or Howard for future optimism, what would they say?"

In some ways, Campbell is putting himself before the court of public opinion with this tour and these interviews.

He is adamant neither himself nor Blair will be remembered in the main for Iraq, citing a strong economy and the minimum wage amongst other things, as the party's legacies.

But you have to wonder.

Profile: Alastair Campbell
29 Aug 03 |  UK Politics
'Why I quit' - Campbell interview
29 Aug 03 |  UK Politics
Campbell to face MPs' questions
17 Apr 04 |  UK Politics

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