Campbell speaking at Chatham House in 2012
Director of Communications and Strategy
15 July 2000 – 29 August 2003
|Prime Minister||Tony Blair|
|Preceded by||Position established|
|Succeeded by||David Hill|
|Downing Street Press Secretary|
2 May 1997 – 15 July 2000
|Prime Minister||Tony Blair|
|Preceded by||Jonathan Haslam|
|Succeeded by||Godric Smith|
Alastair John Campbell
25 May 1957
Keighley, West Riding of Yorkshire, England
|Domestic partner||Fiona Millar|
|Alma mater||Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge|
Alastair John Campbell (born 25 May 1957) is a British journalist, broadcaster, political aide and author, best known for his work as Tony Blair's spokesman and campaign director (1994–1997), followed by Downing Street Press Secretary (1997–2000), for Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair. He then became Director of Communications and spokesman for the Labour Party (2000–2003). He resigned in August 2003 during the Hutton Inquiry into the death of David Kelly. He published his fifteenth book in 2018. He is editor at large of The New European and chief interviewer for GQ magazine. He continues to act as a consultant strategist and as an ambassador for Time To Change and other mental health charities. He is an adviser to the People's Vote campaign, demanding a public vote on the final Brexit deal, i.e. a second referendum.
Early and personal life
Campbell was born on 25 May 1957 in Keighley, West Riding of Yorkshire, son of a Scottish veterinary surgeon, Donald Campbell, and his wife Elizabeth. Campbell's parents had moved to Keighley when his father became a partner in a local veterinary practice. Donald was a Gaelic-speaker from the island of Tiree; his wife was from Ayrshire. Campbell grew up with two older brothers, Donald and Graeme, and a younger sister, Elizabeth. Alastair would go over the county border to Lancashire to watch Burnley F.C. with his father.
He is a lifelong supporter of Burnley Football Club and writes about their exploits in a column called "Turf Moor Diaries" for the FanHouse UK football blog. He is also known for his famously biased commentaries for Burnley FC's Clarets Player website. He is regularly involved in events with the club. He was heavily involved in rescuing the club from potential bankruptcy, gaining the support of many high-profile public figures. He was one of the founders of the University College of Football Business, based at Burnley FC's stadium.
He attended Bradford Grammar School for a short period of time, followed by City of Leicester Boys' Grammar School and Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he studied modern languages, French and German, for which he received an upper second (2:1). Campbell is an Emeritus Professor in Media at Cambridge University.
He spent a year teaching in a secondary school in the south of France as part of his academic degree course. While in Nice he spent a great deal of time busking with bagpipes and developing a lifelong interest in the Belgian singer Jacques Brel. While hitchhiking back to Nice from Aix-en-Provence he learned of the singer's death and shared stories with the Belgian lorry driver who had picked him up, an episode which would later become the subject of a BBC radio documentary and subsequent play.
After leaving university Campbell spent some months busking, as well as training as a roulette dealer at the Golden Nugget Casino on Shaftesbury Avenue, before being accepted as a trainee reporter with the Mirror Group Newspapers.
His first published work was Inter-City Ditties, his winning entry to a readers' competition in Forum, the journalistic counterpart to Penthouse magazine. This led to a lengthy stint writing pieces for the magazine with such titles as "Busking with Bagpipes" and "The Riviera Gigolo", written in a style calculated to lead readers at the time to believe they were descriptions of his own sexual exploits.
As part of the Mirror Group training scheme Campbell spent a year at a local weekly paper and he quickly became the sports editor at the Tavistock Times, writing a column called 'Campbell's Corner'. It was while he was at the Tavistock Times he met his partner Fiona Millar, with whom he has three children; two sons (born November 1987 and July 1989) and a daughter (born May 1994). However, his first significant contribution to the news pages was coverage of the Penlee lifeboat disaster in December 1981, while a trainee on the Plymouth-based Sunday Independent, then owned by Mirror Group Newspapers. Campbell has described himself as a pro-faith atheist.
In August 2016 Campbell's older brother, Donald, a lifelong schizophrenic, died at the age of 62 due to complications resulting from his illness. Campbell has talked extensively about how Donald, the Principal's official bagpiper at Glasgow University and a competitor in high-level Piobaireachd competitions, had inspired him to fight for better mental health services and understanding, and to become the ambassador for several mental health charities.
In 1982 Campbell moved to the London office of the Daily Mirror, Fleet Street's sole remaining big-circulation supporter of the Labour Party. He became a political correspondent before in 1986 moving to Today, a full-colour tabloid newspaper which was at the time trying to turn leftward, where he worked as a news editor. His rapid rise and its accompanying stress led to alcohol abuse.
