Alastair Campbell at the Royal Festival Hall

Alastair Campbell entertained, if that’s not too strong a word, an audience of more than 2,000 people in the huge auditorium of the Royal Festival Hall on 1 March.  It’s true that, as Peter Oborne (a seasoned enemy of Campbell) caustically pointed out next day in the Evening Standard, the audience "was full of earnest young Campbell acolytes in their twenties and thirties with shaven heads and glasses" (although my own rather older generation, the men bald rather than shaven headed, was quite well represented too), and that most of the questions asked from the audience in the second half of the programme were what the Australians call ‘Dorothy Dixers[1], complaisant feeds to Mr Campbell of a generally unchallenging, even admiring character, if not in every case pre-arranged.  Still, Campbell was often very funny, always shrewd, sometimes lacerating in his comments on his bêtes noires, the Daily Mail prominent among them.  Skewering the Mail was in rather surprising contrast to his indulgent treatment of The Times, indeed of the whole Murdoch press.  The Times, he said, had been the best and most straightforward of all the newspapers he had dealt with as Press Secretary ("Director of Communications") at No. 10 Downing Street.  This was a useful reminder of the general support that Tony Blair and his administration have mostly received from the Murdoch organs, following Blair’s trip to Australia to see Murdoch and to meet News Limited executives on Hayman Island in 1994, before winning the 1997 election.  One of the few pointed questions suggested that the exemption of the Murdoch press from Campbell’s assaults on the media  might owe something to the fact that the person sitting next to him on the platform as moderator and debate manager was Ross Kemp, apparently a star of the soap East Enders but also, more relevantly, the husband of the editor of The Sun newspaper, one of the most garish and unpalatable horses in the Murdoch stable.  Campbell’s response to the question was to feign amused surprise at the revelation that Kemp (one of Campbell’s holiday companions along with their respective partners) was the husband of Sun editor Rebekah Wade.

It’s charitable to assume that the title of the evening’s performance — "An Audience with Alistair Campbell" — was a rare example of self-mockery.  There’s something slightly alarming, though, about Campbell’s motives for embarking on this series of public appearances before thousands of people and devoted exclusively to his own experiences and views, a colossal ego trip.  Perhaps it’s no worse than publishing similar material in an autobiography or book of memoirs.  In any case the mostly adoring audience, who had paid ten pounds a head for the privilege, seemed to harbour no doubts, laughing uproariously at the jokes and loudly applauding the attacks on the great man’s bêtes noires.  We had all been put in a good mood before Campbell came onstage by looking around to see who else was there, and finding that the whole thing was a rally of New Labour luvvies and their camp followers from the incestuously linked worlds of politics and the media, plus a beaming Michael Portillo, already re-invented as a television personality.  A slightly weird but enjoyable occasion.

[1] "Dorothy Dix was the pen name of an American journalist, Elizabeth Gilmer, who wrote a column giving advice to people with personal problems. It is believed the late Ms Gilmer made up many of the questions she responded to, and for that reason her name lives on in Australian politics. A "dorothy", or "dixer", is a question framed to suit the answer a minister wants to give."  M Seccombe, Sydney Morning Herald, February 7 2004