PR lessons from the Campbell diaries

Claire Murphy mines Alastair Campbell's diaries for ten classic moments of PR life at the heart of the Blair government.

Apart from the political revelations, Alastair Campbell’s book is peppered with anecdotes that will ring true with any PRO. Briefing cock-ups, spirited encounters with journalists and turf wars are all covered in fascinating detail.

01. Monetary mess
Early in Blair’s premiership both Campbell and Gordon Brown’s press secretary Charlie Whelan (now a PRWeek columnist) had a hand in briefing the press on the message that Blair had ruled Britain out of European Monetary Union for the the first term.

‘It was quiet until after 10, when TB [Blair] called ­after he had seen the news and said, what the hell is going on? “We never agreed to this.” I suddenly realised that because I had not checked and double-checked with TB, we had briefed an enormous story on the basis of a cock-up.’

02. Judging journalists
‘It was John Sergeant’s first day as ITN political editor and his first question was about Dobbo’s [mayoral candidate Frank Dobson] beard. I said: “Is that the debut story?” To which he replied: “Is that the debut insult?”’

In 2000, Andrew Marr became BBC political editor. Campbell recorded that ‘on balance it was probably good news’, although he went on to say ‘it was slightly alarming the extent to which he talked about himself, rather than politics or politicians’.

03. News of the World
In the wake of the story about Robin Cook’s ­affair, Campbell ‘got a deal from [News of the World editor Phil] Hall that they would let me the see the copy in advance, and consult on headlines, even if I couldn’t change them. It barely read like a News of the World exposé at all. It was very sympathetic, the headlines were basically onside, and totally based on statements. They allowed us to make a couple of changes. The inside pages consisted of Robin’s statement, my statement, the background and a glowing profile of Robin.’

04. Breaking news
When Princess Diana was still mortally injured, the Labour Party’s media monitoring unit paged Campbell at 2am with the message ‘Car crash in Paris. Dodi killed. Di hurt. This is not a joke’. He notes that journalists calling him were ‘breathless with excitement’.

05. Funeral planning
Campbell can’t resist pointing out his role in Diana’s funeral: ‘The press was going too hard on the notion that Blair was saving the show. In truth they [the Royal family] had pretty much delegated a lot of the judgement to him, and he to me. Later, we watched the crowds surging towards the hearse in the ­funeral procession along an extended route, which had been our idea. I couldn’t resist saying, “I did that”.’

06. Tabloid rivalry
Dealing with the The Sun and The Mirror was ‘like having two mistresses. It was a fucking nightmare. Both thought they were entitled to special treatment.’

07. Women trouble
Campbell’s version of the Women’s Institute speech saga is that he saw it coming; ‘Peter Mandelson and Anji [Hunter] argued that it really was TB’s voice and would do the trick of connecting him back in the way we wanted. I felt … there was a real danger it would be seen as whimsy and nostalgia and open to parody.’

08. Kelly identified
‘The BBC story was going away because they [the media in general] were refusing to take on the source idea. There was a big conspiracy at work really. The biggest thing needed was the source out. We agreed that we should not do it ourselves, so didn’t, but later in the day the FT, The Guardian and after a while Mike Evans [defence correspondent of The Times] got the name.’

09. Prescott fun
Amid the threat of a missile attack on Heath­row in February 2003, a lighter moment at the start of a security meeting: ‘JP [Prescott] walked in and said to me, “Did you see Gordon’s first answer on Frost? What a laugh.” I then nodded to the other side of the table where GB was sitting, staring down at his notes, pretending not to hear, JP not having seen him.’

10. Bush on Campbell
‘You’re just like a faucet [tap]. Can’t stop leaking.’

An insider’s view on what we learn

Bernard Ingham once described the No 10 job as skating over an enormous lake of thin ice, all day, every day.

Campbell sees it differently. War is his abiding theme. War with the Serbs; Iraq; Charlie Whelan; Carole Caplin; and, of course, the media, particularly the BBC.

In that sense, The Blair Years (r) is a very honest book. Campbell is a control freak (his words), driven by his own perfectionism to fill the stereotype created by his critics – the real deputy prime minister.

It is great journalism in the original sense. He vividly charts frustration, elation, despair at the wear and tear on his family life, his anger with almost everyone.

But ultimately, the subtitle, Extracts from Alastair Campbell’s Diaries, is all too accurate. Look for an event that sticks in the mind and, as often as not, it’s missing.

Few who were there will forget – just after the 1997 election –when the Government’s heads of information were assembled. Peter Mandelson and Campbell told us how important we were.

We know what will happen now we’re in power, they said. The discipline forged in opposition will vanish as ministers build their own baronies. “We see you as the shock troops to stop that.”

Well, shocked, at least. They weren’t worried by the consti­tutional nicety that we took our orders from our ministers. But there is no mention of this – or that 18 months later, most of us would be gone, casualties of another war.


Mike Granatt (l) is a consultant at Luther Pendragon and was direc­tor general at the Govern­ment Information and Communi­cation Service between 1997 and 2003

 

 

Download our video podcast to hear Martin Le Jeune, director of Open Road, talk about Campbell’s book

 

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