Alcoholism and depression
While accompanying Neil Kinnock's tour of Scotland in 1986 he began to display increasingly erratic behaviour, including dumping his hire car in the Rosyth Dockyard. He continued on that day, following Kinnock on to Perth, Falkirk and finally Hamilton where he had a nervous breakdown and was arrested by two special branch detectives. Police contacted his partner and following her calls to friends in Scotland the police let a family friend take Campbell to Ross Hall Hospital, a private BMI hospital in Glasgow where she and her father visited him. Over the next five days as an in-patient he was given medication to calm him, and he realised that he had an alcohol problem after seeing a psychiatrist. Campbell said that from that day onwards he counted each day that he did not drink alcohol, and did not stop counting until he had reached thousands.
Campbell returned to England, preferring to stay with friends near Cheltenham, rather than return to London (and his partner) where he did not feel safe. His condition continued with a phase of depression, and he was reluctant to seek further medical help. He eventually cooperated with treatment from his family doctor.
Return to work
Campbell's first son was born in 1987. He returned to the Daily Mirror, where he had to restart at a low grade and work night shifts, but he rebuilt his career and became political editor.
He was a close adviser of Neil Kinnock, going on holiday with the Kinnocks, and worked closely with Robert Maxwell. Shortly after Maxwell drowned in November 1991, Campbell punched The Guardian journalist Michael White after White joked about "Captain Bob, Bob, Bob...bobbing" in the Atlantic Ocean from where the tycoon's body had been recovered. Campbell later put this down to stress over uncertainty as to whether he and his colleagues would lose their jobs.
After leaving the Mirror in 1993, Campbell became political editor of Today. He was working there when Labour leader John Smith died in 1994. He was a well-known face and helped to interview the three candidates for the new Labour Party leader; it later became known he had already formed links with Tony Blair.
Politics and government
Shortly after Tony Blair was elected as Leader of the Labour Party in 1994, Campbell left Today to become his press secretary. Having recovered and become teetotal, he told Blair about his alcoholism, which Blair did not see as a problem. In his autobiography, Tony Blair would later reveal that Campbell had coined the name "New Labour" and described Campbell as a "genius". Campbell wrote the speech that led to the party's review of Clause Four and the birth of "New Labour". In addition to being press spokesman, Campbell was Blair's speech writer and chief strategist. He oversaw new co-ordination and rebuttal systems which gave birth to a communications machine which became both feared and respected, and the model for modern communications in politics and business. He earned a reputation for ruthless news management which made him many enemies in the media. But even the Conservatives conceded they were partly defeated by their inability to find someone to match him. He played an important role in the run-up to the 1997 general election, working with Peter Mandelson to co-ordinate Labour's election campaign. He also worked hard to win support from the national media for the Labour Party, particularly from the newspapers that for many years had been anti-Labour and pro-Conservative. By March 1997, many of the leading newspapers—including the Sun, once a staunch Thatcherite paper—had declared their support for Labour.
He moved into government when Labour won the general election in May 1997 and served as the Prime Minister's chief press secretary until 2000. In government, he implemented many radical changes to both procedure and operational management. He persuaded Cabinet Secretary Sir Robin Butler that government communications had to be modernised, and the government set up the Mountfield Review. He created a Strategic Communications Unit which gave Downing Street the power to co-ordinate all government activity, using what became known as "the grid" as its main apparatus. He set up a rapid rebuttal unit similar to the one he had used in opposition. He put Downing Street briefings on record for the first time, and though he was only identified as "The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman", he became one of the most high profile and written about figures in British politics, earning the epithet "the real deputy Prime Minister". He opened briefings to the foreign media, among a raft of modernisation and efficiency strategies he introduced.
BBC documentary maker Michael Cockerell produced a full-length documentary about Campbell's media operation, 'News From Number Ten', which Michael Cockerell said attracted more coverage than any of the other films he made. Campbell attacked the news media for their obsession with him, and eventually began to pull back from frontline work and delegated direct briefing of the media to others, but, if anything, his profile continued to grow. He then moved to the post of Prime Minister's Director of Communications which gave him a strategic role in overseeing government communications.
Campbell was part of Tony Blair's core team that conducted the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, and he has been honoured by several Irish universities for his role in the peace process. He became a close friend of, among others, Martin McGuinness, and attended his funeral. It emerged McGuinness was helping Campbell with a novel which had an IRA active service unit as part of the plot.
