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Friday, 14 July, 2000, 21:19 GMT 22:19 UK
Spinner's slow and televised death

Alastair Campbell telling the lobby what's what
By Austin Mitchell MP

I had been looking forward to Michael Cockrell's long awaited (and overlong) fly-on-the-wall documentary about Alastair Campbell, the Czar of Spin.

Here was to be an inside dopester's guide to Downing Street and a child's guide to spin. It ended up as 30 days in the televised death of Alastair Campbell.


Tony Blair: "More actor than actor-manager"
Campbell starts off managing the press in masterly counter-punching fashion, but ends it staggering under a series of disasters from the Women's Institute speech to Ken Follett's denunciation of spin and spinners.

I started out favourable to Alastair. He is a master of his art and the best press man Number 10 has ever had (even including Bernard Ingham).

I ended up even more favourable (which was doubtless the intention).

Here is a man uninhibited enough and in control both of the facts (far more so than mere ministers) and of the murky swirling waters - where the flow of news and guff from government meets the tributary of trivia, prejudice, inanity and know-all aggressiveness from the media - to create the half-truths we read, see and hear daily.

No one else emerges well

Alastair emerges as a brilliant master of his art and his facts, deftly brushing aside criticism, hostility and attacks.

No one else emerged at all well. Not the media journalists whose questioning was always softball, even sycophantic.

They claimed more knowledge than they had and played pundits rather than assiduously pursuing the truth.

No Perry Masons here, but a club of accomplices rather than a rat pack. All fawned on power, all were complicit in the spin they rushed to condemn: backbiting in their criticisms of Campbell yet rushing to lament his departure and want him back at the end.

Nor the prime minister who emerged more as actor than actor-manager. Not as weak as the "Blair" in the Bremner, Bird and Fortune sketch on Channel Four.

Yet speaking and repeating lines provided for him, continuously stage-managed ("You'd better move towards him"), or waiting in the wings for entry cues.

A man preoccupied with "clean pictures", how it all looked and sounded and constantly trying to get "on top of the news". In non-sexual fashion.


"A bruiser and a brilliant press officer"
Nor indeed the ministers. The holders of the high offices of state were relegated to bit-parts by Campbell's mastery or, like Peter Mandelson, condemned to gaze with intense adoration at Blair.

Not even Cockrell. His questioning is less than dynamic, deferential, almost pleading as he begs for a bit of a headline, a confession, anything to use as a trail for the programme.

Must-see for insiders only

Thereby hangs a problem. This film is a must-see for the political class and an eye-opener for backbenchers like me fed on a daily diet of pre-cooked pap which, it's now clear, Alastair has prepared earlier by throwing out the media.

Yet it will be insider gobbledegook for anyone else.

To use the old joke about Harold Wilson and Marcia Falkender, "Marcia can't see you for two weeks but the prime minister can see you straight away".

Cockrell started with an over-sympathetic film on Blair to open his way to the man at the top of the tree.

And being fly-on-the-wall, this isn't insight or analysis but a dependant relationship which tells it like it isn't. It can't question power or even tell the truth. Even if it is allowed to see it.

Everyday story of media folk

So it ends up as an everyday story of media folk: sound chaps and chapesses having fun and focused on trivia. Is Cherie going to have the baby by Caesarean section? Does Blair wear make-up?


Why is he leaving the frontline to go "upstairs"?
Was the mug with the kids' pictures a stunt (of course it was, though the film accepts two assertions that it wasn't)?

So at the end of the day (and the film does seem that long) we still don't know if the media really understand what's going on.

Are they hand-fed creeps ("It's a real privilege to get to go to Chequers" quoth Sun editor David Yelland) playing an insider game, or do they balance what they're told against other channels of information?

Nor do we know how much of what really goes on gets through to the people, though Campbell sees the political press as the barrier to the government's "truth".

The one thing we do know is that Alastair is a brilliant press officer. A bruiser. But when the PM would rather do a Dale Winton routine and the media is nit-picking, a press manager needs to be abrasive.

Campbell emerges as an asset to the party and government, perhaps inevitably given the terms the film was made on. But it looks pretty true to me.

So only one question remains unanswered.

Why is a man who obviously loves his job, is clearly on top of it and gets kicks, excitement and fun and humour out of demonstrating his mastery, now going upstairs to a duller, more mundane world which demands civil service skills - not Campbell's kind of inspiration?

"I decided it," says Tony. Did he? Was Alastair kicked upstairs or did he go? Is it temporary or will he (as I'd certainly hope) be drafted back down again?

As on most issues, the Cockrell-Docrill doesn't tell us.


News from Number 10 was screened on Saturday 15 July on BBC 2 at 1940 BST.

Austin Mitchell is Labour MP for Great Grimsby.

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See also:

13 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Campbell makes screen debut
13 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Viewing his master's voice
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Spin-struck from the start
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Downing Street attacks press
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New press chief at Number 10
06 Aug 98 | UK Politics
MPs clear spin doctor
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