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Independent June 15 2004

Campbell: the wages of spin

In this extract from a new biography, Peter Oborne and Simon Walters reveal how Alastair Campbell's skill in handling the media rebounded against him and his boss

15 June 2004

If it was necessary to obstruct, bully or mislead reporters in the course of his duties Alastair Campbell would do so, for his overriding loyalty lay with Tony Blair. Campbell stopped at nothing to protect the Prime Minister. His defenders argued that his behaviour simply reflected the moral code of Westminster. They argued he was doing no more than Joe Haines and Bernard Ingham had done. Both were prepared to rough up the lobby if it suited their purposes. But Campbell went much further. Neither Haines nor Ingham had a fraction of the power that Campbell had over the whole of Whitehall. Neither had the same status as equal partner to the Prime Minister. Neither had the same politically motivated staff and sophisticated media apparatus at their fingertips. And neither took the art of manipulation and disinformation to such extremes.

The most astonishing example of Campbell's boldness in handling the tabloid newspapers came when the Daily Mirror secured the mouth-watering exclusive that 45-year-old Cherie Blair was pregnant. The Mirror dutifully went to Downing Street for confirmation before it ran its story. When the first editions appeared it was flabbergasted and horrified to see that The Sun had been given the story as well. New Labour's greatest triumph had been to persuade Rupert Murdoch to dedicate The Sun to its cause. Having got it there Campbell would do whatever was necessary to keep it there. Favours flooded in and this seemed another of them.

A livid Piers Morgan, editor of the Daily Mirror, rang Campbell to protest furiously. Things became so desperate that at the other end of the line Campbell recruited Tony Blair to help cope with the furious Daily Mirror editor. An extraordinary three-way conversation followed, in which Campbell, hand on heart, explained that the whole thing was just a terrible mistake.

He explained that The Sun had got the story thanks to an extraordinary coincidence. Alastair Campbell's explanation went as follows: Sun deputy editor Rebekah Wade had happened to have rung Cherie Blair that very day. By a still greater chance, the Downing Street switchboard put Wade straight through to the Downing Street flat. As it happened Cherie Blair was passing as the phone rang, and she picked it up. Finding it was her old friend Rebekah at the other end of the phone, Cherie stopped for a chat, and felt "that she had no choice" but to tell her the happy news as well. The Prime Minister was silent while Campbell spun an incredulous Morgan this astonishing yarn, though he muttered assent from time to time.

Two months later a seething Morgan expressed his utter outrage about the affair to Fiona Millar, Campbell's partner and Cherie's advisor, who told him the real story. It was nothing like the transparent fiction that Alastair Campbell had tried to fob him off with, with Tony Blair listening in without protesting. The Campbell-Millars were well aware that the Prime Minister's wife never liked Piers Morgan, or the Daily Mirror. So they had waited till as late as possible before telling Cherie the news that the Mirror was onto the story. As they had predicted, she was furious, and started shouting at Fiona. Cherie was so angry that she promptly picked up the phone and rang Wade and told her the story as well.

Campbell should have been content with the press New Labour enjoyed for its first six years in government - but he was not. He would not rest until he controlled them all. The mass-market tabloids were Labour, the Mirror albeit reluctantly. In the middle market the Express had converted itself from Tory to Labour. The Mail, however, the paper of middle England, refused to come across: this was a cause of great distress to New Labour. Intimates revealed that Tony Blair was "heartbroken" about the Mail. Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell devoted prodigious efforts to winning over Paul Dacre, now editor-in-chief at the Mail. Blair enthused to Dacre that the Daily Mail stood for many of the things that he too believed in - family values, self-reliance, enterprise. The young Prime Minister told Dacre that the Mail was "the only authentic voice in Fleet Street", and would heap opprobrium on The Guardian, telling Dacre that "if The Guardian approved of me, something must be wrong".

