It’s not every day that I get sent to Barcelona to interview a controversial, divisive British public figure for the BBC. At the moment it’s happening every four months or so.
In July, when the findings of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Blair administration’s handling of intelligence related to the Iraq invasion were finally published, I went to interview former Labour government spin doctor-in-chief, Alastair Campbell, who was on holiday in the Catalan city.
Then, the day after Donald Trump’s election victory, I was deployed to Barcelona to get the reaction of leader Nigel Farage, who was stopping over before flying to the United States.
In many ways, Campbell and Farage are contrasting figures. The leftist sympathies of Blair’s communications chief drew him to the Labour Party, where his skill at camouflaging bad news and bigging up good news through sleight of hand made him a fearsome character, eventually to be immortalised by Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. By contrast, the Ukip leader has always leaned to the right – many would say extremely so – and his success has been built in great part on a matey, let’s-call-a-spade-a-spade brand of public persona. Campbell the snake charmer and Farage the bloke down the pub.
But after meeting and interviewing both men within weeks of each other, it was the similarities more than the differences that struck me, particularly given the circumstances.
As a close advisor and confidant of Blair, Campbell was in a unique position to speak in defence of his former boss on the publication of the Chilcot report. But as a former press officer – and not a government minister – he could speak safely in the knowledge that his own integrity was not at stake. As he fielded my questions, that fact seemed to embolden a man who can deal with the media in his sleep.
Likewise, as Farage sat down in front of the camera, Barcelona’s port shimmering behind him, he did so with few inhibitions. As an acquaintance and political ally of Trump, he had a rare insight into the president-elect’s mentality. And yet, as a British rather than American politician, he could speak with convenient distance when it suited him.
Like Campbell, Farage’s confident answers, immaculately pruned to sound-bite length, reflected a canny understanding of the media. It was as if a switch had been flicked, turning on the public persona and leaving the private one off camera.
Since each of these meetings, friends have asked me what both men were like “off-air”. For many, Campbell represents everything that was wrong with the Blair years: control freakery, manipulation and bullying. And few would contest that Farage is the man whose Europhobia and anti-immigrant discourse culminated in the Brexit vote.
But when stripped of their advisors and entourages and taken out of their natural environment, the truth is, neither man resembled the cartoonish figure of media legend. A solitary Campbell, devoid of bluster, surprisingly asked afterwards how his answers had sounded. And Farage, be-suited and smoking like a chimney moments before facing the camera, looked nothing like the scheming architect of European implosion and everything like a very ordinary, middle-aged businessman taking in the Mediterranean view before catching his flight.