He was seconded to overhaul the communications of NATO during the Kosovo crisis, when US President Bill Clinton feared NATO was losing the propaganda war with the Slobodan Milošević regime. The general in charge of the military operation, Wesley Clark, credited Campbell with bringing order and discipline to NATO communications, and freeing the military to do its job.
Campbell became a central figure in the handling of the aftermath of Princess Diana's death, after the head of The Royal Household, the Earl of Airlie, asked Tony Blair to second Campbell to help prepare the funeral, saying they knew it would have to be different. Campbell is widely reported to have coined the phrase "the people’s princess" and also to have persuaded The Queen to make her broadcast to the nation more personal, not least by using the phrase; "speaking as a grandmother". Campbell's character appears in the 2006 filmThe Queen, though he has said most of it was made up.
He oversaw Tony Blair's successful 2001 general election campaign and also returned to assist with the 2005 general election campaign.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, Campbell was involved in the preparation and release of the "September Dossier" in September 2002 and the "Iraq Dossier" (or "Dodgy Dossier") in February 2003. These documents argued the case for concern over possible weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in Iraq. Both have been criticised as overstating or distorting the actual intelligence findings. Subsequent investigation revealed that the September Dossier had been altered, on Campbell's orders, to be consistent with a speech given by George W. Bush and statements by other United States officials. On 9 September 2002, Campbell sent a memo to John Scarlett, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, in which Campbell directed that the British dossier be "one that complements rather than conflicts with" the US claims.
Later in 2003, commenting on WMDs in Iraq he said, "Come on, you don't seriously think we won't find anything?". He resigned in August 2003 during the Hutton Inquiry into the death of David Kelly. Kelly's view that the government exaggerated the Iraqi threat in the Iraq Dossier, told to BBC journalists Andrew Gilligan and Susan Watts, had led to Campbell battling with the BBC. When Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon revealed to Campbell that Dr Kelly had talked to the BBC, Campbell had then decided, in his own words, to use this fact to "fuck Gilligan". The counsel for the Kelly family said to Lord Hutton: 'The family invite the inquiry to find that the government made a deliberate decision to use Dr Kelly as a pawn as part of its strategy in its battle with the BBC.' He claimed in June 2013 that Tony Blair had "greater commitment to wartime truth" than Winston Churchill. Campbell and the government of Tony Blair were fully exonerated by the Hutton Inquiry of having revealed the identity of Dr Kelly and in fact the BBC was felt to have enabled and engaged in poor journalism and judgement. At the conclusion of the Inquiry there was widespread approval of the process conducted by Hutton, though this was subsequently denounced by a number of news publishing outlets.
Campbell worked again for the Labour Party as Campaign Director in the run-up to their third consecutive victory at the 2005 general election. Campbell also acted as an adviser to Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband at the 2010 and the 2015 general elections. Sir Clive Woodward recruited Campbell to manage relations with the press for the British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand in 2005. Campbell wrote a column for The Times during the tour.
Throughout his time in Downing Street, Campbell kept a diary which reportedly totalled some two million words. Selected extracts, titled The Blair Years, were published on 9 July 2007. Subsequent press coverage of the book's release included coverage of what Campbell had chosen to leave out, particularly in respect of the relationship between Blair and his Chancellor and successor, Gordon Brown. Campbell expressed an intention to one day publish the diaries in fuller form, and indicated in the introduction to the book that he did not wish to make matters harder for Brown in his new role as Prime Minister, or to damage the Labour Party.
In 2003 and 2004, he ran a series for The Times newspapers, analysing greatness in sport to answer the question 'Who is the greatest sports star of all time?' Though his conclusion was Muhammad Ali, as part of the process; he interviewed and profiled sports stars from around the world, including:Ian Botham, Nick Faldo, Ben Ainslie, Michael Phelps, Martina Navratilova, Shane Warne, Alex Ferguson, Bobby Charlton and Lance Armstrong. Campbell later said that he "fell hook, line and sinker" for the Armstrong legend. He subsequently worked with Armstrong, campaigning for cancer charities, but drew criticism from Armstrong's nemesis David Walsh for being so supportive and defending him so passionately. Campbell later said that Walsh had been right.
Campbell has his own website and blog, as well as several pages on social networking websites. He uses these platforms to discuss British politics and other topics close to his heart. So far, Campbell's commentaries and views have garnered media attention and generated interest among various online communities. In October 2008, he broadcast the personal story of his mental illness in a television documentary partly to reduce the stigma of that illness. He has written a novel on the subject entitled All in the Mind.
