Former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell has said the press are desperate to stop Labour because of the threat of tougher press regulation.
Meanwhile, The Sun has accused of Cambell of "blowing the gaff" on the real reason Labour wants to enforce a Leveson-compliant system of press regulation, saying it is really about silencing criticism.
Campbell was speaking at the Victoria and Albert Museum in central London on Friday for the ‘Always Print The Myth: PR and the Modern Age’ exhibition, which is hosted by entertainment PR Alan Edwards.
He said: “I’ll tell you why I think David Cameron didn’t do the TV debates: because if he can get the debate in the election through the prism that is set by The Sun, the Mail, the Telegraph, The Times, the Star and the rest of it, that’s a help to him. Because even though these papers don’t particularly like Cameron, they’re so desperate to stop Labour – a lot of it to do with Leveson, by the way – they’re so desperate to stop Labour that if that becomes the prism then it helps Cameron.”
In the last few days Campbell has been particularly critical of the press on Twitter, backing firmer press regulation and saying: "Just 24 hours before people can show how to ignore the vast pro oligarch, pro non-dom, pro tax-dodging, anti-Leveson lie machine."
The Sun responded on its leader column today saying that Campbell had "blown the gaff on the real reason Labour want the press regulation by law".
It said: "Labour has justified regulating newspapers under Leveson as "standing up for ordinary victims" of press abuses.
"It seems that's a smokescreen. It is really about protecting left-wing politicians from criticism in the tabloids by aiming to silence them by using the law.
"We always suspected it, thank you Mr Campbell for confirming it"
— Alastair Campbell (@campbellclaret) May 5, 2015
Press Gazette analysis shows that the UK national daily newspaper market has backed the Conservatives over Labour in leader columns this week by a margin of five to one (looking at circulation).
The Labour Party has made a manifesto commitment to force the press to adopt a system of press regulation which complies with the 2012 Leveson report (i.e. fully independent of publishers).
Campbell, who has been working with Labour in this election campaign, also played down the significance of The Sun’s endorsement of Labour in 1997 at the event.
And he defended his and Blair’s closeness with Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers saying “it was an opportunity to communicate our message to a very, very big audience”.
Explaining Blair’s decision to work closely with Murdoch's Sun, Campbell said: “He understood that in opposition if the press are trying to kill you as they’d done with Neil [Kinnock] then it’s very, very difficult – very difficult to get your message heard, very difficult to get through to the public.
“So you’ve got this barrier there, and I think what we decided, we said look: our purpose, our objective was to neutralise them.
“So actually The Sun coming out for us in 1997 was a bit of a bonus, but to be honest, it wasn’t as significant as people think. Because the reality is that we didn’t win because The Sun backed us – The Sun backed us because we were going to win.
“And we were going to win because of New Labour being real. We needed the papers along the way to ensure that we could at least get our message through to the public.”
Campbell said Blair had accepted News International’s invitation to meet Murdoch at a conference in Australia before the 1997 election because “it would be very, very controversial – and that is a good thing when you’re trying to get something new noticed”.
He said the other reason was that "Neil Kinnock would have never done it", adding “I don’t blame him for this… Mr Murdoch had been so vile”.
Campbell said: “For me, it was never about what Murdoch thought… it was about getting through to large numbers of people who read papers.”
He added: “So we went to Australia, very controversial, very good speech. Massive attention for it. Unpopular in some parts of the party, unpopular in parts of the media… One of my rules of communication is: if you’ve got a choice of doing something bold that will cut thought – do it. Unless it’s stupid, or unless its morally wrong.
“There were people who thought it was morally wrong to go and sit down with Rupert Murdoch. But I didn’t and nor did Tony because for us it was an opportunity to communicate our message to a very, very big audience.”
Campbell, who started in journalism at the Tavistock Times before moving on to the Daily Mirror and Today newspaper, described himself as being on the “political side” of political journalism. He said: “I never pretended I was not biased in my journalism.” But he told the audience that he was always concerned about reporting the facts.
“This is my big criticism of modern newspapers – they don’t really care if a story’s right or wrong. When I was working in Downing Street and things like the budget or a big speech or a reshuffle in particular, I used to give out awards for the most ridiculous stories.
“I remember George Robertson, who was defence minister, he was once – by different newspapers – put into 11 different cabinet positions. And they never say it might happen, or it could happen – it was like: ‘It will.’ So I think even though I was a biased journalist, we did sort of worry about getting facts right.”
Campbell, who started at the Mirror in 1982, also reflected on how the journalism industry has changed in recent times.
He said: “I think the big change over our working lifetime has been that newspapers, which have been so dominant, have had to change what they are because of television and even more so I think because of social media.”
Campbell said that in the past it was considered “weird” if journalists didn’t fiddle expenses, get drunk and chain smoke.
“It was a very, very wild atmosphere. I think that’s gone,” he said. “I think it was a very unhealthy environment on one level, but I think… I don’t go into many newsrooms now, but when I do they don’t feel that different to banks or building societies.”
Campbell added that newsrooms feel more like “factories… churning things out”, and described this as a “boon” for PR.
Campbell told host Edwards that Ed Miliband’s decision to be interviewed by comedian Russell Brand (who he said was “not an idiot – he’s a very clever guy”) was a “very, very good thing to do”, but added that it will not “make that big a difference” in the election.