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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 19 July 2007
On reflection: nothing mattered except promoting the interests of whatever caught Blair’s fancy
How spin can get out of control

Alastair Campbell’s doctoring helped win peace in Northern Ireland but too often, writes Frank Dobson, it distracted
from good government

The Blair Years. By Alastair Campbell
Hutchinson £25.

AFTER the spinning activities of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson started to become stories in themselves, I said to Tony Blair that spin doctors were like poisoners.
“What do you mean?” he asked. “Well”, said I, “there’s a saying that you can be a successful ­poisoner or a famous ­poisoner, but you can’t be both. It’s the same with spin doctors”.
Putting a favourable spin on a news story has been practised for centuries. It was certainly practised by Margaret Thatcher, deploying the undoubted talents of Bernard Ingham who was upset when I used to refer to him as the “Official Deceiver”.
The most successful practitioners of spin manage to do it without the journalists realising that they are being manipulated. Things went wrong with New Labour when they started feeding out stories about how brilliant they were at feeding out stories. The secret weapon was no longer secret.
Alastair Campbell’s diaries start with the spinning going well – a Labour leader getting a good press and a Tory government getting a bad one.
But they end with the slippery slide into the dis­astrous invasion and occupation of Iraq, which, setting aside the monstrous total of injuries and loss of life, has left millions of people in the UK feeling deceived and distrustful.
The scenes depicted in the diaries leave an overwhelming impression that nothing really mattered but the promotion of the interests of Tony Blair – not the Labour government, not the Labour party, not the interests of the British people.
All the effort was directed to Tony Blair and whatever had caught his fancy, from the Dome to George W Bush. This results in part from the understandable No 10 perspective of the diarist.
But even that can’t entirely explain the lack of coverage of what the rest of the government was actually doing.
The Downing Street machine concentrated on the best way to present Tony Blair in a favourable light.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Gordon Brown was getting people back to work, introducing the New Deal and leading the world with help for developing nations, Robin Cook was banning landmines and organising help for beleaguered victims of Milosevic, Donald Dewar was leading Scotland to devolution. Even that Dobson was getting on with launching NHS Direct and NICE, introducing the world’s first meningitis ‘C’ vaccination scheme, making record cuts in waiting lists, getting more doctors and nurses and improving the arrangements for children in care.
All that aside, there is one riveting section of the diaries that should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in politics, in conflict resolution or the interaction of decision-making and news coverage.
That is the section covering the talks leading up to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.
It shows how a government can, for the best of motives, want to influence how news is presented.
Alastair Campbell’s minute-by-minute record illustrates how newspaper coverage, based on leaks and rumours, kept affecting the negotiating stance of the various parties.
It could have torpedoed the whole agreement but the government worked hard to make sure it didn’t.
So spinning can be done in a good cause and bring benefits to us all.
The Good Friday Agreement was Tony Blair’s greatest achievement and no one should deny him credit for it. But I can’t help noting that Mo Mowlam’s vital work in the run-up to the talks doesn’t get much of a mention.
Looking at some of the reviews of The Blair Years reminds me how journalists used to bleat on about how horrid and hectoring Alastair Campbell could be. But as some of them had played a big part in destroying the careers of Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock – two of the most decent people in British politics – I always managed to keep my sympathies under control.
Some of the people who had taken part in venomous feeding frenzies against politicians, prisoners, prelates, publicans and ­sinners were remarkably thin-skinned themselves.
In any case, they should not have made Alastair Campbell the target of their criticism. It’s too easy to attack the advisers of the powerful. Responsibility lies with the people who take the advice.
Tony Blair’s courtiers at No 10 didn’t just get there. He chose them for what they could do for him. And in the end they did do for him because they weren’t of a sufficiently independent turn of mind. They often told him what he wanted to hear rather than what he needed to be told.
That shows in the record of the Labour government. Most of its lasting achievements are the product of mainstream Labour. What has gone wrong is mostly the stuff dearest to Tony Blair’s heart.
I’m pretty confident Alastair Campbell realises that and wishes he had ­spoken out more to his boss.
He always struck me as somewhat out of place among the courtiers at No 10. Among the schmoozing “networkers” who were all the fashion, he stood out as a highly-intelligent, talen­ted, opinionated bruiser.
Maybe in the end, Tony Blair was glad Alastair Campbell became a famous spin doctor, attracting the attacks of the news media.
That way, he served as a lightning conductor or human shield to protect his boss.
It wasn’t part of his original job description, but that’s how he ended up.

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