Alistair Campbell: Cracking Up

Alistair Campbell is, I’m sorry to say, one of the people in this world that I just can’t stand.  He’s a man who, as far as one can tell, started life with strongly held left-wing views.  Later on, of course, he became synonymous with the “mustn’t frighten the tory tabloids” approach of new Labour, which led directly to the wholesale destruction of most of the principles he, apparently, used to hold dear.  I have respect for people who hold firm political views, and have the courage of their convictions, even where I don’t share their views.  I have even greater respect for those who have the flexibility of mind to change their mind in response to changing situations – one of my political heroes is Gladstone, who started his political career as ‘the rising hope of those stern and unbending Tories’, and ended it by attempting to force through home rule (i.e. devolution) for Ireland, a policy that was too radical even for (English) Liberals to accept.  But I have nothing but contempt for those who will abandon principles they still believe to be right on the grounds that it isn’t politically expedient to hold them, and Alistair Campbell falls squarely into this category.

So I was, as you can perhaps tell, not inclined to be overly sympathetic to Mr Campbell’s struggles with depression when I sat down to watch his account of them on BBC2 last night.  The programme was called Cracking Up, and it’s available on the iplayer here.  I’ll try to set aside my political hostility, initially at least, for the purposes of this review.

I found myself objecting to the title of the programme, although it’s obviously a metaphor that means a lot to Alistair Campbell – at one point he described the impact of his breakdown as being equivalent to a hammer hitting a pane of glass, and it was obvious that the description was profoundly meaningful for him.  My reasons for objecting are that it’s a phrase that’s used so often to describe something that patently isn’t serious.  It’s the kind of thing people say when they put down the scissors and then can’t remember where they put them a minute later – “Ah, I’m cracking up!”.  More importantly, I think it shows itself as part of a tendency to regard MH crises as isolated, individual events which can be overcome and are then tidied away so as not to become a part of ordinary life.  It became obvious during the course of the programme that this view of mental illness is one that appeals to Alistair Campbell, although it was also obvious that he was aware of its shortcomings.

For me, far and away the best part of the programme were the sections in which he was describing the events that led up to his hospitalisation in 1986.  I thought he managed to convey very effectively the kind of busy, disordered thinking that occurred when he wasn’t able to separate things he was actually hearing and seeing from things that he was hallucinating.  He was also very good at describing the sense of a profound and personal significance he found in everyday occurrences.  His thinking at the time was very occupied by politics – he was a labour sympathiser who had just accepted a job on a conservative newspaper, and was shadowing Neil Kinnock (labour leader at the time) in order to write a profile of him – and he began to interpret every use of the words ‘left’ and ‘right’ in political terms.  Questions from concerned friends like “Are you alright?” formed part of an ongoing investigation into his political allegiances.  He also began to attach great significance to any red or blue lights he saw, and eventually became convinced that his whole life was a test, that he was failing the test, and that he would die as a result of failing.

He was eventually arrested by the police – he was behaving in an obviously strange and unusual manner outside an official dinner for Neil Kinnock, at a time when IRA plots against political leaders were believed to be a serious threat.  It seems as though the police were concerned that his story that he was the journalist Alistair Campbell, and that he was writing a profile of the labour leader, might be false, or delusional.  Thanks to the intervention of Patricia Hewitt, who was Kinnock’s press secretary at the time, it was established that his story was genuine, and the police released him into the care of a friend on the understanding that he would go straight to hospital.

This is one of the points at which the documentary seemed to get slightly misleading, although, given that it was discussing events that occurred 22 years ago, it is possible that the information given would have been correct at the time.  In any case, one of the interviewees in the programme (I think it was Mr Campbell’s wife, although I’m not certain) said that they had been told that, had it not been for the intervention of Patricia Hewitt, he would have been sectioned from the police station.  Prior to his arrest, he had been attempting to phone friends and family to ask for help, and described coming to realise while he was in the police cell that he needed professional assistance.  In these circumstances, where someone is willing to voluntarily attend hospital, it does seem surprising that they would be at risk of being involuntarily committed.

