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Home > Politics

Depression, Dossiers and Death: Campbell Confesses

15 October 2006

When you consider what he got up to the last time he was at a low ebb, you do have to wonder whether Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair's former press secretary, was the right person to be the public face of the Mental Health Media Awards this week.

To explain why requires a short history lesson. Cast your mind back three years to the aftermath of the suicide of Dr David Kelly and the subsequent Hutton Inquiry into the weapons inspector's death. For Campbell , who had had a 'work-induced, drink-induced, pressure-induced, depression-induced psychotic breakdown' in the 1980s 'the whole period was a nightmare'.

Of the Hutton Inquiry, Campbell said: 'If it had gone against us... it wasn't just me who was out of a job, it was Tony. It was a phenomenal pressure. The blood they smelled was mine.' Metaphorical blood, it goes without saying. The non-metaphorical blood 'they' actually *saw* was David Kelly's. Oh, and that of around 655,000 dead Iraqis, according to the latest estimates by 'The Lancet', killed in a war sold to the British public by way of Campbell's notorious dossiers - the 'September Dossier', which featured the '45 minutes from doom' fiction, and his 'Dodgy Dossier' which was stolen almost in its entirety, typos and all, from an essay published on the Internet.

(In a neat twist last week, Education Secretary Alan Johnson announced he was doing away with GCSE coursework because he views students employing Campbell 's methods to complete their studies as A Very Bad Thing. 'We have one of the most rigorous exam systems in the world - we can not have it devalued and undermined by the few who cheat by copying from the Internet.' If only we held international law in such high esteem.)

Kelly, as you might remember had been the anonymous source of then BBC journalist Andrew Gilligan's claim that the 'September Dossier' had been 'sexed up' and that - sorry if you're eating - Alastair Campbell had done the 'sexing'. It became a personal vendetta for Campbell who wanted Gilligan's source outed to the media. It would 'fuck Gilligan' wrote Campbell in his diary, were the name of Gilligan's source to be made public. Kelly's name found its way into the public domain and on July 17 2003, finding himself in the eye of a media shitstorm, he killed himself.

It was 'one of those episodes where things spiralled out of control' said Campbell in the Independent. '[Y]ou are thinking, "There's this guy for whom it's been such a nightmare he's killed himself".' What he couldn't admit, of course, is that he, in the grip of a mental illness, was the cause of Kelly's 'nightmare'.

Campbell said this week that if the most powerful man in the country can employ a person with depression then what excuse does any other employer have for not doing the same. From Campbell 's account though you wonder if Blair actually did him a favour rather than telling him to go away and get himself well. The signs that all was not well with Campbell was apparent to anybody watching the news during the summer of 2003, from the shouting at Jon Snow on Channel 4 News to the story that he continually stabbed himself in the hand with a paperclip as reminder to keep his temper when facing questions from a parliamentary committee. The urge to 'fuck Gilligan' certainly gives a disturbing insight into the victim complex that was gripping Campbell at the time.

'We have to get to a position where it's [mental illness] talked about in the same way that you talk about a broken leg,' he also told the Independent. Hypocrisy is a word used so often in connection with New Labour that it's pretty much lost its power. They go together like a horse and carriage. That said, this is Campbell's hypocrisy at its rawest. It wasn't very long ago that he was complicit in a culture amongst Blair's acolytes where the favoured way to smear an opponent was to suggest they had a mental illness. Campbell may deny being the source of suggestions that Gordon Brown was 'psychologically flawed' but he was certainly part of the machine that peddled it to tame journalists. Now Campbell says that he longs for the day when suggesting that the Chancellor is 'ambulatorily flawed' has the same power to undermine as saying that he's mental.

So, just what benefit Campbell's emergence as the celebrity face of depression has brought remains a mystery. You wonder just how many people suffering from depression picked up the paper this week and felt a bit better because they have something in common with someone as thuggish and hateful as Campbell, a man with an uncommon ability to inspire loathing. (He once rescued a man from being mugged who expressed his gratitude by declaring, 'You're Alastair Campbell? I fucking hate you'.)

He himself admits he was extremely lucky to get the help he did and that others will be either similarly very fortunate or unlikely to get the same. There's not much hope in that message, which makes the whole thing something of a redundant exercise, not least for the one in four in Britain languishing under this often debilitating condition. In all of Campbell's self-justifying outpourings there's not one detail of how he beat his condition. No template for others to follow. He might have helped lay the road to war but he's offering no signposts to a better life that millions of us are craving.

It looks from here that rather than advancing the cause of mental illness there's something of a tawdry attempt at rehabilitating Campbell's public image in all this. You can stand him next to the twice disgraced David Blunkett who this week, you can bet, only admitted to his own tussle with what Winston Churchill
called the 'Black Dog' because he has a book to sell. There was certainly no mention from Campbell of lobbying his ex-boss for more, desperately needed, funding for mental health services, for example. There was no criticism of Labour's record on health by railing against the fact that the only option for the vast majority is put to themselves in the hands of their local GP, 90% of whom said this week that they are forced to prescribe anti-depressants for the chronic lack of other services. In an age of incompetent NHS IT systems and medical record checks on job applications it wouldn't be surprising if many people simply chose to soldier on in needless misery.

Along with the finessing of the details around the death of David Kelly, Campbell also seems to be making an implicit 'Don't blame me, I wasn't well at the time' plea bargain. A Darth Vader-esque shot at redemption right at the end, if you like, an attempt to plaster over with public sympathy the horror and depravity of Campbell's earlier years. Cynicism has defined Campbell's entire career. That he would hijack a cause like mental health seems entirely in keeping with that.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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