Campbell revelled in upsetting The Guardian by leaking stories on education and health, subjects The Guardian considered its own preserve, to the Mail. Blair told Dacre: "I agree with so much that you say about Europe", and pronounced it "obscene" that the British people should have to pay 40 per cent tax to the state. Downing Street lavished immense energy cultivating right-wing Mail columnists like Simon Heffer, Paul Johnson and Lynda Lee-Potter, the embodiment of Middle England woman.

Shortly before Tony Blair became prime minister, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian, was invited to a private meeting with him in the leader of the opposition's office in the House of Commons. It was suggested that he should bring with him Martin Kettle, the Guardian's chief leader-writer, and his political editor, Michael White. The Guardian editor happily accepted. He hardly knew Tony Blair, having met him only once before, at a dinner party given by mutual friends. The Guardian team arrived at the Commons under the impression that they had been invited for a friendly chat with Tony Blair.

They realised they had been mistaken. Besides Blair, the Labour team comprised Alastair Campbell and David Hill, director of communications. This was no social event. The leader of the opposition wanted to read the riot act. After perfunctory greetings he brought out a sheaf of cuttings, and went through them all. "It took me back to public school," recalled Rusbridger later. "This sense of being in the senior prefect's study. Campbell said nothing, just looked on. Blair gave this imperious speech about how The Guardian was behaving. It was as if he was saying: 'It's your attitude I object to.'"

Campbell believed that the best way to get back at The Guardian was by hitting the paper commercially. Returning to London from Blackpool after the Labour Party conference of 1998, Ewen MacAskill, the paper's chief political correspondent, found himself sharing a railway carriage with the Downing Street press secretary, who soon went on the offensive. He listed several recent atrocities carried out by The Guardian and then made an extraordinary threat. "If you carry on in this vein," Campbell calmly told him, "we are going to tell our people not to buy you." Campbell indicated to MacAskill - who sent a memo to his editor about this bizarre conversation - that 10-20,000 readers could be knocked off the circulation of The Guardian if the Prime Minister sent out an edict to Labour Party members to boycott the paper.

Campbell would not merely harass journalists: he could sometimes also use them as highly tuned instruments in highwire political negotiations. One episode was the appointment of the British cabinet minister George Robertson as secretary general of Nato. This appointment came up in the wake of the Kosovo War, just as Tony Blair was beginning to develop confidence in his own foreign policy and was eager to extend British influence abroad. When President Clinton said he would back a British candidate, Blair first offered the Nato job to Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, who turned it down. So he made a private approach to Defence Secretary George Robertson, who accepted. At this stage, Robertson's name had not even been mentioned as a possible successor to Javier Solana. It was against this background that Blair and Campbell attended a Nato Balkan "Stability Pact" summit in Sarajevo in July, 1999. They were determined to use the get-together to win approval for Robertson's appointment. The new secretary general was due to be formally decided the following week. Campbell and Blair knew they would face opposition from some of the smaller Nato members who were reluctant to allow the Anglo-American alliance to gain even greater control.

The conference took place on 30 July in the dramatic setting of a sports stadium in Sarajevo which was the scene of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean's ice dancing gold medal in the 1984 Winter Olympics. The Downing Street team had to be ferried in and out by helicopter and were accompanied by two reporters, Jon Smith of the Press Association and John Morrison of Reuters.

As the two journalists waited to be briefed by Campbell on the outcome of the summit, they were suddenly ordered into the waiting Chinook helicopter to prepare to leave. As the helicopter prepared to take off, Campbell clambered aboard. His voice drowned out by the rotors, he motioned to Smith to pass him a pen and paper and spent the flight jotting down notes. When they landed in nearby Banjaluka, where the Prime Minister's plane was waiting to take them all back to London, Campbell ran off, while the reporters made their way to the plane. They were unable to file copy to London as their mobile phones would not work. The Prime Minister's team has rather more effective communications links. An hour or so later, when the PM's plane took off, Campbell called the two journalists to the front of the plane. "I've had to do something a bit unconventional," he told them. "I have filed copy in your joint names announcing that we have nominated George Robertson to be the new secretary general of Nato."

"You've done what?" asked an incredulous Smith.

"Don't worry, it's a joint byline," said Campbell.