In the immediate aftermath of his hospitalisation, it was assumed that his excessive intake of alcohol was responsible for his breakdown.  In fact, the psychiatrist he saw while he was in hospital was convinced this was the explanation.  In contrast, the GP who treated him over the longer term back at home was convinced that alcohol was not the root cause, that he had only used it to compensate for problems in his life, and that the fundamental problem was his obsessive, driven and perfectionist personality.  Then again, a second psychiatrist who he spoke to specifically for the programme identified chronic long-term stress as the cause of his mental ill-health, and alcoholism as a dysfunctional coping strategy.  I thought it was very revealing that these three different explanations – one relating to a chemical trigger, one relating to personal psychology, and one relating to lifestyle stressors – were confidently expounded by three different experts, as it served to highlight the extent to which there is very little consensus as to the causes of mental illness.

Initially, Alistair Campbell was keen to accept the view that alcoholism was the cause of his problems.  He and his wife were both of the opinion that this was largely a result of the stigma attaching to mental illness – if his breakdown had been caused by alcohol, then he wasn’t mentally ill, and quitting booze would resolve the problem.  As he found over the next few years that stopping drinking had done little to alleviate his depression, he came gradually to accept his GP’s view, and found that antidepressants were helpful.  He also seemed to come to accept the idea that he had a driven personality, and that an “addiction” to running and politics had come to replace his addiction to alcohol.

One of the most common problems with books or documentaries about mental illness is that they always seem to follow a standard pattern – normal life, leading to a gradual deterioration, leading to a crisis, leading to recovery, leading to an ongoing life without problems and with enhanced self-knowledge.  I have a real problem with this standard pattern.  It’s a nice, optimistic story, but doesn’t seem to have much room for the experience I and a lot of other people have had with mental illness.  For a lot of us, mental illness isn’t (or doesn’t seem to be) something that gets better.  It’s chronic, ongoing and hugely debilitating.  It takes away a lot, and gives nothing back in return.  Mental illness is, to put it bluntly, a bitch.

This programme resisted some of those clichés.  It made the point, powerfully, that depression is going to be something that Alistair Campbell can expect to have to deal with from time to time for the rest of his life.  But there was also a lot of emphasis on how ‘positive’ the experience was.  His wife expressed her opinion that, without his breakdown, she wouldn’t have become pregnant, and he wouldn’t have experienced fatherhood which has, according to her, been the greatest experience of his life.  (I have to admit I don’t follow her logic here – as far as I could tell, the only reason she might not have chosen to become pregnant was because their relationship was under stress as a result of his irrational behaviour before his breakdown, which was caused by his MH problems.)  Alistair Campbell himself expressed the view that the breakdown had enabled him to cope with the stresses and strains of his job as communications director for Tony Blair, by giving him a benchmark to compare everything too – “Well, it’s not as bad as the time I had the breakdown…”.

I do actually have some sympathy with people who make programmes like this.  On the one hand they must be aware that, for some people at least, MH problems are an ongoing nightmare, and that the standard story doesn’t reflect that experience.  On the other hand, they want, I’m sure, to offer hope and encouragement, especially to people who are perhaps experiencing one or two problems at the minor end of the spectrum, and are terrified about what they mean.  Equally, this was a personal story, and I’m sure it’s important for Alistair Campbell to be able to draw positive conclusions from his experience.  It’d be pretty bleak for him to believe that his breakdown had ruined his whole life, after all, so much better to believe that it had given him the tools to take on the job that has made him famous.

I did have two other problems with the programme, but they relate to the person presenting it rather than anything MH related.  There was a really icky sense that this was one of those celebrity rehabilitation exercises.  You know the kind of thing – celebrity x is associated with a Bad Thing, so they give an interview recontextualising the bad thing as part of their heart-rending personal struggle, in the hopes that the public will stop thinking “celebrity x is evil” and will instead start thinking “poor celebrity x is a victim”.

