The Big Read: No spin required - Alastair Campbell speaks out

From his relationship with the North to his son Calum’s addiction issues to what he thinks of Piers Morgan, Alastair Campbell tells all to our Political Editor
The Big Read: No spin required - Alastair Campbell speaks out

Journalist, broadcaster, political aide, and author, Alastair Campbell. Picture: Eamonn McCormack/Getty Images

The danger with living your life on the edge is sometimes you fall off the cliff.

Alastair Campbell, the controversial and divisive spin doctor for Tony Blair turned mental health advocate, is certainly someone who has stumbled off that cliff more than once.

Now 63, Campbell is 11 years out of Downing Street, from where he witnessed first-hand Gordon Brown’s final moments in office.

As he says himself, Campbell doesn’t have a job but makes his living from speaking, advising, consulting, and writing books, 17 in total.

Yet, as revealed in the latest, eighth volume of his diaries Rise and Fall of the Olympic Spirit, 2010-2015, the scars of his time in politics are significant and they are not just etched on him but his entire family.

Campbell has previously spoken and written openly about his alcohol addiction, his ongoing battle with depression and suffering severe breakdowns, as well as the toll that being Blair’s chief strategist and mouthpiece took on the key relationships in his life and his partner of 42 years, and now civil partner, Fiona and their three children Calum, Rory, and Grace.

This new volume is no different and, in quite vivid detail, reveals how his son Calum’s alcohol battle led to a failed stint in rehab in Ireland before finally getting dry.

Unlike previous interviews with Campbell, where we met in person, because of Covid-19, last Monday we had to rely on old-fashioned telephonic technology to speak for almost an hour — me from my office in Leinster House, him from his home office in Hampstead, North London.

Given the fragility of his mind and the fact he was recently the victim of a death threat — a former soldier, Lee Gould, said he would be happy to put a bullet in the back of his head — why does Campbell not seek a quieter life?

He says, in the main, the grief on social media and in some papers, namely the Daily Mail, doesn’t bother him. “I mean honestly, this may sound odd, but the criticism doesn’t get to me, it really doesn’t. It got to me a bit when mum was still alive because she got really upset and really worried.

“We had a situation here a few weeks ago, where there was a guy up in court because he threatened to put a bullet in the back of my head. If you saw that was real, that can kind of worry you a bit, but then you just have to trust in the police

“Occasionally my kids get sent stuff, ‘your dad’s a murderer’, and so on. As long as my kids don’t think I did what these people say, then I am OK.”

So what does matter? “I cared a lot when the public inquiries [into Campbell’s role in the going to war in Iraq in 2003] were going on and I prepared for them like I prepared for nothing else in my life. Every single one of those inquiries cleared me, that matters to me,” he says.

Campbell resigned as Number 10’s director of communications in summer 2003 amid a firestorm of controversy but has been vindicated by a number of inquiries.

The Chilcot inquiry, published in 2016, concluded: “There is no evidence that intelligence was improperly included in the dossier.”

For Campbell, what matters most is what those closest to him think.

“What my parents thought of me as a son and what Fiona thinks of me as a partner and what my kids think of me as a parent— that matters to me. What some other guy in the Daily Mail says about me, honestly, couldn’t give a damn,” he says.

Of the Mail, he claims it is a paper which has libelled him on a "near-daily" basis but he has resisted the urge to sue.

“Where do you go with that? If you’ve been called a murderer, if you’ve been called a war criminal, you can’t really get too worried if you say something kind of a bit down the scale of that,” he says.

But, I put it to him, does he feel some pathological need to remain in the fight and to keep so busy when it takes such a heavy toll?

“I’m sure that does add a stress, but I couldn’t ever be quiet,” he admits.

And despite his advancing years, Campbell is not yet ready to consider what he calls the “dreaded ‘r’ word” — retirement.

Calum and addiction

One the major themes of the latest volume of Campbell’s diaries is his son Calum’s descent into alcoholism and subsequent recovery.

Across many compelling passages, Campbell reveals how worried he was about his boy, who refused to be helped and spiralled out of control.

“He’s been through a lot, his drink problem developed, probably from his teens, but then accelerated when he was at university and so it became pretty chronic in his early 20s,” Campbell says.

Given his own alcoholism, was Campbell able to steer his son to help or was he able to be a support to him?