Smith was shocked. "I thought, Christ I'm dead." He feared that if his editor discovered that the Prime Minister's press secretary had filed copy in his name, he would be in serious trouble. Smith leaned towards Campbell and said: "Alastair, you are going to have to tell me very slowly, exactly what you have done. Every detail."

Campbell replied: "I wrote a story with the pen and paper you gave me and used the PM's secure communications to get it to Godric [Smith] at Number 10 and told him to ring Reuters and PA and file it as copy by you two."

A seething Smith inquired: "And are we going to be allowed to see the story you have filed in our name?"

Morrison's account of the incident is less clear. He does not recall being cross and is not sure if Campbell asked his permission or not. Campbell included quotes by Tony Blair, composed by Campbell, in which the Prime Minister said: "George has exactly the right mix of defence expertise and political and diplomatic skills. He will do an excellent job." The story also stated that Robertson had had "a good war in Kosovo, not least as a media performer", and that his candidacy had the backing of the main Nato powers. Campbell even had the temerity to quote himself as the Prime Minister's spokesman, stating: "Before the media launches another wave of inaccurate reshuffle hysteria, I tell them they will be making yet another mistake if they do so on the back of this."

Once the nomination was announced by PA and Reuters, both renowned for their authority and, crucially, their independence, it was tantamount to an official announcement that Robertson had got the job. Five days later it was duly confirmed by Nato. Robertson's nomination by Campbell effectively sealed his appointment. For Nato to go back on it would cause a major diplomatic row.

It was a classic example of the Campbell media operation - so hands-on he wrote the story himself. He would say to Whitehall press officers at Downing Street meetings: "Do you know what is going to be on the front page of The Sun tomorrow? I want you not just to know, but to help me to write it." For him, it was the only yardstick that mattered.

What is remarkable is that Campbell's style of managing the media worked so well for so long. But his relations with journalists deteriorated to the point where he was forced to take a back-room role. Meanwhile, his relations with the only other two people so close to the Prime Minister - Peter Mandelson and Cherie Blair - began to break down.

Alastair the gigolo reveals all in The Sun

The first time Alastair Campbell appeared in a national newspaper was on 9 May 1980 when he was 22. Following the release that year of the film American Gigolo, starring Richard Gere, about a high-class male escort who has sex with older women for money, The Sun was looking for a real-life example. Below a photograph of a naked Gere in a scene from the film, appears one of a youthful (and clothed) Campbell with the caption: "Campbell ... he fitted the bill."

The Sun quoted Campbell as saying that he became a gigolo while studying in Italy. "One evening at a recreation for the English students a woman came up to me and asked me out to dinner with her. At the dinner she asked whether I would be interested in becoming a gigolo. The way it worked, she said, was that she gave parties in the afternoon, which women attended for a fee.

"At these parties, there would be a selection of young men, all available for hire, so to speak. Your job was to entertain them and put yourself at their disposal. You would talk, have dinner, make love. In return they would give you money or gifts. The women I met were mainly between 35 and 50. Often these women didn't even want to have sex. More than anything they wanted an intimate companion - for pillow talk, for affection, to make them feel desirable. The most I got paid was 250 for one night. The least was 12."

Campbell claimed: "There are men in the south of France who turn it into a profession and become very rich. You can be successful between the ages of 20 and 28. After that, you are less in demand. But think of the advantages - you choose your own hours, have a high standard of living, no ties, and all your clients are upper-class, rich and civilised. It's never hard work, but the women do expect a high standard of performance."

Campbell today insists that that the article he wrote for Forum magazine, "Riviera Gigolo", which prompted The Sun's interest, was a work of fiction. The story about Campbell the gigolo was filed by a Sun reporter called Liz Hodgkinson. Scarcely older than Campbell himself, she vividly remembers the evening they spent together at the Orange Tree pub in Richmond.

"He told me that he had acted as a gigolo in the south of France," she recalls, "and that all those middle-aged women down there were gagging for it and he was providing it. He was having a wonderful time and they paid for everything. I had no reason to disbelieve him."