By GREG DIXON
Even by the feral standard of British political life, it's shaping as a war to end wars. The open, bitter conflict between Prime Minister Tony Blair, his loyal spin doctor Alastair Campbell and the media has the look of a no-win contest, of a brawl where all reputations will be soiled.
There is already a body: Ministry of Defence scientist Dr David Kelly's apparent "death by spin" suicide after he was outed as a media mole by his employers then hounded by Labour MPs. It was Kelly who was the source for BBC claims that Campbell had "sexed up" a dossier on Iraq's weapons, a document Blair used to justify Britain joining America in war. Predictably, the politician and his mouthpiece denied the allegation.
Blair's leadership now has the aspect of a sick pigeon. But in the acrid atmosphere of claim and counter-claim since Kelly's allegation then death, it's Campbell rather than Blair being lined up as first head for the guillotine.
Described as an attack-dog in Britain, Campbell, whose business card reads Director of Communications and Strategy, is said to wield huge influence.
Stunned reporters talk of hearing Campbell telling Blair to "get a **** move on" when he believes a meeting has gone on too long, and instructing him to stop what he is doing and concentrate on something else "because it can't **** wait". Overheard mobile phone conversations have Campbell issuing the orders rather than the other way round.
And it is Blair's reliance on this ex-tabloid journalist's spinning ways that had, even before Kelly, contributed to a toxic relationship between leader and media.
The influence of spin. It is for media and public alike something of an enigma, an invitation to conspiracy theory, a cause of resentment and suspicion.
The best of it is hard to discern. As British political commentator Andrew Rawnsley said in his book on the Blair Government, Servants Of The People, spin doctors are like poisoners, there are good ones and famous ones.
There is no one quite like Campbell in New Zealand. But his rise and near-certain fall does, from this distance, have you wondering what his profession might be up to in our backyard. Broadly, our political landscape and Britain's are strikingly similar - a Teflon prime minister with record public approval (in Blair's case, fast disappearing), an absent opposition, a robust media. Helen Clark also has a close, greatly trusted confidante in chief of staff Heather Simpson.
But former chief press secretary to former National prime minister Jim Bolger, now novelist, Michael Wall, believes no New Zealand government has used spin in the way Blair's has. "The Campbell case highlights the dangers of spin practised by governments, there's no doubt about that.
"I don't think [such a war] could happen at this time in New Zealand because we don't have the prime minister Britain has. He seems willing to make a decision and then push everything towards selling that decision to the country, even to a sceptical country."
Besides, says Wall, Clark is too smart to let a Campbell figure emerge. Simpson, say observers, functions as Clark's eyes and ears, not mouth. She's a policy wonk not puppeteer. Of course New Zealand press secretaries, like Clark's main man Mike Munro, are largely politicised figures, hired guns - unlike those of a generation ago who were assigned from the Tourism and Publicity Department. Though unlike Campbell, the modern press secretary only conveys the agenda.
And Helen Clark, as one senior political commentator says, is her own best spin doctor. "Occasionally you'll get heavied a bit, but it's hard to take them seriously," he says. "Press secretaries are much less imposing figures here than Campbell or Ari Fleischer in Washington."
Locally, many are simply press releases distributors, says another press gallery insider. "Some you respect. Others you can't believe how amateurish they are in trying to run their party's line."
Indeed political spinning remains relatively unsophisticated in New Zealand. Blunt techniques such as issuing all the bad news together or on Friday nights and before holidays are still used. These are dark age strategies, says Aucklander John Lehmann, a self-proclaimed spin doctor of spin doctors.
Lehmann, who says he's worked behind the scenes for Robert Muldoon and Australian political flash-in-the-pan Pauline Hanson, has little respect for most practitioners. Locally, there are only three - including, oddly, a QC - who could truly be called spinners, he says.
Lehmann makes the job sound not unlike that of Winston "the Wolf" Wolfe in the film Pulp Fiction. The Wolf is the guy you call when you've "got a situation," like a dead body in your car. "It's very, very common for politicians to do stupid things. A good PR man will arrest the situation, turn it around and hopefully use it as a positive. But a good one basically stays in the background."
