Between 1997 and 2003, Alastair Campbell controlled the flow of information from the heart of Tony Blair’s government. In an exclusive interview, the ‘master of spin’ questions whether any institution can truly call itself ‘open’.
Few have dealt firsthand with the challenges of open government like Alastair Campbell. As Tony Blair’s Director of Communications and Strategy, the former journalist was the public face of a government that had promised unprecedented openness, but he also tightened and centralised the flow of information like never before in response to a voracious 24-hour news environment.
Before becoming prime minister, Blair was idealistic about the possibilities of open government. He pushed freedom of information legislation, saying it would create “a new relationship between government and people”. And yet, after stepping down, Blair called the 2000 FOI Act a blunder “utterly undermining of sensible government”.
Since leaving Downing Street in September 2003, Campbell – the one-time master of spin – has made a second career out of openness. He filmed a very personal documentary about a nervous breakdown he suffered before his time in government, and published four volumes of diaries chronicling the Blair years. Despite his departure from the front lines, he remains one of Britain’s most visible political operators, with more than 168,000 followers on Twitter.
A ‘tribal’ Labour supporter, he still advises his party and provides consulting for governments in the Balkans and Central Asia. A sun-bleached Labour sign sags in the backyard of his North London home. “You never know when they might call an election,” he says with a smile.
”The drive for transparency is clear. The drive for greater openness is clear. But there are limits. Everybody – whether they’re a government, a charity, a football team, or a company — has got to have some space. You need private discussions.”
Think Quarterly: Are there limits to how open governments can be?
Alastair Campbell: There are limits for everybody. It’s not just about government. The drive for transparency is clear. The drive for greater openness is clear. But everybody — whether they’re a government, a charity, a football team, or a company — has got to have some space. You need private discussions, but you have those discussions on the understanding that it’s entirely possible they won’t stay private very long.
If you look at the countries where freedom of information is more effective than others, it’s the ones where there’s a buy-in from the public, from the media, from the political class into that concept. We did freedom of information and the truth is it’s had some impact for good, probably. But our worry was always that it wouldn’t be used by the public, who just want to know things are getting done, it will be used much more by media, by NGOs, clogging up the system with demands to know how many toilet rolls we used at Downing Street.
The challenge when you arrived at No. 10 was adapting for the 24-hour news age. How has technology changed government communications?
The landscape has changed so quickly. I started with Tony [Blair] in 1994. Back then, if we had a big speech coming up and we got the leader in The Times, a couple of page leads in the tabloids and maybe another in the Guardian, you could set the agenda for the next 24 hours. The broadcasters would think, ‘Oh, this is serious’ and roll it through.
The big change has been the way the internet has given people the ability to shape their own media landscape. You’d imagine the chaos to be a bad thing if you’re like me, a command and control freak. But, actually, you’ve got to let go. We can’t be sure how things are going to play out there. All we can be sure of is what we say and what we do. If you focus on that, you’ll have a better chance of communicating strategically and getting your message through over time. If you shape your message according to how you think it’s going to play with a certain audience you’ll end up in trouble because there’s no such thing as a ‘certain audience’ anymore.
”The big change has been the way the internet has given people the ability to shape their own media landscape. We can’t be sure how things are going to play out there. You’ve got to let go.”
When you started with Tony Blair, you were frustrated when shadow cabinet members floated ideas in public and created fires you needed to put out. Are you glad Twitter didn’t exist then?
I don’t know whether I would have liked it back then. I think I would because we would have been better at using it than the Conservatives. Twitter is a great thing for an Opposition because you’ve got the forces in the centre of authority, which is the government, and you can very quickly come up and assemble arguments around them.
How many people actually read an editorial in the Guardian? Somebody will sit down and discuss it, they’ll think about it and a section of their readership will read it tomorrow. But by then, how many hundreds of thousands will have already expressed their opinion on Twitter?
You mention the need for space. When do public people need privacy to do their jobs?
A brainstorm can often produce some of the best ideas, but during those sessions people will say the most ridiculous things. They will have absurd ideas that they will throw out as a way of provoking a reaction or getting people to say something contradictory so they can thrash out where they need to head.
Say something gets mentioned that nobody in the room takes too seriously. But then somebody takes a note of the meeting, ‘So-and-so suggested such-and-such’, and that gets copied. Somebody who’s got it in for that person thinks, ‘That’s interesting. I’ll give that to one of the papers’. So something that wasn’t even a credible proposal is then presented as credible and the rest of us are forced on the back foot.
Tony had a load of notes that I think were stolen and being put out one by one. The one people remember is: ‘We need a raft of initiatives which I can be personally associated with.’ Again, it was a bit of a brainstorm on paper. It was not thought through and was part of our process. It didn’t matter that much when it got leaked, but it mattered a bit. You do have to be disciplined. I used to always say to my team when you’re writing memos, for example, imagine for reasons that you can’t see as you’re writing it, it may become controversial, it may become political.
Is there a tension between discipline and openness?
There might be. One of the things we had to do was persuade departments that it was in their interest, as well as ours at the centre, to have proper coordination. When we got to government, I honestly couldn’t believe they didn’t have these systems in place. We’d been running them in Opposition. You have a single piece of paper that sets out what the government is doing that week publicly; the public face. How that was described as revolutionary is absolutely beyond me. It’s absurd. We had a guy whose full-time job was to take care of that grid. He had somebody in every department liaising with him so he knew everything that was going on. It became a strategic tool.
Will governments continue sharing more and more data?
I honestly don’t know. It’s a question of trying to untie and make sense of all these different bits and how they come together; what information people may feel they need. For example, when you drink a glass of water from the tap, you don’t want to know detailed levels of purification. You want to know it’s safe to drink.
The pace of change is just mind blowing. You’ve got papers, you’ve got TV, you’ve got the web and you’ve got whatever comes next. Governments see the pressures of all these things as tactical: we need an answer now. You’ve got to deal with this now. From the government’s perspective, their challenge is how do you stay strategic when you’re surrounded 24/7 by these tactical pressures.