“Smaller than I expected, a bit pudgy, but sharp.” That’s how Alastair Campbell described his first meeting with Joseph Muscat in 2014.
The spin doctor who engineered Tony Blair’s rise to power coined the term ‘New Labour’, handled the fallout from Princess Diana’s death, and laid the groundwork for the invasion of Iraq with the preparation of the ‘Dodgy Dossier’ that made the case for Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction.
And now, this sculptor of public sentiment was being flown to Malta to teach the island how to brand itself.
According to Volume 8 of the ex-influencer’s diaries, ‘The Rise and Fall of the Olympic Spirit’, his visit to the vacation paradise wasn’t exactly a welcome diversion.
He wanted to meet the German national football coach but couldn’t “because of a thing I was committed to do in Malta.”
“I tried to get them to take Rory but they wouldn’t,” he wrote. “Really annoying. My effing diary.”
Unfortunately, duty called. The master of media would hit the ground running with an interview on TimesTalk (The Times of Malta’s current affairs programme on TVM at the time led by Herman Grech and Mark Micallef).
Malta’s Labour spin machine wasn’t taking any chances. “Call from Malta PM office, Kurt Farrugia re: possible traps in my interview on TV later,” Campbell wrote. “… two journalists ‘grilling’ me and alongside me Godfrey Grima (PR) chipping in.”
A lesser man would be quaking in his loafers, but ever the consummate professional, Campbell took it all in stride: “Usual bollocks, spin, Iraq, Diana, a bit of mental health, but it was clear they wanted to try to be Paxman types”.
“Lots of the Maltese afterwards thought it had been really tough,” his diary says. “It wasn’t really, though I did get a bit spiky with them at times.”
It was a far cry from the savaging John Sweeney would give Joseph Muscat on BBC Newsnight years later.
Things started looking up when Campbell was taken to a press lunch at the Chamber of Commerce.
“The turnout made it dawn on me that this was quite a big deal,” he wrote. “Though the Polish ex-PM was there, all the focus seemed to be on me and what I felt about the issue of Malta branding.”
His penetrating insight and deep understanding of the island were on full display. When asked what he thought of when he thought about Malta, he said ‘sunshine’, muttered a few asides as his eyes darted back and forth, and then ‘the European Union’.
Pithy remarks weren’t just reserved for the press. He also dispensed ‘fashion advice’ to then Economy Minister Chris Cardona: “… nice guy, bright, though I advised him not to wear such an expensive watch. (Later he had a cheaper one.)”
If only the Muscats had learned the same lesson about making conspicuous displays of wealth.
The high point of the visit, the reason for missing out on a nice chat about football back in London, was of course accounting firm Ernst and Young’s Malta Attractiveness Survey conference, where Blair’s puppet master was the keynote speaker.
“I was pleased when I realised how much of a deal the conference was,” he wrote, his ego visibly swelling between the lines.
“Air conditioning had broken so it was brutally hot, but I had a proper message — the need for them to coordinate their branding, and general messages of how, and both speech and Q&A went well.”
“One of the media reports said I had upstaged the PM and the Opposition Leader, whose speech was poor.”
Let’s hope policy makers and business people in Malta were taking heed of the very expensive gems Campbell bestowed upon them, which included asking yourself what you want people to think about Malta.
“Is it tourism, a nice place to live in, the weather or the welcoming factor?”
It is only by capitalising on these key selling points — and controlling the message ruthlessly — that Malta can gain an edge over Crete, Cyprus, the Maldives, Mallorca, the Caribbean and at least a few of the Greek islands.
His work was done, and Campbell had earned his speaking fee. It’s not his fault people no longer think of sunshine when they think of the small island nation. He didn’t tell them to brand it as a one-stop shop for EU passports, offshore shell companies and car bombers for hire.
Marketing was swept from his mind when he was taken to Girgenti Palace and came face to face with the elegant First Lady of Kickbackistan.
“The wife, Michelle, was nice, and very sharp, clearly committed to him and the party,” he wrote. “She was a lot quieter once he arrived.”
And then the Kink himself strode in. The pint-sized colossus was accompanied by “his chief of staff, a press guy, Kurt, and two or three others already there, including Johann Grech who said Peter M and I were his all-time heroes”.
I guess one man’s ‘political devil’ is another man’s pin-up.
After regaling the ex-advisor with his views on British politics, Muscat got down to business.
“After dinner he took me aside and said he would like me to work with them,” Campbell wrote. “He had been asked by a journalist if he was hiring me and he said, ‘I doubt we could afford him,’ but he seemed pretty keen, whether from government or party perspective.”
You see, the disgraced former prime minister wanted to be Malta’s Tony Blair: the man who brought the UK New Labour, a modernised, electable version of socialism that turned its back on trade unions to embrace big business and market economics.
But the real lesson he embraced was the power of spin. Control the message ruthlessly and you control public perception. And Muscat had an advantage Alastair Campbell never had: a party-controlled media empire backed by public broadcasting entirely dominated by the State.
You can tell so much about a person by who they model themselves on.
Campbell was back again in October 2019. His colleagues told the Daily Mail he’d be using the trip to advise Muscat, who was “a bit corrupt” but “no murderer”.
A diplomatic source would later reveal that “Blair cronies and spin doctors have been dispatched to Malta, and an army of international lobbyists and consultants paid from the public purse to provide strategic advice to Muscat and his ministers to help sweep under the carpet government controversies such as the sale of passports, Panama bank accounts, tax avoidance and money laundering.”
Of course, he didn’t anticipate Yorgen Fenech’s dramatic high seas arrest or the light it shone on political links to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s brutal murder. Hiding rot on that scale was beyond even his abilities.
Campbell responded to the fall from grace of a man once described as Tony Blair’s ‘mini me’ with denial. “I went to Malta for a speech,” he said. “I do not advise Mr Muscat or the government.”
Sources close to the disgraced ex-strategist were even blunter.
“Alastair has never advised the Maltese government,” they told the Daily Mail, “and anyone who tries to smear him by suggesting that he has is acting out of ulterior motives. He spoke to Mr Muscat when he was out there, but only to discuss Brexit”.
Four weeks had passed between Campbell’s most recent Malta speech and Fenech’s arrest.