When Tony Blair became Britain’s prime minister a decade ago, his nickname was “Bambi,” a reference to his doe-eyed optimism. Now tarnished by the “low skullduggery” of politics, Blair left office on Wednesday deeply unpopular among his people. Longtime Blair spokesman Alastair Campbell points a finger at the press.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. CHRIS BANNON: And I'm Chris Bannon. TONY BLAIR: Some may belittle politics, but we know, who are engaged in it, that it is where people stand tall. It is still the arena that sets the heart beating a little faster. And if it is, on occasions, the place of low skullduggery, it is more often the place for the pursuit of noble causes. And I wish everyone, friend or foe, well and that is that, the end. [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] CHRIS BANNON: British Prime Minister Tony Blair stepped down this past Wednesday, ceding control of the Labor Party and its government to long-time Treasury head, Gordon Brown. When Blair first took up residence at 10 Downing Street a full decade ago, his political nickname was "Bambi", a wry reference to his doe-eyed expressions of optimism. [CROWD CHEERING AND APPLAUDING] [CLIP]: TONY BLAIR: A new dawn has broken. We have been elected as New Labor and we will govern as New Labor. [CHEER] CHRIS BANNON: Few Brits would describe him that way now. Blair leaves office deeply unpopular with his own people. Only 22 percent said in a recent poll that they could trust him.
For the first seven years of his tenure, Blair's image was entrusted to Alistair Campbell, his communications director, and the man often credited with introducing spin doctoring into British politics. He says he was just doing his job. ALISTAIR CAMPBELL: In general terms, I was always of the view that the press was there and the media was there to help me help Tony get a message across to the public. I never saw my job as being there to help the press. CHRIS BANNON: They would agree, probably. [LAUGHS] ALISTAIR CAMPBELL: They certainly would. But I mean, I think what had happened before was that people in the Labor Party really thought, you know, well, we've got to let the media kind of set the agenda for us. Well, you can't do that in politics. You have to try to set the agenda yourself. And that's what we did.
And in the early days, it has to be said that because Tony was so attractive, so popular, so appealing as a political figure, the press kind of liked this part of the narrative: you know, the Labor Party's finally its act together, they're kind of doing the things they should have been doing for years.
And over time, they sort of realized that we really were setting the agenda, and they kind of felt that was their job.
But it's interesting. You said in the introduction that Tony has left office and is deeply unpopular. He's not. He gets a very, very, very bad press most of the time. But, actually, how many prime ministers have left office getting a standing ovation from every single member of Parliament?
Our media in Britain, it cannot, it doesn't do in between. You're either a hero or you're a zero. CHRIS BANNON: [LAUGHS] ALISTAIR CAMPBELL: What happened was that we were hero for a while, and then after a while, it was oh, this is kind of boring now; let's make him a zero. CHRIS BANNON: And the give and take between the British government and the press has been described by many as very aggressive and very hostile on both sides. Do you think you played any role in making it more aggressive and more hostile? ALISTAIR CAMPBELL: I think I did, yeah. And it got a lot worse than I ever wanted it to be or ever planned it to be. Actually, Bill Clinton said something really interesting to me about this. It was, you know, you've got to try and get back into a situation where they understand you've got a job to do, you understand they've got a job to do, and you shouldn't just constantly always be questioning each other's motives.
The Guardian newspaper here described it as sort of an abusive relationship. It really was not pleasant at all. There were many reasons why I left in 2003, but one was that I hoped that maybe me leaving would kind of drain some of the poison from that relationship. But it didn't, really, because I think that [CHRIS LAUGHS] the media in this country's very different to yours. It's very different to any media, I think, any in the world. CHRIS BANNON: In what ways? ALISTAIR CAMPBELL: There's a real culture of negativity. That's very, very hard to deal with. And after a while, if you bang your head against a wall for too long, you get a very sore head. CHRIS BANNON: It's hard to believe, from our perspective, that we're not really negative enough. But if you say so [LAUGHS]. ALISTAIR CAMPBELL: Well, I'll tell you, I mean, I can remember a period in the wake of September 11th, and he was, as you know, going around the world and taking a very prominent role in the diplomatic activity that followed and the lead-up to the war in Afghanistan. And I don't know if I'm allowed to say this on your program, but I recorded in my diary at the time, he goes abroad, he's feted everywhere he goes, and we come home and it's like swimming through [BLEEPED].
And that was what it was like most of the time that you were dealing with the domestic media. CHRIS BANNON: Do you feel that you helped create the idea of spin? Some people charge that spin didn't exist in Britain before you. Is that true? ALISTAIR CAMPBELL: Listen, it's always existed at every level of politics. What didn't exist in Britain before we came along was 24-hour news, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, news, news, news. And they couldn't be bothered to go and do kind of policy stuff. They just love to talk about me and about spin and all the rest of it.
And spin is, you know - what is it anymore? Political communication is not just legitimate. It's an essential part of modern politics. Democratic politicians have got a duty to explain to their publics all the time what it is that they're doing.
No. In the modern media age, you need professional support to do that properly. And that's what I did. Big deal. CHRIS BANNON: Alistair Campbell, thank you very much for speaking with me. ALISTAIR CAMPBELL: Thank you. CHRIS BANNON: Alistair Campbell was director of communications and strategy under British Prime Minister Tony Blair from 1994 to 2003. His book, The Blair Years, will be published next month. TONY BLAIR: A day like today, I mean, it's not a day for sort of sound bites, really. You can leave those at home. But I feel that, I feel the hand of history upon our shoulder.