Campbell made his first appearance on the BBC One political discussion programme Question Time on 27 May 2010. At the opening of the edition, presenter David Dimbleby said that the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition would not allow a frontbench member of the government to appear on the show unless Campbell was dropped. The BBC refused to do this. The government later accused the BBC of behaving improperly for allowing Campbell to appear as a more in-depth version of his diaries was due to be published the following week, and a Downing Street spokesman told The Guardian, "Campbell seemed to be on because he's flogging a book next week, so the BBC haven't behaved entirely properly here." Campbell said that he had waited until Labour were in opposition before appearing on the show and that the date was a coincidence as it was the only time he was free. He suggested the discord was part of a Conservative anti-BBC agenda. The minister who had been scheduled to appear was the then-Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws who Campbell produced a picture of during the programme. Three days later, Laws resigned his post following revelations about possible irregularities in his expenses claims in The Telegraph the day before.
Campbell appeared on BBC's Top Gear in July 2010 where he was booed by the audience but set a time of 1:47 around the Top Gear test track in the Star in a Reasonably-Priced Car segment. He was second-fastest at that time.
In June 2012, he was guest presenter of Have I Got News For You where he surprised the audience by playing the bagpipes. The episode was also featured feuding between Campbell and the show's regular participant Ian Hislop.
Campbell presented and narrated the edition of 20 February 2012 of BBC current affairs programme Panorama, which was entitled "Britain's Hidden Alcoholics". Campbell stated that he is an alcoholic, although he has not drunk alcohol since 1986.
In May 2012, Campbell took a role at PR agency Portland Communications, at the invitation of Tim Allan, a former adviser to Tony Blair. Along with Tony Blair, Campbell has also provided consultancy services to the government of Kazakhstan on "questions of social economic modernisation."
In an interview with Chat Politics, Campbell declared his regret at not standing at the 1997 general election, and admitted he finds it "depressing" that younger people with far more experience of YouTube and Twitter were not ready to carry out his former role.
In January 2014, Campbell confirmed that he was joining British GQ with a brief to conduct interviews with figures from "politics... sport, business, culture, (and) other aspects of life that I find interesting", succeeding Piers Morgan. In his role at GQ Campbell has interviewed a wide range of people, including; Mario Balotelli, Mo Farah and Usain Bolt from the world of sport and Tony Blair, Sadiq Khan, Nicola Sturgeon and Chuka Umunna from the world of politics, as well as conducting in depth interviews with many other figures from public life. In 2017, he conducted an unprecedented interview with Prince William where the two spoke candidly on the subject of mental health and the prince's late mother Princess Diana. In March 2017, GQ began to film the interviews to use as part of their digital platform, beginning with an interview with Owen Jones, and then Tony Blair, both of which had tens of thousands of views within days. Campbell later wrote that he had the idea of asking Prince William if he could conduct an interview when the Princes Heads Together charity had asked Campbell and his partner Fiona Millar to make a short film together about how they dealt with Campbell's mental health problems. When Jeremy Corbyn was interviewed for the magazine in late 2017, he did so on the condition that Campbell would not be the interviewer.
In 2016, Campbell presented an episode of "Into The Wild" for the BBC with wildlife presenter Gordon Buchanan.They visited the Isle of Mull where Gordon grew up and Tiree where Alastair's father was brought up, and where Alastair spent much of his childhood.
Campbell acts as an ambassador for a number of mental health charities including Time to Change, Mind and Alcohol Concern. Campbell is also a patron of the Maytree Suicide Foundation. After completing his first marathon, Campbell was asked by Bloodwise to switch to triathlon and subsequently built the largest triathlon team in the United Kingdom.
Campbell is a sought-after public speaker in the UK, the United States and Europe, giving his insights and experience to a wide range of organisations, businesses and conferences.
Campbell continues to act as a freelance advisor to a number of governments and political parties including Edi Rama Prime Minister of Albania, whose Socialist coalition won a landslide at the 2013 Albanian election. In June 2017, Rama was re-elected with an even larger mandate, and invited Campbell to continue to act as an adviser for his second term in office.
In July 2017, he was invited to speak at the French National Assembly to the newly elected MPs of President Emmanuel Macron's victorious En Marche party, Campbell having met and advised Macron during the campaign. He used the event and a number of high-profile French media interviews to urge the French to be patient with the United Kingdom, and give them a chance to change course and reverse Brexit. He said Macron had been bolder than Tony Blair in setting up a new party and leading it to power within little over a year.
In November 2017, he was made an honorary fellow of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in recognition of his work in breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness and promoting the importance of psychiatry.