In Alistair Campbell’s case, of course, the Bad Thing is the era of political spin, and particularly his very high-profile association with what a lot of people assume was a deliberately misleading attempt to persuade the country to accept war with Iraq.  There was a very strong sense of that when a friend of Mr Campbell’s praised him for showing such incredible strength during the Hutton report, and they showed footage of him running the gauntlet of protestors outside.  I’m sure there’s an element of truth in that – there’s no way I could cope with a friendly crowd, let alone a hostile one, and I’m sure the fact that Alistair Campbell could is a remarkable example of how far he’s come.  But it still looked like a fairly heavy-handed attempt to say “Look, you should feel bad for being nasty to poor little Alistair Campbell”.

This leads on to my second problem.  Alistair Campbell is, by all reports, not an especially nice person.  Specifically, he’s a thug and a bully, who, throughout his career, has tried to intimidate people into doing what he wants them to.  (It’s fairly widely accepted that the brilliant Malcolm Tucker in The Thick Of It is a not particularly exaggerated version of Alistair Campbell.)  There’s a slight suggestion throughout the documentary that some of that unpleasantness is being blamed on his mental illness – “he’s really a victim, so we should excuse his occasional outbursts of temper” – and that really sticks in my craw.

Mental illness affects everyone, and that includes unpleasant people as well as pleasant ones.  Alistair Campbell is a nasty little bully because he’s a nasty little bully, not because he’s mentally ill.  That doesn’t mean, of course, that he doesn’t deserve sympathy.  Anyone who has suffered, or is suffering, with mental illness has my sympathy, and just because someone’s an arsehole, that doesn’t mean I want them to suffer.

In his introduction and conclusion, Alistair Campbell said that his motivation in making the programme was to try to dispel some of the stigma surrounding mental illness.  That’s a noble aim, and one I wholeheartedly support.  But I’m not certain that a thoroughly unpleasant ex-alcoholic bully who a lot of people blame for the destruction of British politics, and the catastrophic loss of life in Iraq, is necessarily the person best placed to carry forward the message that the mentally ill deserve “our” sympathy and compassion.

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13 Responses to Alistair Campbell: Cracking Up

  1. Cellar_Door says:

    “Alistair Campbell is a nasty little bully because he’s a nasty little bully, not because he’s mentally ill”

    We have a lot of people like this in forensics. A lot of them would still be horrible people even without their illness. Like you say, it doesn’t discriminate. It shouldn’t make a difference, but it does. I can take as much crap off people as necessary if I know they are doing it solely (or even just mostly) because they are ill. If I suspect they are doing it because they are just dick heads who happen to be ill it makes it all much harder. I have spent a lot of hours practicing maintaining my tolerant poker face whilst actually screaming inside :0)

  2. cb says:

    I didn’t catch the programme – but I will check it out on the iPlayer (which, by the way, I love!).

  3. Robert says:

    Here we go again, the fact is severe clinical depression is a serious life threatening illness, stress is something many people call depression, when your in politics or a journalist then stress is something you have to live with, when stress becomes depression is difficult to say but it’s when you are close to a break down, Campbell says he had depression, I say he had stress.

  4. Alex says:

    Great post, Aethelread.
    Robert: The difference between when something is stress/feeling a bit low/whatever and when it’s depression is a thorny issue that remains a matter of debate between professionals – obviously then, it’s the ideal matter for you to resolve in a blog comment. Almost as ideal would be diagnosing the prior mental health of someone I can only assume you’ve never met. Maybe you should get involved with politics yourself, it’d give you a chance to put your preternatural abilities to a more altruistic use.
    Summer Glau

  5. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Hi everyone, and thanks for the comments.

