OBODY EXPECTED The News From Number \1" 161, BBC 2's documentary about Alistair 1 Campbell's work in Downing Street, to be
boring or badly made, such is the reputation of its author, Michael Cockerel But in the three months it took to film there had been so much press about the evils of spin, alleged briefings against ministers, and whether Campbell himself has turned from asset to a liability, that the end result had lost much of its power to shock. Heavily trailed as it was, the programme only drew an average audience for its slot of about 1.3 million. This was bad luck, but Cockerel] had good luck as well, for the way events unfolded during his period of access to the press secretary's office provided a dramatic narrative that still gripped ff.,: viewer.
We began with Campbell at the height of his confidence, and the almost farcical stage management of Vladimir Pulin's state visit. But then we saw the government publicity machine on the back foot over the local elections and the London mayoralty, and the spectacular own goal of the attempted relaunch at the WI. At the end, there was Tony Blair taking responsibility for Campbell's strategic withdrawal from the public eye, looking very much like the boss reasserting his authority over an upstart underling.
There was one scene in particular that underlined that impression. Blair popped into Campbell's office for a quick word, and was clearly annoyed to find Cockeiell's team sitting there with the camera rolling. There had already been far too much criticism of Campbell's influence at the heart of government; if the PM had ordered the crew from the room, or demanded that the segment be cut, the news would certainly have leaked, reinforcing the view of a secret power at the top. So instead Blair had to give an impromptu interview, which he did well, but with obvious bad grace.
Was this the moment when the Prime Minister thought: "Enough is enough: something must be done"? The notion is irresistible, that Cockerell could have been instrumental in reversing the fortunes of his subject, that he had made the story in the act of telling it. That was certainly the way it looked, so at the very least he gets credit for a masterly mischievous piece of editing. That governments attempt to manage the news (or that lobby correspondents spend much of their time laughing about how on earth they're going to get a story out of a briefing) should surprise no one. It is curious that politicians should be so nervous of appearing sophisticated in their media relations, as though a fiction of zero contact with the press, of lofty unconcern with image, were vital to their credibility.
In truth, appearing stupidly defensive about this aspect of political life does more damage than owning up to it. Blair's admission that "this is modem politics" did him no harm at all. His worst moment concerned his appearance before assembled reporters, carrying a mug bearing portraits of his first three children, after the birth of Leo. The choice of mug, he claimed, was coincidental. What nonsense. Why take his tea into the street at all? Knowing he had to face the cameras, he correctly decided that to do so bearing his morning cuppa would make for a friendly, informal picture, and, casting his eye around the draining board, naturally opted for brew with brood. Nobody is suggesting that he spent half an hour on the phone to Campbell first. It was the thought of the moment — and why not? Denying it was just plain daft, and evinced, more than anything else in the film, an unhealthy obsession with spin.
Next week I'll be looking at the seemingly inevitable transformation of my old chum Boris Johnson from political journalist to press target, as he awaits the Prime Minister's pleasure before becoming MP for Henley. But for the moment, congratulations, old bean.