John Lanchester has a terrific review of Alastair Campbell’s diaries in the current London review of Books. Excerpt:
Relations between government and media in Britain are always going to be oppositional. For the Labour Party, there is a further complication, in that newspapers tend to have proprietors, and those proprietors tend to be right-wing. The choice is between ignoring the relevant newspapers or courting them. New Labour chose to do the second thing, on the basis that the press, especially the Murdoch press and especially especially the Sun, had played a central role in beating Labour in the 1992 general election. When Blair took over as leader in 1994, he had an overwhelming sense that he needed to court the press, in particular the party’s traditional enemies on the right. As he said in 2000,
“Under Thatcher . . . they got drunk on the power she let them wield and then they tore Major to shreds, in part with our complicity. Also, for pragmatic reasons, we entered into a whole series of basically dishonest relationships with them and now they realised that. They realised that they actually have less power than they did and they see us as all-powerful and they want their power back. So there was no point in all-out war, because at the moment we have the upper hand.”
The person to whom Blair said that was Alastair Campbell, whom he appointed to run his press operation shortly after becoming party leader. It is worth noticing how accurate Blair’s sense of the press-government relationship is: it makes you wonder, if he saw things so clearly, how on earth he could have put Campbell in charge. There is a structural problem with the government and the press; there is a historical problem with Labour and the press; so this was always going to be a tricky subject for Labour in office. Who to put in charge of this complex, delicate area? I know: let’s find our angriest, shoutiest, most tribal, most aggressive party loyalist. As Craig Brown joked in the Mail on Sunday, it is as if, instead of turning to Doctor Watson for advice, Sherlock Holmes had instead consulted the Hound of the Baskervilles. Campbell is a political journalist who, as part of a not-all-that-complex self-loathing, despises political journalists, a recovering drunk of the type that is angry with everybody all the time, a foul-mouthed natural bully who genuinely hated most of the people it was his job to deal with on a daily basis, and made no secret of it. ¡Olé! Sign him up!
Reading the Diaries, one has to remind oneself that in terms of Blair’s relations with the public, the book mostly covers the good years, when we more or less still believed him. You would never know that from reading Campbell. Right from the start he is boiling with rage. Barely a page passes without someone being called a twat, prat, cunt or wanker. He combines a remorselessly tribal and one-sided approach with a complete conviction about his own high moral purpose. All this adds up to his being, in the phrase of Charles Moore, ‘the most pointlessly combative person in human history’.
It’s a very perceptive piece in which Lanchester identifies the two black holes in the diaries — the excising of all relevant material about the Blair-Brown relationship; and any account of Campbell’s own sinister briefing activities.