“Not as much as I would like. I think that I made a lot of mistakes with him that people made with me when I was struggling with drinking.

“Because it’s so hard, it’s so, so hard to give that advice unless people want it,” Campbell says, adding that, for a long time, Calum didn’t want it.

Campbell says he blames himself for his son’s alcoholism as he tells of his agony at shutting his drunk 21-year-old child out of the family home.

Having been advised to administer “tough love”, Campbell recounts the night when he closed the front door on Calum, who had returned home drunk. He says it was the hardest decision of his life.

“It was a very, very horrible thing to have to do. If anything had happened to him I would never have forgiven myself. After Calum staggered off into the night, I slid down the door and put my head in my hands, rocking like a child, weeping.

“We spent the whole night not knowing where he was, if he’d got into trouble, fallen into the canal... and the worry that this had created a thing between us. That was very, very painful. I felt helpless.”

The book details how Calum was convinced to seek help at a rehab facility in Wicklow, Toranfield House. The process was not an easy one for Calum or his father.

“I was probably more depressed than I realised, and Calum had said a few very blunt things which made me low for a few days after the Skype sessions with Miriam Finnegan [counsellor] in Ireland.

“I sensed he saw me as the source of a lot of his problems, which was harsh in a way but he maybe had a point,” he recounts in the book.

Despite encouraging signs at the start, Calum relapsed.

“Calum was out till late, back pissed again, and quite truculent with me. Really depressing. Toranfield had not worked. Another sleepless night,” the book details.

Campbell also says his relationship with his son “took a very big hit” through it all. “Just as maybe I liked Fiona to take the blame for my problems sometimes, Calum could make me feel like it was my fault.

“That’s a very natural thing that addicts do and our relationship took a big hit. We still have to recognise that there was a barrier between us for a long time and that was very, very hurtful, probably for both of us,” he says.

However, Calum did manage to turn the corner and, after a lengthy stay in another facility in Scotland, he overcame his demons. “He was [with me] to watch the Scotland-Israel [World Cup qualifier] together. He’s got a good job, is good at it. He goes to AA a lot. He was at a meeting last night. And he’s now early 30s and he’s — touch wood — eight years sober and I’m incredibly proud of how he’s come through,” Campbell says with distinct pride.

Family dynamic

It is not just Calum who has encountered mental health difficulties. Campbell’s comedian daughter Grace has had a battle with anxiety, he tells readers in the book.

What impact does all of this have on the family dynamic and how open are they with each other in talking about it?

“Grace is very upfront about her mental health and friends and so we talked about a lot, and their anxiety has been a lot better since,” Campbell says, adding that being open with each other “really helped”.

“When things were really bad in 2005 between Fiona and I, part of it was politics, part of it was the job and the fact that I wasn’t home as much as maybe I should have been, part of it was the fact that even when I was at home, I was always up in the office working, it was my mind was elsewhere.”

Campbell’s psychiatrist said it was important for those around him to remember that his depression was not their fault and that depression does that to your mind in seeking to blame others.

He says through treatment and medication, he and the family are in a much better place now.

Relationship with Ireland

Former Labour Party spokesman Alastair Campbell:  Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Former Labour Party spokesman Alastair Campbell:  Picture: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

What is striking about the book is how large a part Ireland, North and South, continues to play in Campbell’s story.

As he freely admits, it doesn’t hurt that Campbell still gets a lot of offers to work here, either for public speeches or events linked to addiction and mental health.

He says his connection with Ireland was one of the main reasons why he was such a trenchant critic of Brexit. “One of the reasons why I’ve been so obsessed about Brexit since the referendum is the direct threat to what we managed to achieve in the face of so much difficulty.

“We managed to get something going that was really, really good for Ireland, North and South. So I think it’s important to keep arguing away about that,” he says.

Campbell recounts the time when the two “sworn enemies” — Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness and the DUP’s Peter Robinson, as the two joint leaders of the Northern Ireland Executive — sought his help to devise a coherent communications strategy to aid the fledging government.

Martin McGuinness with the British queen in Belfast in 2012. Picture: Paul Faith/PA Wire
Martin McGuinness with the British queen in Belfast in 2012. Picture: Paul Faith/PA Wire

“They felt the executive communication systems weren’t working and so forth. And that was fascinating to spend a day with two guys [who were] sworn enemies for most of their lives.