    Cellar_Door – i have to say i’ve always assumed working in forensic psychiatry must be a horrific thing, and i think all of you who do it deserve medals. (As, frankly, does everyone who works in MH – i wouldn’t like to spend my working life surrounded by dreary people like me… ;o) ) I’m sure it’s difficult separating illness from personality, and it must be incredibly frustrating when you’re sure that it’s really personality that’s making someone behave like an arsehole.

    cb – I hope you find the programme intetesting! I quite like the idea of the iplayer, but unfortunately i have the world’s most unstable net connection, which means that it’s rare for me to keep connected long enough to stream or download a whole programme. Which makes it just as well i have no life, and am always at home to watch everything…

    robert – i share your frustration with the way mental illness (or the appearance of mental illness) has become something of a catch-all explanation for a wide range of problems experienced by the rich and famous. It’s something that annoys quite a lot of us mentalists, and it concerns MH professionals too.

    That said, i don’t think that there is any doubt that Alistair Campbell has suffered from genuine mental illness. You say that a test for whether or not someone is ill should be that they are ‘close to a break down’. AC did have a breakdown – he experienced a range of psychotic symptoms that were so severe he was arrested by the police, and then spent 5 days (or it might have been 6 – i’m struggling to remember the details of the programme) in a mental hospital. The staff at the psychiatric hospital would not have admitted him if they were not certain that he was undergoing an acute crisis, and his GP would not have prescribed antidepressants at various points if he was not convinced that he was suffering from clinical depression.

    I should also say that i don’t agree with your argument that an obvious breakdown is a neccesary sign that someone is mentally ill. Many people suffering with depression who go on to kill themselves show no sign of their distress to friends and family. People who are mentally ill may suffer a public crisis, as AC did, but many more suffer in silence and near invisibility.

    I agree with you that if someone has a stressful job that does not neccesarily mean they are mentally ill. For me, the key thing is not how stressful someone’s job is, but how well they manage the stress. Some politicians and journalists will thrive on stress, others may not, and some of those who don’t may become mentally unwell. I would argue that those journalists and politicians who do become ill are as deserving of sympathy as anyone else, even if (as with Alistair Campbell) i find i am not in agreement with their public attitudes and opinions.

    Alex – thanks for commenting. :o)

  6. Zoe says:

    Excellent review of the programme Aethelread. I watched it with some fascination myself, and agree with you that he excelled at describing the experience of psychosis…the overwhelming significance of every street sign or advertising hoarding, the reds and blues and the play on words ‘right’, ‘left’. I could certainly relate to that and given that it isn’t easy to describe psychosis after the event, I found that useful.

    I was on balance glad the programme was made rather than not purely on the basis that we need to counteract stigma and ignorance around mental illness in any way we can. I agree with many of your reservations however, they are much better expressed than I could do. He isn’t the ideal poster child for mental illness but perhaps in the end that doesn’t matter. Not all those affected by mental illness are necessarily nice people, any more thasn any other section of the population.

  7. I didn’t catch the programme but will have a nose at it on iPlayer.Thanks again for an imformative post & thought provoking post.

  8. Cellar_Door says:

    “i’ve always assumed working in forensic psychiatry must be a horrific thing”

    Actually, despite my constant complaining, I love my work :0) I feel safer on a secure ward than I do either (a) on a regular acute ward (due to the number of security measures and extra staff etc) or (b) wandering my home town on a saturday night amid the drunks. I would say 90% of the patients are fine; if you show them respect then you get it back, basically. The others…not so much. But that’s the same anywhere :0) Once you get over the crime aspect (as much as you can anyway) it’s not much different to anywhere else…

  9. Very insightful review. I also take issue with the “having a freight train cut my legs off is the best thing that has ever happened to me” view. In one way, I’ve learned a lot due to illness and parts of my life are a lot better despite it. On the other hand, there would probably have been no need for me to learn these things, or, they are things everyone learns as they get older and deal with shitty life stuff, and other good things would have happened as a result of not being ill.

