Media pains

I have been reading Alistair Campbell’s Diaries (Hutchinson, 2007). They are a good read. Campbell, Blair et al come across as a tight unit with good political habits; they talk constantly and disagree and thus refine and evolve, they keep prioritising, above all they keep slogging away. Slogging away is what it’s all about.

I gained a clearer sense of Blair’s character from reading Campbell’s diaries than I got from Blair’s autobiography, A Journey (Hutchinson, 2010), which is careful to present a poised version of events. Campbell includes the chaos and the mistakes. He relishes the black humour of his days and nights in Number 10 and in other people’s capitals, and in the backs of cars and planes and helicopters as Blair leads his entourage on a sequence of gravity defying leaps into the febrile atmosphere of global affairs. Will a British prime minister ever again stay ahead of the curve for so long? It will be tough, and it won’t be Cameron.

Blair’s response to 9/11 was quick-witted and bold. He played a key role in shaping the immediate US response, and knitting in the global community. These were achievements of historic significance. Did Blair also shape the consensus which emerged in George Bush’s White House: that the attacks revealed that the US and her allies faced a wider threat, incubated in Iraq and other centres of ‘evil’, which had to be overwhelmed at all costs? Or was he rolled into it by the momentum of events and Republican thinking? I don’t think he made up Cheney and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz’s minds for them – I think he became embroiled, and there must have been a moment that passed and he realised he was locked in. The Blair narrative: we cannot afford to turn our backs on a generational struggle against destructive Islamism, and for tolerance and moderation, has been formed in the aftermath, in order to create a context for the decisions he took while in office. Politicians rarely admit their mistakes, and those that tell it straight are normally punished for their candour. Imagine admitting Iraq was a mistake. Imagine, in an age of globalised legal actions, betraying a hint of personal culpability. Blair will not apologise.

Why is it so hard to pinpoint the truth behind such a familiar and well publicised politician? I think it is because Blair’s actions expose  so many clashing elements: social democracy and conservativism, Catholicism and bold self confidence, bloke’ish humour, austere  resolve and an undercurrent of aggression he tries hard to suppress; these muddy easy classification. Since leaving office Blair has nurtured a wide range of activity – highly paid advisory work to multinational firms and national governments, a foundation to help poor parts of Africa, another to celebrate moderate religion, another to encourage more sports in the north east of England. Will the real Blair please stand up … or do they really all join together to create the whole man?

Whatever the formula, Blair appeals to others. Campbell’s Diaries advertise Blair the Human Being – wanting to change things, scared, tired, good natured, deeply committed, visionary, frustrated by Brown and his men, strangely vulnerable. Reading them one begins to understand why someone as authentic and unimpressed and impatient as Campbell agreed to give up a good deal to work for him.

Some say the diaries should never have been published, or at least not so soon. Well, maybe they’re right. New Labour’s administrations have been criticised in the past for belittling established conventions when they did not suit New Labour ends. So it goes. I suspect the idea of having his say, and getting back at his critics, kept Campbell going through some dark moments. The Diaries describe plenty, and as the years drag on his morale gradually drops and his obsession with the media and its power surfeit and responsibility deficit becomes hard to manage.

The Levenson Inquiry, today starring former BBC Political Editor Andrew Marr, is proof – not that we needed it – that Campbell was on to something: that the media likes to play politics as a pitched battle between irreconcilable tribes; that it is inclined to foil and better politicians rather than fairly represent them. Campbell has a better sense of the media’s anthropology and habitat than most, though many would argue he is as much sinner as sinned against.

I think Bruce Anderson’s piece attacking Steve Hilton on ConservativeHome (Monday 21 May) is a good example of how journalists can behave with a level of self importance and unpleasantness which would in another profession generate ridicule, if not censure. Anderson, a distinguished political commentator who also writes about drink for The Spectator, has never worked in government, nor formed a successful political message, nor tried to get anyone elected. But he does know enough about politics to be aware that of all the jobs in Downing Street, Hilton’s was probably the most difficult and demanding. And although he dislikes Hilton, he is befuddled by David Cameron’s aura of compassionate conservative, an aura which, after DC, Steve has done more than anyone to conjur.

Perhaps it is unfair to single out Anderson’s piece as evidence of the rotten state of the British media – a loyal Cameroon from the off, Anderson was simply doing what he does best. He may even have received instruction from Number 10. Whatever. But which ever sort of journalist Anderson is content to see as he stares into his shaving mirror, this is a venomous attack on a public servant. Part of Campbell’s value to Blair was his willingness to pose difficult questions, and to hold his boss, a man he knew and understood and respected, to account. Hilton – authentic, unimpressed, impatient – performed a similar role for Cameron, and Cameron was smart enough to encourage it. Not being an intimate of Number 10, I don’t know if and/or when he ever referred to Hilton (who he asked to be god father to his son Ivan) as “the little Hungarian fascist”. I suspect Anderson has plucked the phrase out of context from one saloon bar briefing or another; maybe Cameron used it once to tease his old friend. Anderson’s piece is febrile, cruel and without any evidence of human (or political) understanding. Fresh from reading Campbell’s Diaries, I can see AC shaking his head at this glint of assassin’s steel flashing between old Tory comrades – when he was in Number 10 he worked hard to define the Conservatives as the “nasty” party.

One thought on “Media pains

  1. piers stannus

    I think you are being too generous vis a vis Mr Blair. Yes, he did do a huge amount galvanizing world opinion post 9/11 but this was in the absence of an inarticulale US President and he was always very good at grasping the ‘bigger picture’. I agree with your synopsis about him being having almost multiple political personalities but that’s because he is ideologically empty as the real supporters of the Labour party will testify. I’m afraid my memory of him will be less of his foreign achievements (Sierra Leone and Kosovo in particular) but more of a vain and weak PM who failed to control a deeply dysfunctional Chanceller; wasted his first term; failed to reform the NHS and welfare and just ended by throwing billions of pounds at the problem as most Labour governments end of doing. However, where I do take my hat off to Mr Blair was his dogged determination in connection with Northern Ireland.

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