Campbell's Soup Oct 26, '07 2:20 AM
I had rather dismissed the Campbell Diaries as yet another retiree capitalising on his former position. I mean - who keeps detailed diaries except someone going to sell up when they retire? And it'll presumably be a best seller, because it's him writing the book.
For those who don't know, Alastair Campbell was Tony Blair's right hand man, hated by the media. The man who invented spin. The man who was so obsessed with presentation, he was probably responsible for the Iraq war and the death of David Kelly. He was so powerful that when Development Minister Clare Short resigned, the first person she rang was him. 'Don't you think you should be speaking to Tony?' He suggested. 'Oh, I thought you'd be angry,' she replied. I thought I'd better get it over with . . .!'
He resigned in 2003 but came back to help with the election in 2005. So he's written his memoirs, clearly an insight into the Blair years.
Or is it? My ears first pricked up when he was interviewed on the Today programme. His 2.5m word diaries, he claimed, have been edited to 350,000 words for publication. So what has he cut out, I immediately thought? Well, of course he's filtered out anything about Gordon Brown and anything that might affect his chances in the next election. He has also made sure that there is nothing there that can harm Blair. What can that leave in the soup I wonder?
I also wondered how a man who runs the PM's office managed to find time to write 2.5m words while he was working. Well, of course he didn't. He has said in his press publicity that he wrote his diary most nights after retiring for the night. I'm not saying he's been economical with the truth - God forbid that the King of Spin should not be as open as possible in his book, but I wonder simply how much detail he did remember when he got round to writing it all down. Can we rely on his account of the truth? How has he subsequently edited this account of the Blair years? How has he thickened this thinned out soup?
I have only read published extracts of course, but in conversation he is apparently unable to recall names and dates and sequences of events; itÃ¢Â€Â™s not clear whether this is deliberate. And I have to say, for a man reviled by the press, the newspapers have found curiously little to get their teeth into in the content of the book.
But the key point about his reign, that I'm sure colours his writing, is that the more he tried to get his version of events across to the media, the more sceptical they became. 'I was determined we were going to set the agenda,' he is supposed to have said, 'not the media . . .' But the media gradually came to mistrust anything he said and report accordingly.
And this is what spurred me to write something. We all accept what is now called spin. It is simply what used to be called 'presentation'. If you want to put taxes up, you don't say 'I'm going to take more money away from you, people of Britain. Sorry. Please still vote for me.' You might explain how Britain is beleaguered and everyone needs to play their part in boosting the economy, or you might explain that the rest of world has higher taxes than Britain, so our taxes are being brought more into line, you might even just blame it directly on the EU, or you might 'leak' to the press that taxes have to go up 10% and then the following week announce that you've managed to keep tax increases to 2 ½ %, or whatever. What I mean is that all this is normal and understandable. People have generally to accept your policies and they will accept this kind of persuasion.
But I have a great respect for the media and, if they are not able to explain what is happening in Government because of some dubious press release or threat from No 10, and if information emanating from the Press Secretary is always taken as gospel, and if the media's efforts to probe the truth are also finessed, then democracy begins to be overridden. We vote our government in and have to accept a certain amount of devolution of authority to it. But I reserve the right to question and challenge all they do. If our press are only able to present us with No 10 controlled news, how can I exercise that right?
Campbell admitted in the radio interview that his aim was to ensure that the labour government won at all costs. This implies to me that government policies were not as important as the popularity of the party. What does that mean for me? Are the policies aimed at me or is No 10 simply trying to deceive me about the aims of the party and its policies? I used to think the term 'spin' was a media-invented word to denigrate what Campbell was doing and that what he was doing was only what diplomats and indeed sections of the press do - present the news from their perspective. But, maybe the press were right; maybe there was something more sinister there. Whatever - I will consume this soup with a pinch of salt.