    I think there is a section of society that cannot cope with the knowledge that a large minority of the population suffers every single day because of chronic illness, mental or otherwise, that no, they do not get used to it, no, there are no happy endings, life is just hard and difficult and it sucks, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

    We’re not supposed to be like that, we’re all supposed to be happy and striving and if we aren’t then we just haven’t found the magic cure-all that will make everything alright, or, we’re just not trying hard enough.

    I think we would allbe better off if saying that your life is made difficult by illness and there is no upside didn’t carry almost as much stigma as being ill in the first place.

    And yes, Campbell is a dickhead. Dickheads get sick too. If he was on talking about his bad back, after all, we wouldn’t feel calling him a dickhead was out of order.

  10. mortjo says:

    I watched this on iPlayer having become aware of it after reading your blog, so for that, thankyou!

    I enjoyed the program, though it dragged in places. I could relate to it very well, with exception the drinking aspect. Thankfully, although drink has featured heavily in my headlong workaholic rush into breakdowns, I prefer to think it wasn’t at 16 pints and a bottle of whiskey a day levels, perhaps 2 days!
    I don’t much like the man either, or his political views, but I found myself nodding sympathetically as he recounted the experiences of breaking down and the preceeding build up.
    I too am a perfectionist, though I prefer to call it imperfection intolerant. I set myself impossibly high standards, and previous to my last two breakdowns got caught up in a vicious cycle of working ever harder to achieve impossibly high goals, with the paranoia that everyone was watching and testing me.

    I thought the Psychiatrist was a bit weak and those parts didn’t add much at all to the program, but the parts where other people were describing his behaviour were interesting, and it could’ve done with more of that.

  11. aethelreadtheunread says:

    Thanks for the extra comments – i must be greedy, i always think it’s better to get more…

    Zoe – the ‘anyone can suffer from mental illness’ angle was definitely part of the programme, and, of course, AC is a very good example of that. I do wonder if i’m more sensitive to thinking of AC as a not very nice person than most people would be because i’m a bit of a politics geek. I think quite a lot of people might just know that he was vaguely connected to the government somehow, but not what he actually did.

    seratonin sister – i hope you did/ do find it interesting. :o)

    DeeDee Ramona – i love the freight train line about suffering from mental illness – i might have to steal it, in fact… ;o) I think you’re spot-on in what you say about lots of people only being comfortable with illness if they can think of it in terms of a valiant struggle to overcome obstacles. It’s become standard practice to say, when someone is diagnosed with a terminal illness, that they are ‘fighting it’, and that when they die they have ‘lost their battle’. I reckon a lot of that is connected to the fact that people don’t like to think of illness as a nasty thing that you suffer from, and instead like to think of it as a challenge to be overcome.

    mortjo – welcome to my blog! (By the way, for the rest of you reading this, you should definitely check out his blog – – it’s great.) Pleased you liked the programme, in places at least. It’s quite a while since i was at work now, but i can relate to the ‘imperfection intolerant’ side of things myself. It’s something i’ve tried to learn to resist, although i still have a tendency to obsessively draft and redraft every blog post. And even some comments, including this one… ;o)

  12. Feel free to steal the line, I stole it from a friend :). There used to be this awful program on RTE (Irish TV) many years ago called “A Prayer at Bedtime”. It was produced by these ultra-conservative catholic fundamentalist types who were really painfully trying to make things “modern” and “relevant” but failing miserably.

    One of the ways they were trying to be “relevant” was on focussing on shitty things that could happen to you. A friend of mine said: “I can’t stand that program. It’s always incredibly depressing, along the lines of ‘thank you God, for sending a freight train along earlier today to cut my legs off. It makes me realise how much my legs mean to me and thankful the rest of me is still there'”.

    He had me in stitches – that’s EXACTLY the type of po-faced nonsense they used to come out with.

  13. Mandy says:

    Just clocked this posting.

    This is one of those rare moments where I am dispassionate about what illness someone has…because it is Alistair Campbell.

    Couldn’t give a stuff what he has got. Greedy, slimey, nasty little rat of a thing….has done more spinning than a thousand spinners at a spinner convention.

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