“I guess I’m just one of those people around whom myths tend to develop”, Alastair Campbell said – with a straight face – to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications where I spent this morning. His use of the passive voice perfectly captures the way in which Blair’s ex-Director of Communications manages to accentuate his own influence while at the same time downplaying his significance.
But whether Campbell created the myth or the myth developed around him, the myth exists. The belief that Campbell was as much the cause of the deterioration of the relationship between the media and politics as its victim. Therefore, the theory runs, anything he now has to say about the state of the media should be dismissed as self-serving and hypocritical.
Should it? Given how long Campbell spent at the heart of government, and the supposed influence (mythical or not) that he had on relations with the media, shouldn’t we be curious to hear what he has to say? Taking, of course, everything he says with a healthy dollop of scepticism and with a keen ear to when his reflections may have been clouded by self-interest.
But, as long as you bear this very much in mind, then it’s worth listening to some of the things Campbell has said this week – first in his Hugh Cudlipp lecture and then again today at the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications.
It should not surprise anyone that his views are not a million miles away from Tony Blair’s, and he acknowledges this in his frequent references to Blair’s ‘feral beasts’ speech last year at Reuters. Therefore he laments the decline in standards, the lack of reflection, and the pervasive cynicism. But Campbell has also not lost his ability to spit out a telling soundbite and adds some astute diagnoses of his own.
Asked by the Select Committee about the Press Complaints Commission (whose chairman, Sir Christopher Meyer, had just left the room) Campbell dismissed it as “just out of date”. “The world in which it’s operating has completely moved on”. Well, yes, that pretty accurately sums it up.
Questioned on whether the press influenced voters Campbell countered that if it did, it was only “at the margins”. There was a difference, he stressed, between “what they [the public] are being fed and what they choose to digest”. Whether people can always avoid digesting some of what they are fed is debateable, but otherwise Campbell captured the difference between setting the agenda versus determining people’s opinions.
And when it comes to individual newspapers, Campbell showed none of the reticence of Tony Blair – who was accused of being ‘cowardly’ for critiquing the Independent in his speech rather than the Daily Mail. No such shyness from the ex Director of Communications: “I think the Mail is evil” he said. The Mail group, Campbell continued, bears significant responsibility for the “denigration of cultural and political life” in Britain. It is, he said, “the real poison”.
But though he called for the ‘culture of negativity’ that characterizes today’s media to be challenged, Campbell was unable to come up with any suggestions as to how we should do this. Indeed taking his lead from Rupert Murdoch, Campbell seemed to throw his hands in the air and write the future of the media off as too “chaotic” to control. This is surely too fatalistic.
But it does illustrate the paralysis affecting many of those within the media right now. What to do about the oodles of space that now needs to be filled? How to cope with the demand for speed with which the news can – and so has to – be delivered?
It is these technological and structural changes that have led to many of the problems with standards. The need to fill space makes news necessarily speculative and repetitive (and, Campbell suggested, more predictable). The need for speed militates against the journalists’ discipline of verification. ‘If true…’ Campbell pointed out, have become the most over-used two words in news. All media outlets, from the BBC through to the Mail, publish allegations without verifying them and then qualify them with the caveat ‘if true…’. For Campbell, this exemplifies the insubstantial nature of today’s media.
Of course mixed in with these perceptive comments about the media were some galling Campbell-isms which helped remind you to remain sceptical. It was difficult to accept, for example, his protestations that he had not hectored the BBC before, during and after Iraq. And his description of Tony Blair’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch was simultaneously frank and dissembling. Tony Blair’s “like anyone else” he said, “he just finds some people more interesting then others… and he found Rupert Murdoch more interesting”.
But Campbell’s lament about the state of the media should not simply be dismissed because of his own history, however flawed. Neither should his identification of some of the (other) culprits. The only thing we should ignore is his fatalism.