Campbell has dig at Boulton over debate

JUST last week they kissed and made up after their live fight became one of the most entertaining moments in last year’s British general election.

But now the press guru Alastair Campbell is questioning if Sky’s Adam Boulton knows enough about Irish politics to host a leaders’ debate in our general election campaign.

The former press adviser to Tony Blair arrived in Ireland yesterday to promote his new book People and Power just as the election campaign was getting into full swing.

With Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny vowing he would not take part in a three-way debate chaired by Vincent Brown on TV3, Mr Campbell waded into the controversy.

He said the leaders’ debates usually give more publicity to the newscasters than the election candidates — “don’t get me started on that one”.

And he couldn’t resist a dig at his old nemesis, Adam Boulton, saying the Sky News political editor’s offer to chair a debate with Irish leaders “will keep him out of trouble and he’ll learn a bit about Irish politics”.

Both men made up last week when Mr Campbell was interviewed by Boulton on the launch of his book. He explained yesterday how it took a legendary goalkeeper to save him as they appeared on air for the first time since the spat.

“Peter Schmeichel sent me a text just as I arrived in studio, he was watching in Denmark. He said ‘I know you’re the expert but one piece of advice: be really nice to him’. I was moving to that, so that’s what happened when it came to it. The reaction afterwards was hilarious.”

Sky has left open the offer of a debate to the leaders of five political parties, but as yet they have not yet confirmed their participation.

The mastermind behind Labour’s landslide victory sweeping Tony Blair into 10 Downing Street in 1997, believes all is still to play for here: “All sorts of things can happen in a campaign,” he said.

And he believes the leaders’ debates offer little more than hype: “You have days of build-up full of journalists talking to each other, and then you have the debate and you have days of analysis and then you have another debate, and then another debate and then the campaign is over,” he said.

“And before you know, it’s finished and the public haven’t really engaged on policy.” He said the TV debates in last summer’s British elections didn’t give any boost to an individual leader. “One was better this day, the other was better another day and they all evened out a bit,” he said.

“It’s not like America. We have prime minister’s questions and your poor guys are in parliament every day. So you see these people a lot engaging in debate.”

The spin doctor credited with mastering the art of soundbite politics, believes the day of the sound bite is over.

“There is a hunger among the public for a deeper debate than we get through the media.

“We’ve gone from journalism being about elucidation and explanation to it being about impact,” he said, blaming journalists and not the publicity machines of politicians.

“What’s described as sound-bite politics was a consequence of a changing media landscape. But most of the politicians would be amongst the happiest if you could have a much deeper sense of engagement,” he said.

He believes the election coverage by Irish newspapers is “deeper and broader” than what was offered by their British counterparts in the election there last year.

“If I was reading the Irish papers a few weeks ago I would have said it’s all over bar the shouting. But I don’t get that feeling now. I think there’s a genuine election on,” he said.

He believes the election will result in a Fine Gael-Labour coalition, “but you can never tell,” he cautioned.

“If you’d have said to me a few weeks before the British election there’d be a hung parliament and you’d have a Cameron-led coalition I would never had gone with that, I would have thought the Tories would have had a big majority.

“All sorts of things can happen in elections and all sorts of things will go on, and some of them will change votes and some of them won’t, but by and large, for most of the people out there it will be about their own lives.”

In the second of four volumes of The Alastair Campbell Diaries, covering Blair’s first two years in power, he said the Northern Ireland peace process “is one of his greatest achievements” but is “so often overlooked in the media commentary” about the former British prime minister.

And yesterday he said it was similar for former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. “I don’t think either of them go around the place saying ‘we should get credit for it’. But I think just as a matter of fairness it’s important that they do and that people understand,” he said.

“When people talk about history, this was genuinely historic and it was a change that people will hopefully reap the benefits of for a long, long time to come.”

Bertie Ahern, he believes “is a really exceptional guy and nice and clever and did a great job in the peace process. That’s how I know him and you don’t have to be here now to know he is seen in a very different light to that”. “There is a part of the public that will say: We’ll share out the credit when things are reasonably good and when they’re bad, we’ll find someone to blame. Politicians are always first in mind. I think they know that’s part of their job.”

Despite the failings of outgoing Taoiseach Brian Cowen to engage with the public, Mr Campbell said he was right to be himself.

“What I did was all about trying — in a very difficult, complicated media environment — trying to communicate often complicated issues in ways that the mass of thee public would feel they could engage. That you have to do. If you can’t do that I don’t think you can survive in the modern political world,” he said.

- Alastair Campbell will host talks with the Trinity College Dublin Political and Historical Society on Tuesday and the University College Cork Entrepreneurial and Business Society on Wednesday.

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