On the Perils of Diarywriting; Lessons Learned; and The Opportunities of New Media

What I write in my diary at night gets published some years down the track, in a different context for different times. The raw and immediate can sometimes look a bit odd when even the author has forgotten all about it.

I sometimes feel like I am living in several different time zones simultaneously, all in the same country, often at the same desk.

There is the here and now, always the most pressing, often the most challenging, especially if you have something of an up and down mental state (certificates to prove), and a book out dredging up the past again. There is the place where the present meets the future, and as a diarist, and one now committed to what one reviewer called a 'publishing juggernaut', that is a place I have grown to know well. What I write in my diary at night gets published some years down the track, in a different context for different times. The raw and immediate can sometimes look a bit odd when even the author has forgotten all about it.

The process of publication, all the messy editing, lawyering and official vetting, takes place in the present, but whilst reviewing the past with a view to the future, namely 'pub date'. And even within that I am in different time zones. A recent book festival I attended wanted to focus only on volume 2, 1997 to 1999, the first days of power, the euphoria (experienced by others, not me), the big bold steps, like bringing a peace of sorts to Northern Ireland.

Right now, with volume 3 published this week, I am in the 1999 to 2001 zone, from Kosovo to September 11, Blair the war leader beginning to replace Blair the all-things-to-all-men early caricature so loved by his opponents. But even as I get my head in gear to remember this period, my publisher is already nagging me, gently, about the introduction to volume 4, and a new time zone, 2001-03. Out next year, and being edited right now, it will take us from the aftermath of September 11 via Afghanistan and Iraq to my final day on the Downing Street payroll in 2003. Meanwhile I am working to knock the 1million plus words of my post Downing Street diaries, including the two general elections campaigns I returned for, into some kind of shape.

By next year I will have published five very large books in as many years, the four full volumes covering the near decade I worked for him full-time, and before that extracts in The Blair Years, which continues to sell at a nice tick-along pace to those who can't quite cope with the minute detail of a political life lived under 24-7 pressure. To true political junkies, it is the obsessiveness and the relentless detail that seems to appeal. If it is any consolation to non-obsessives, there are some days whose end even I reach and think 'how the hell did I manage to live a day like that, and then write about it in such ludicrous detail?'

I confess to feeling very chuffed at the volume 3 back cover quote, from Liberal Democrat peer Alex Carlile, in which he compares the diaries to those of Samuel Pepys and says people will be looking for and finding insights in them in a hundred years time. That thought makes me glad of all those tired nights burning the post-midnight oil, using the diary to record, reflect, ruminate, de-exasperate and try to make sense of the day just gone as a way of mental preparation for the day ahead. I have a poor memory, and the diaries help me to remember and also to reflect.

As with all diaries, it is only one perspective, not a full picture. I can justify - or at least explain - a lot of the emotions I felt because of what was happening at the time, and because of the unique pressures faced by those in Downing Street. But with the benefit of hindsight, and the hours of reflection that accompany the long steady process of publication, I sometimes wonder if the pressures of the 24-7 media age led us at times to confuse the immediate and urgent with the necessary.

I spend a fair bit of my post politics life speaking to different organisations about what lessons I learned which might apply to them. The most important - and they are often surprised to hear this coming from me, once a 'dominate the agenda 24-7' obsessive - is not to worry too much about the media. Worry about your own strategy. Worry about your own decisions. Worry about the building of your own team. Worry about your own performance. Worry about whether you have decent crisis management structures in place. Then have someone else worry about how you're coming over in the media, and the systems you need to communicate your case strategically. And make sure he-she worries about public opinion not media opinion. They are - often - not the same thing.

The media changed fast on my watch, and is changing even more quickly now. Twitter, Facebook, Youtube - words which did not exist when we started out, now global household names, all changing the way we communicate, do politics, do business, live our lives. To some in the political game, they are a threat, less easy to control than a few papers and a few broadcasters who need you more than you need them. But that is the appeal for both communicator and recipient. For the communicator there is always somewhere to take the message, and there is greater scope for immediacy, for authenticity, and for direct access to the public. For the recipient, they can now shape their own media landscape, creating greater variety in what they can consume, and also greater control, at lesser cost, and with greater opportunity for a real dialogue.

I interviewed Bill Clinton a few years ago and he said something which has stuck with me ever since. 'Too many of today's decision makers define their reality according to that day's media. It is almost always a mistake.'

We sometimes made that mistake. However, I think my diaries do show that we did strive constantly to be strategic; it just wasn't easy. In many ways TB got better and better at it the longer he was in the job, but the longer he was in the job, the less popular support he had, and you need it to get you through the tough decisions for the long-term.

The diaries show both the scale of change we got through, and also the messes we survived to do so. There are several running themes - the strains in the Blair-Brown relationship; our worsening relations with the media; the near impossibility of balancing work and family life; the understanding that when things are going well, something will come along to take that smile off your face. Yet somehow, we lived to tell the tale. And tell it I will.

Could we have done more had everyone been pulling in the same direction all the time? For sure. But politics is like any other endeavour - it is human, people of varying ability and character doing their best and sometimes their worst, to use power to make change happen. In a previous volume, Gail Rebuck, incidentally my publisher but also a friend and the wife of Labour strategist, Philip Gould, asked if he and I had ever had a conversation that did not mention Tony and Gordon and the ups and downs of their relationship. I saw Philip earlier this week. I reckon we were three minutes in when the first mention came. It is just one of those relationships. Historians will write and talk about it for many years to come. So why shouldn't I? I was there. I hope you enjoy the book.

Power and Responsibility, Volume 3 of the Alastair Campbell diaries, published by Hutchinson, July 7, £25


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