Views & Reviews Review

My breakdown, by Tony Blair’s former press secretary

BMJ 2008; 337 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.a2089 (Published 13 October 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2089
  1. Deborah Cohen, features editor
  1. 1BMJ
  1. dcohen{at}bmj.com

    Alastair Campbell’s frank and detailed documentary about his struggles with alcohol and depression impresses Deborah Cohen

    If there’s one thing you can say about Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press secretary, it’s that he tells a good story. A controversial figure on the Fleet Street and Westminster circuit since starting out as an ambitious young reporter on the Daily Mirror in 1982, the workaholic Campbell was launched into a hard drinking culture, which enabled him to accrue another addiction—alcoholism.

    He has come clean about his alcoholism in the past, which he admits may have been in part to avoid pejorative headlines from his former colleagues in the press when he took his post in 10 Downing Street. If the Sun was capable of the headline “Bonkers Bruno locked up,” when the boxer Frank Bruno was sectioned under the Mental Health Act, imagine what they’d have done to a journalist once working for a rival paper turned spin doctor for the Labour Party.

    Nevertheless, this admission shouldn’t detract from his documentary, which was shown on BBC2 yesterday and frankly details his breakdown. Campbell does his turn as interviewer and interviewee as he retraces the time leading up to the moment when he finally “cracks up.” Perspectives are collected from a range of people present in his life at that time, including Patricia Hewitt, who was Neil Kinnock’s press secretary at the time; Campbell’s friends, psychiatrists, and GP, to whom he’s dedicating his forthcoming novel; and his partner, Fiona Millar, who provides a particularly candid account.

    After his appointment as news editor on Eddie Shah’s now defunct Today newspaper, Campbell arranged an interview with his friend, the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock, in Glasgow at the Scottish party conference. This followed a drawn out drinking, working, drinking, working sequence and a meeting with the Tory MP David Mellor. For Campbell, a typical day might involve drinking 16 pints and a bottle of scotch while working in a high pressure environment. In hindsight Campbell speculates that his response to pressure was to drink more and work harder because he’s a self confessed obsessive.

    However, it’s Campbell’s obsessive attention to detail that makes the documentary. Throughout the course of his breakdown he jotted down thoughts and feelings in a journal and even kept letters that he wrote, including a letter to his dad signed “Ali xx.” Other poignant moments come when Tony Blair says that it did not bother him that Campbell had had mental health problems on his appointment—something that all employers could learn from—and Patricia Hewitt confesses that her sister died after alcoholism.

    But the film is never fluffy or saccharine, and the presence of unreconstructed views from fellow journalist and friend Chris Boffey gives it a dose of realism—but it’ll be his descriptions that will jar with some mental health campaigners. He expresses his incredulity when Campbell was admitted into hospital because he’d never suspected he was “bonkers” or “barmy.”

    Campbell’s descriptions are graphic, and it’s clear how confused and frightened he felt at the time. He also retains a sense of humour when describing how during the psychotic episode—a term that is avoided during the film—he thought that anything coloured red was good, and blue was bad. He also assumed that any question directed to him was political in nature, so when asked if he was “all right” by a policeman, his interpretation was that he meant right wing.

    But the message is serious and should cut through any preconceptions that depression does not affect hard working, boozy blokes. The documentary is the second of five programmes that form part of the BBC’s mental health and wellbeing campaign, BBC Headroom, launched in May this year. The aim is to raise awareness of the “importance of good mental health and destigmatise the problems surrounding mental illness issues,” with focus on anxiety, stress, depression, and nervous breakdown. But the perhaps trickier problems of schizophrenia, psychosis, and suicide are not touched on, and it’s these areas that are in need of sensitive media attention to combat stigma.

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2008;337:a2089

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