Real spin doctoring is when things don't just happen but are made to happen. "It's like warfare, you evaluate your strengths and weakness and those of the opposition and play the game accordingly."
He used covert means when working for Muldoon in the 70s. Concerned by the National leader's hardnut public image, he claims to have conceived a satirical radio show on Radio Hauraki (without the station's knowledge) to gently mock, but at the same soften, Muldoon's image.
"One of the best way to take the sting out of things is put a humorous angle on it."
Another former Bolger chief press secretary Richard Griffin says spin doctor, by definition, means a teller of lies. "I think you're dead in the water once you start telling lies. I saw my role [as press secretary] as bridging the gap between Jim Bolger and the public to a degree I didn't believe that had been done previously. I was working for the man rather than for the National party."
Griffin - who has met Campbell and says he "exercised remarkable influence far beyond press secretary or political adviser" - says there's nobody like Campbell in any other Western democracy.
Here, Griffin believes, prime ministers look to their colleagues rather than their staff. If Clark seeks political advice from anyone, it's from her "kitchen cabinet" - Michael Cullen and a few others. "She's been in politics longer than most. She has learnt the hard way that running own her ship is probably best. She depends pretty much on her own instincts."
Indeed stray worries of a local Campbell might be advanced paranoia. Auckland political scientist Joe Atkinson says the New Zealand media's fear of spinning is greater than the actual amount of spinning warrants.
"We're smaller, more intimate, everybody knows everybody else, everything leaks out very, very easily. The ability [for government] to keep control is much less here," Atkinson says. And New Zealand has nothing equivalent to the British tabloids.
"The press here is, over all, more responsible. The prime minister is less in need of protection from the feral tabloids. And both Clark and Simpson seem to me more intent on the programmatic aspects rather than the selling aspects of politics.
"Although all politicians spin, Clark has developed a deserved reputation for being a fairly straight shooter who has her hands on everything. In a smaller New Zealand environment she is able to keep personal control. Britain is a much larger context for things to go wrong."
Atkinson says David Lange's fourth Labour government provides a better example of spin.
"But it was spinning going on between two different ideological sides within the one party, the Roger Douglas camp and the Lange camp. They were both spinning each other. I would think that [Douglas' press secretary] Bevan Burgess is the closest we've had to an Alastair Campbell."
The John Campbell-Corngate saga - arguably the result of spin blowing up in the government's face - and the Paintergate mini-scandal might seem examples of when good media relationships turn bad. But while journalists move in and out of her favour, Clark is said to still work hard to keep the press on side.
But in the British experience, the media hasn't stayed on side, indeed it's been tempted to stand in for an absent opposition.
That senior political commentator believes the New Zealand media has done the same since the last election - though our journalists don't suffer from the self-important, guardians-of-the-people attitude prevalent in the British media.
"We do take being neutral fairly seriously," he insists.
For his part, Atkinson believes the media here is filling the gap. "Presumably that was behind the media's attempt to make the [last] election more exciting: Paintergate and Corngate. There is an element of it, the media thinking the government's getting too good a run and they need to step in some ways to become an alternative opposition. It's understandable. But the media is not an opposition, they don't have the resources and they're not elected."
Griffin, however, demurs. He's seen no sign of our media filling the opposition's empty loafers. He wishes it would. "Apart from the Herald - it's more active than most - I think parliamentary and political reporting is probably more benign than it has been in its history."
Griffin is not sure why this is. It could be lack of depth, it could be Labour's more zesty reign has shaded National's duller nine years in government.
For all this, the chances of a spin-spawned breakdown in trust between the media and public and this country's political leadership, while possible, is seen as remote.
"In the future, if you had a secretive prime minister with a greatly trusted factotum who dealt with the media," says the senior political commentator, "it could happen here."
Or not. History may yet teach future prime ministers, here and there, that Blair's spinning of his Third Way leads, eventually, to the highway.