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Thursday, 13 July, 2000, 17:31 GMT 18:31 UK
Viewing his master's voice

Tony Blair is watched over by his spokesman
By BBC Political Correspondent Guto Harri

Rory Bremner painted a similar picture, but this is for real. If you laughed at the satirist's portrayal of the relationship between Alastair Campbell and his boss, you will be unnerved by this genuine "fly on the wall".

Those who've argued that the press secretary is the real deputy prime minister will find plenty of new evidence to justify their claim.

Those, like Rory Bremner, who've suggested Tony Blair can't even think without consulting Mr Campbell, will be highly amused.

Journalists who have witnessed Mr Campbell's blend of charm, mockery and menace will not be surprised by much of the footage. But the "lobby" is a small and privileged group.


Alastair Campbell: Charm, mockery and menace
"News from Number Ten" will be fascinating for those who've so far only heard second hand of Mr Campbell's ways and influence.

They will see for themselves how he protects the prime minister, provides the context of most press coverage of the government, deflects criticism and shapes the "message".

Coyness

At his desk we see Mr Campbell sifting through various briefing papers. One is on the visit to London of the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

There is a handful of scribblings Mr Campbell has prepared himself on the main news items of the day. There's also a "message script" for the cabinet.

It's moments like these which justify the endless hours of filming which have gone into this documentary. Alastair Campbell is embarrassed at being asked about the "message script". He's coy. We're curious.

The "message script" is an A4 sheet of paper which has just been distributed to the cabinet. Slowly, Michael Cockerell coaxes Campbell to explain that the script has been prepared so that cabinet ministers know the government's message on the local elections.

Who prepares the script, asks Cockerell? Though he won't say it, Campbell makes it clear it's him.

His no-nonsense relationship with the prime minister is also all too clear. At one point, Campbell cuts across him in mid-sentence and drags Mr Blair away.

At another, he prompts a journalist to ask a question on Northern Ireland in order to shift the focus of a press conference away from Ken Livingstone's victory in the London mayoral contest.


Tony Blair in his press secretary's office: Anxious and defensive
Half-way through one of Cockerell's reflective interviews with Campbell, Tony Blair walks in. It isn't staged, it isn't fixed, and the look of terror on the prime minister's face makes that all too obvious.

He's defensive about the role of his spin-doctor and his reliance upon him. He's anxious, and having suggested he has better things to do, Alastair Campbell asks in a devastating aside why he's just spent seven minutes with a documentary maker.

Role change

Any documentary maker would relish the events which coincided with this film. During the course of its shooting, Alastair Campbell's role changed in a manner no-one had predicted.

Just as the public was about to get a chance to see how he conducts his infamous briefings, he decided to withdraw from most of them.

Criticism of his role by the novelist and Labour fundraiser Ken Follett added a timely spice, and prompted Campbell to deny categorically one of the most serious charges ever levelled against him: that it was he who he told a newspaper journalist that Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown has "psychological flaws".

The programme seeks to explore whose decision it was that Campbell should do less briefing.

Mr Blair tells the programme it was him. But having watched the rest of the show, many might suspect he only says that because Alastair told him to.

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See also:

13 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Campbell makes screen debut
03 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Spin-struck from the start
11 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Downing Street attacks press
14 Jun 00 | UK Politics
New press chief at Number 10
06 Aug 98 | UK Politics
MPs clear spin doctor
23 Jun 98 | UK Politics
Chief spin doctor defends role
11 Jan 99 | UK Politics
Civil war that hit New Labour project
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