July 22, 2011 10:33 pm

Call this a media storm … ?

Alastair Campbell believes newspapers have become much less important
Illustration of Alastair Campbell talking on a mobile phone

When Alastair Campbell was transcribing his diaries of life working for Tony Blair, he’d often think, “Hang on. How did that story get out?” Sometimes people in Blair’s inner circle suspected each other of leaking to the press. Only now does Campbell understand that their phones were probably hacked.

But we won’t be worrying about Britain’s media today – or at least that’s what we imagine as we set off this July morning from Campbell’s terraced house in north London. We think we’re leaving the metropolitan frenzy behind to visit a football business college. We are wrong. The day will turn into a meditation on the importance – or lack of it – of Britain’s feared newspapers.

Blair’s former right-hand-man-cum-spin-doctor has hired Karim, a Moroccan chauffeur, to drive us on the four-hour journey to Campbell’s sort of home town, Burnley. In the back seat, Campbell assumes the pose familiar from a thousand press photographs: spectacles pushed up over reddish hair, eyes straight ahead, jacket on lap, mobile glued to ear. You can take the man out of the frenzy, but not the frenzy out of the man. Our journey north is punctuated by calls from powerful people offering him projects.

We snake out of London on to the motorway. Having helped run the UK, does he drive through it assessing the job he did? “Yeah, you do.” He points to a traffic jam heading into London: “I look at that and I think, ‘Is that a consequence of economic growth, or actually did we not sort out transport?’”

Watching Burnley Football Club is his escape. If your day job is pushing for war in Iraq, you probably need to get out sometimes. Blair didn’t always understand that, says Campbell.

“I remember Tony once asking, ‘Is this really a good day to be tootling off to a football match?’” What Blair seemed to like best about football, Campbell adds, was the manager’s post-match interview. The prime minister grew particularly fascinated by one Burnley manager, a gloomy character with a thick, north-eastern accent.

Blair also enjoyed putting on his best Burnley accent in post-match calls to Campbell: “Reet, Ally, ’ow did Burnley get on today?”

Today Campbell is going to Burnley for a board meeting of the University and College of Football Business, which is offering the first undergraduate degrees in football business. Students will study at Burnley FC itself. Motivated as Campbell is for the meeting, when he asks himself the question: “Can you compare it to sitting down with George Bush in the aftermath of September 11?”, he has to admit: “No.”

A reformed alcoholic who once had a nervous breakdown, Campbell appears to have channelled his addictive personality into overwork. He lists some of his bewildering array of activities. He’s written two novels and his diaries. (The third volume of diaries, Power and Responsibility: 1999–2001, is published on the day of our journey.)

He advises all sorts of people. He gives speeches (“a lucrative way of pretending you’re still important”). He’s even giving a talk on happiness. “As my missus said, ‘Are you sure they’ve got the right person?’” He also practises his excellent French on our chauffeur. But as we reach the moors around Burnley, he breaks into English: “Karim, this is even more beautiful than Morocco.” During Campbell’s meeting, I roam around the 19th-century mill town and can confirm: Burnley is lovely.

We’ve barely set off for home when Campbell receives an interesting text message. He shows it to me: “James Murdoch says News of the World closing.” Instantly Campbell’s phone starts to ring. Any tabloid journalists still hacking him will have had a busy afternoon. For two hours straight, he gives interviews. Campbell, after all, is the man on British media. Moreover, he’s almost sure that the News of the World hacked his phone.

Just for a day, he is a player again. “We used to have loads of days like this, where it was frantic, frenzy, full on.” Finally, his Nokia briefly silent, he reflects on the news: “Pretty big, isn’t it?” A mighty dragon has been slain, yet Campbell seems blasé. Doesn’t he feel satisfaction? “The paper I will really rejoice about when it goes under is the Mail,” he says. “But we all spend too much time talking about newspapers. I think they are less important than they were, and social media have made them even less important.” Writing up his diaries, he noticed how often Blair’s government was caught up in media storms that are now long forgotten.

It’s an odd line for a legendary spin doctor to take. However, Campbell insists that he has come to believe that governments live or die by what they do, not by what the media says. Millions of words were spoken about Osama bin Laden, he notes, but the words that mattered were President Obama’s saying the terrorist was dead.

Campbell even has some friendly advice for David Cameron’s government: don’t worry too much about the media. “They can afford to be much more relaxed. It’s amazing what storms you can get through.” Cameron might want to remember that advice during this particular media storm.

Hang on: Campbell in government wasn’t relaxed about the media, was he? “I wasn’t,” he admits. But then Campbell probably isn’t relaxed about anything.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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