“Despite everything, they were recognising that, actually, there was a common interest. It was fascinating just to spend a bit of time with them and talk about how far we’ve come,” he says.

In the early part of the book, which deals with 2010, Campbell recalls one of his many appearances on the Late Late Show where he felt the need to come out and defend former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who was, as Campbell says, persona non grata given the dire state of the country at the time.

Campbell’s big weakness, or blind spot, has always been Tony Blair and the dogged defence of his former master in the wake of the Iraq war, which embroiled him in considerable controversy.

Campbell admits that he felt the need to stand up for Ahern in light of his considerable achievements in Northern Ireland. “I defended him because I like him personally and because I felt he was such an important part of what we achieved.”

He adds: “I also remember there was an incident where he was being abused in public and I just think you’ve got to stand up for people when that happens.”

‘Knocked out’

British and Irish Lions head coach  Clive Woodward has a word with Paul O'Connell on the tour in New Zealand in 2005. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
British and Irish Lions head coach  Clive Woodward has a word with Paul O'Connell on the tour in New Zealand in 2005. Picture: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

In his memoir, former Irish rugby international Paul O’Connell recounted an occasion on the British & Irish Lions rugby tour of New Zeal in 2005, for which Campbell had been retained as director of communications.

After a defeat to the All Blacks, Campbell was dispatched by coach Clive Woodward to give a rallying speech in which he said the team didn’t appear to have the required commitment needed to win.

“The next morning. I was still thinking about what Alastair had said and was getting more and more pissed off. I decided what I was going to do when the session was over — find Alastair and knock him out,” O’Connell wrote.

Campbell says he understands why O’Connell and others in the squad were so annoyed. “I understand why Paul was angry; a lot of them were angry. And what happened was, in my defence, I told Clive Woodward I thought it was a bad idea, but he’d said that he’s saying the same things and he felt he wasn’t getting through to them,” Campbell says.

“Stephen Jones, the Welsh flyhalf, said to me, ‘Listen some of the guys are going to hate but it needed to be said’. Others wanted to knock my head off,” Campbell recounts.

O’Connell never carried through on that threat and Campbell says he and the former Ireland captain have kept in touch.

“I was in Australia when he was out on tour, he actually escaped from the team hotel to come to one of my dinner speeches.

Boris Johnson and Piers Morgan

Prime Minister Boris Johnson elbow bumps a member of staff during a visit to the B&Q store in Middlesbrough this week. Picture: Scott Heppell
Prime Minister Boris Johnson elbow bumps a member of staff during a visit to the B&Q store in Middlesbrough this week. Picture: Scott Heppell

Predictably enough, Campbell is scathing in his criticism of British prime minister Boris Johnson, who he describes as a “serial liar”.

“Well, I’m amazed that Johnson is not pretty much dead in the water already, because I think his handling of the crisis in the first instance was dreadful, it was catastrophic. I think it directly contributed to people dying.”

Campbell says that despite so many catastrophic mistakes, because of the speedy rollout of the vaccine across the UK, Johnson’s poll ratings have improved.

Despite many rows detailed in the book with broadcaster and journalist Piers Morgan, especially around the phone-hacking scandal, and even though he feels Morgan went “over the top” on Meghan Markle, his departure from Good Morning Britain is a loss.

He says Morgan was one of a very small coterie of media personalities willing to hold the Johnson government to account. “He’s been one of the few people on telly prepared to call these liars and charlatans out for what they are.”

Civil partnership

The day after we speak, Alastair Campbell and Fiona, after 42 years together, tied the knot in a civil partnership. “After 42 years together we decided to try to make a go of it,’ says Campbell.

“Congrats to my BUFF parents who finally got civil partnered today after 42 years of being together. I’m so proud of how cute and fashionable they are,” Grace tweeted with a picture of her youthful and glamorous mum in a beautiful green dress and her dad in a kilt.

Campbell says in contrast to the many lows in previous times, the past year of lockdown has been harmonious and fight free.

“I mean we’re incredibly lucky and we’ve barely had a row for a whole year which is definitely a record,” he says.

  • Alastair Campbell Diaries, Volume 8: Rise and Fall of the Olympic Spirit, 2010-2015, published by Biteback Publishing, is out now

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