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.