In December 2017, a musical project Campbell was involved in won the Community Award at the 'Na Trads' traditional Scottish music awards. He had played the bagpipes at a concert in Glasgow earlier in the year, staged entirely by musicians with links to Tiree. The Tiree Community Songbook was made into a CD.
Campbell is a well-known atheist, and his statement ‘we don’t do God’ one of his most repeated soundbites. Yet despite this, he was asked in late-2017 by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, whom Campbell had interviewed for GQ, to contribute to his book on the meaning of Christmas.
In February 2018, he published with Paul Fletcher a co-written novel on football and terrorism in the 1970s, Saturday Bloody Saturday. The book has a front cover quote from John Motson ‘the best football novel I have ever read’.
Campbell stated immediately after the UK's referendum on membership to the European Union in June 2016 that he thought it was 'The worst decision Britain had made in his lifetime' and would do what he could to change people's minds. In addition to establishing The New European, he was one of the early movers in the People's Vote campaign for a referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
In 2018 Campbell became part of the top table team at the People's Vote campaign fighting for a referendum on the Brexit deal. This included overseeing the production of campaign flims including one written by and starring his daughter Grace, called The Brexit Special, for which Campbell persuaded actor Richard Wilson to revive his most famous character, Victor Meldrew.
In the autumn of 2018, Campbell worked virtually full-time for the People's Vote campaign, in particular the planning and organisation of a march on Parliament on 20 October, which drew an estimated 250,000 people  onto the streets. Campbell persuaded almost 50 celebrities, including Ian McEwan, Patrick Stewart and Steve Coogan to fund a coach sponsorship scheme to help people travel from around the country for free. Campbell himself funded a coach from the Burnley area. He oversaw the production of several films, two of them narrated by actor Brian Cox, which were used to promote the event and to deliver a call to action at a rally which followed the march. He persuaded celebrities as varied as Gary Lineker, Patrick Kielty and Delia Smith, all of whom addressed the rally, and singer Olly Alexander and broadcasters Richard Bacon and Mariella Frostrup, who compered the event, to take part. It was also Campbell's decision that the theme of the rally be youth, with the march led by students, and young speakers from all four nations of the UK taking part alongside senior politicians such as Sadiq Khan and Nicola Sturgeon. The march was described by the media as the second biggest ever, after the protest against the Iraq war in 2003. Campbell defended himself against accusations of double standards. In the media coverage, Campbell was described by commentators as ‘Remoaner-in-Chief’, a position he took to happily, not least in a special edition of RTE’s Late Late Show, where he urged Nigel Farage to ‘Own your ..., Nigel’ as the former UKIP leader blamed everyone but himself for the Brexit chaos.
Stage and screen portrayals
A regular feature of comedy programme Bremner, Bird and Fortune was a satirical version of Campbell's discussions with Tony Blair, in which Rory Bremner played Blair and Andrew Dunn played Campbell. In 2005, Campbell was played by Jonathan Cake in the Channel 4 television film The Government Inspector, based on the David Kelly Case. The following year, he was portrayed by Mark Bazeley in the Stephen Frears film The Queen – a role reprised by Bazeley in 2010 follow-up The Special Relationship, also written by Peter Morgan but this time directed by Richard Loncraine. Alex Jennings, who portrayed Prince Charles in The Queen, portrayed Campbell in the television drama A Very Social Secretary. In an episode of Dead Ringers his close relationship with Tony Blair is satirised in an imaginary scenario where Blair is divorcing his wife. He is asked if it will be difficult to sack the person he most loves and cherishes replying "I'm not sacking Alastair Campbell".
It is also widely believed that the character of Malcolm Tucker from the BBC political satire comedy The Thick of It is loosely based on Campbell. Tucker is famous for his short fuse and use of very strong language. In an interview with Mark Kermode on BBC2's The Culture Show, Campbell denied that the two are similar in any relevant way, but admitted to his liberal use of profanities in the workplace. The interview descended into argument with Campbell accusing the likes of Mark Kermode and the show's creator Armando Iannucci of being responsible for people's cynicism with modern politics.
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- Alastair Campbell – official site
- Alastair Campbell article archive at The Guardian
- Alastair Campbell article archive at Journalisted
- Appearances on C-SPAN
- Alastair Campbell on Charlie Rose
- Alastair Campbell on IMDb
- Works by or about Alastair Campbell in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
- "Alastair Campbell collected news and commentary". The Guardian.
- "Alastair Campbell collected news and commentary". The New York Times.
- Alastair Campbell profile at BBC News, 29 August 2003
- Campbell defiant over Lions role article at BBC News, 20 July 2005
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