- December 01, 2011
The Leveson Inquiry has cast not so much a torchlight as a halogen searchlight beam into the rancid depravity of the British tabloid press and the maniacal public obsession with celebrity that drives its corrupt practices. The Sun reporter who disguised himself as a doctor in an attempt to observe Charlotte Church giving birth; the journalists who rooted through Steve Coogan’s garbage; the Daily Star hacks who routinely fabricated defamatory stories about Muslims – there aren’t many dark places that these guys have left unexplored.
But who is this stern moralist at the witness stand, gravely lamenting the media’s absence of ethical standards? OMG, is that really Alastair Campbell? Somewhat improbably, it is indeed he, equipped with a damning 55-page statement accusing the British press of ‘ an obsession with celebrity, a culture of negativity, and amorality among some of the industry’s leaders and practitioners’.
Not many people can disagree with that, and much of Campbell’s analysis is entirely accurate – if blindingly obvious. But it is the fact that it comes from him that might make some readers want to gag, let out a hysterical high-pitched laugh or reach for the temazepam and lie down in a dark room.
First of all there is Campbell’s description of journalism as a ‘noble calling’ – from a man whose own contribution to this vocation includes soft porn stories for Forum magazine and salacious stories about the sex lives of Cliff Richard and Martina Navratilova during his time as a Mirror journalist – stories that if nothing else reflect the same ‘obsession with celebrity’ that he now condemns.
Navratilova once described Campbell as ‘scum’ for his intrusive investigations into her private life – a not unfair assessment, one feels, of a man whose testimony to the Leveson inquiry is breathtakingly hypocritical.
Take his criticism of the media’s prevailing ‘news values in which whether something is true counts for less than whether it makes a good story.’ As Blair’s press secretary, Campbell combined a keen tabloid eye for a ‘good story’ with a skilful and utterly cynical willingness to use such stories for political ends, whether it was the media attack on Glenn Hoddle or the hysterical bathos attached to the ‘People’s Princess.’
In 1998 Campbell even appeared at a press conference in which he announced Blair’s support for the tabloid campaign to free Deidre Rachid – a fictional character from Coronation Street – where he informed reporters that ‘His [Blair’s] view is that it is clear to anyone with eyes in their head that she is innocent’ . This classic Campbell manipulation followed revelations that Blair had been lobbying Berlusconi to help Rupert Murdoch pursue a media deal, and was clearly intended to generate different headlines through participation in a trivial media-generated sideshow.
Campbell rises to a real pitch of moral outrage when he condemns the ‘inhumane’ hounding of vulnerable celebrities, from Princess Diana and Paul Gascoigne to Jade Goody, in which ‘any story, no matter how cruel, no matter how insubstantiated or checked out, would go to the front, regardless of the pain it would cause.’
Recalling an article he once wrote for the Times on the media pursuit of Britney Spears, he wonders whether ‘the media who chased her to hospital in a huge convoy of cars and vans at a time she was clearly disturbed had lost any sense of humanity at all.’
The same question might also have been directed at Campbell himself. In 1997 he was the object of the manic depressive actress Nicola Pagett’s deranged affections, after she saw him on tv and began bombarding him with explicit love letters. Pagett had apparently come to believe that Campbell, or ‘the Stranger’ as she called him, was sending her messages through a microphone attached to her ear – a sensation that much of the British public also experienced in the same period.
According to the Sky presenter Adam Boulton, Campbell revealed this story to the Sun during the Labour Party conference in order to distract public attention from negative headlines that the conference was getting. Whatever the reason, ‘the pain it would cause’ was clearly not a priority for Campbell or the Sun, which carried a frontpage exclusive on TV STAR’S TWISTED LOVE FOR BLAIR’S TOP MAN and described Campbell as ‘ the innocent victim of the actress’s deluded passion.’
Boulton is no friend of Campbell’s admittedly, but it is hard to quibble with his assessment of the former Labour press secretary as a ‘bully and a liar.’ Campbell is also a case of the bully-as-victim, whose self-pity and personal victimhood appears to have made him entirely oblivious to the damage his actions have caused to other people.
Take his 2003 onslaught on Andrew Gilligan and the BBC, on the basis of an ad lip slip regarding Campbell’s role in the ‘dodgy dossier’ and the ’45 minutes’ claim. In private Campbell gloated that ‘we’ve fucked Gilligan’ . In public he roamed the tv studios in finger-pointing victim mode, accusing Gilligan and the BBC of lying – despite the fact that Gilligan’s accusations about his role were essentially true.
And then there was the orchestrated outing of David Kelly’s name, which eventually led to the former weapons inspector’s suicide – a campaign in which Campbell was a key protagonist. Campbell later recalled how he cried when hearing the news of Kelly’s death, but it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that these tears were shed for himself.
Campbell’s indictment of the British media really moves in a zone beyond satire however, when he criticizes ‘ stories…written by subs, and edited by editors who frankly knew them to be untrue. This goes beyond the fusion of news and comment, to the area of invention.’
Campbell is no stranger to the ‘area of invention’ himself, particularly when he was required to use his ‘noble calling’ as a journalist in the service of war propaganda. In 1998 he set up a Media Operations Centre (MOC) in Brussels to help spin the Kosovo war – a development that led one NATO officer to remark that ‘ Alastair Campbell’s arrival tainted NATO’s credibility.’
Last but not least, there is also Campbell’s pivotal role in preparing what Menzies Campbell once euphemistically described as a ‘false prospectus’ to support the case for the Iraq war. Campbell criticizes the media for ‘ a lack on anything approaching the sort of transparency or accountability which people would expect in any other organization which played a sensitive and significant role in our national life.’
Organizations like government for example – that were neatly subverted by Blair’s ‘kitchen cabinet’ during its slick manipulation of public opinion in the year before the Iraq invasion. In any normal society, this contribution to one of the great crimes in British political history would at the very least have excluded Campbell from ‘our national life’ altogether.
Perhaps it is some sort of post-modern societal phenomenon, that the master of lies and manipulation can appear at an inquiry to denounce the lies and manipulations of others. Or perhaps his appearance as a witness is another testament to Campbell’s own celebrity status, that has brought him regular appearances in the pages of the Guardian and the BBC – an institution that he once tried to destroy.
But whatever the reason, it is impossible to read through his testimony without hearing over and over again the same three screaming words: Pot. Kettle. Black.