While at No 10, Alastair Campbell was a self-confessed Internet Luddite. Now a convert, he argues that modern technology will change the way politicians communicate, and how parties campaign.
If anyone who used to work for me in Downing Street were to chance upon this article on the AOL website, they would find it hard to suppress a laugh. They would know the chances are that I knocked out a draft in my near illegible longhand, because that is how I write any first attempt. They would guess that I would then have asked an assistant to decipher my scribbles, type them up and along the way fill in the gaps where I left an "NB" saying simply "need research here" because that is what they used to do for me. They would know that I would rewrite it at least twice, defacing the clean type and covering the page with arrows, blocks to be moved, and PTO instructions to go to the back of the page for a pressing insert. They would know that once the article was submitted, I would not have the first clue about how to get the said article onto this site.
They would know all this because they know one of my most damning secrets - that for the entire period I worked for Tony Blair, almost a decade, I did not use a computer. This was not any old decade of course but the one in which computer technology advanced further and faster than during any period in our history. I confess to my secret not with any sense of pride, but to illustrate the fact that as the era of the internet dawned, I was something of a technophobe.
New Labour's so-called spin machine was widely reported to be at the cutting edge of change, carving out a new role for strategic communications in politics. But the sad reality is that the person supposed to be directing that communications strategy was in the dark ages when it came to technology.
Who knows whether that meant I did the job better or worse than I might have done? It is impossible to know. But I know I used to look at colleagues, their heads buried in their computer screens, fingers clicking from one site to the next, and I used to worry that they were substituting activity for work - not always the same thing.
I was blessed in Downing Street with a wonderful team of assistants who would inter alia sift emails sent to me, show me the ones they thought I needed to see, and then type up my handwritten replies to those I thought I needed to give a response. I know, I know, it sounds implausible, pathetic even and you're thinking, "how did this antedeluvian creature ever manage to hold down a senior position in Government communications?" But it worked for me.
I thought that my computer illiteracy might become more of an issue at the time of the Hutton Inquiry into the death of government scientist David Kelly. Lord Hutton, the judge in charge of the inquiry, called for all papers and emails relevant to the events under his wide-ranging investigation, and these were published almost immediately they became evidence. This was seen by many as a groundbreaking use of the internet during such an inquiry. There were emails galore to be published, but none from me, just a few sent on my behalf by my long-suffering PA or one of her team. At one point during my appearance to give evidence, I had to explain who all these people were who sent emails "on behalf of Alastair Campbell".
I should add that the prime minister is not much better. He may be one of the politicians most identified with change and modernity in the world today, but he too is at heart a pen and paper man, the computer on his desk almost as idle as the one I used to have on mine. He once attended a class for adults trying to learn new computer skills up in the north-east of England. Because of the media interest, we had TV cameras and press photographers in for part of the lesson, which concluded with a series of tests. The prime minister noticed that the man next to him seemed nervous, almost anxious. "I'm sorry you have to endure all this media glare just because you're next to me," said Mr Blair. "No, no," came the reply "that's not what's worrying me. What's worrying me is that you're the prime minister, I'm long-term unemployed, and I've done better than you in every single test we've done."
So it is with some humility that the prime minister leads Britain towards the sunlit lands of technological progress. And it was without the faintest knowledge of how such progress was technically delivered that I oversaw a revamp of government communications to take account of the Internet's growing significance in communication with and from the public. Again, who knows whether actual knowledge of how it all works would have helped me do it better. Almost certainly. But I understood the potential significance of change, and I had people with me who seemed to understand how it all actually worked.
I am also pleased to say that way back in opposition, I won a bet with a colleague when I challenged myself to draft for Mr Blair a "clapline" - a line in a speech that produces spontaneous applause - from a sentence ending with the words "information superhighway". I had little idea how it all worked, but I forced myself to find someone who did understand the complexities, distilled what I thought he was saying, and shaped a powerful passage around them. I won the bet. Had someone at the briefing afterwards asked me to explain how a citizen could use the aforementioned superhighway to access the words Mr Blair had delivered, a large hole would have opened up in the ground to match the large pit in my stomach. Funny how the press so rarely asked the questions we were really dreading.
Part 2 will be on the UKFast website tomorrow.
Published as part of AOL’s Discuss series.
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