Celestial Blue

Matthew Coady

  • Sources Close to the Prime Minister: Inside the Hidden World of the News Manipulators by Michael Cockerell, and David Walker
    Macmillan, 255 pp, £9.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 333 34842 7

‘What you can’t square you squash. What you can’t squash you square.’ This memorable one-liner, more redolent of Chicago under Prohibition than Downing Street, was uttered by Lloyd George. The Premier was reflecting upon one of his constant obsessions: the British press. His method of dealing with it, not wholly abandoned to this day, possessed a buccaneering simplicity. He ennobled the newspaper tycoons, distributing titles with a zest which startled the unworldly George V. What, the bemused monarch must have wondered, were the orders of chivalry coming to? Although this square-or-squash principle was never again to be voiced with such disarming candour, at least on so illustrious a level, it has lost none of its force. The application may be more subtle but the game’s the same. The disappearance of old cronies, even older brandies and cigars, has in no sense limited the scope for prime ministerial wiles. Indeed, the advent of television has led those set in authority over us to ever fresh audacities in the presentation of their policies. Modern administrations, moreover, command a bureaucracy schooled in concealing what the participants in the decision-making process are actually doing. We are in the hands of the manipulators, say Messrs Cockerell, Hennessy and Walker, a trio tried in the ways of Fleet Street and Shepherds Bush. The massage has become the message.

The accusation is by no means new, though those principally involved in communication between government and governed have always bristled at its airing. They have reacted as if confronted by some paranoid fantasy of the sort devised to underpin the plot of a thriller. A typical response is that of Mr Bernard Ingham, who, as Downing Street’s Press Secretary, must rank as the source closest to Mrs Thatcher. ‘I only wish,’ he has said, ‘I was as sophisticated, as devilishly clever and Machiavellian as some make out. Not even a combination of Einstein backed by the world’s most advanced computer could achieve the presentational coups with which we – indeed I – have been credited.’ For all that, and he was being too modest, Mr Ingham is a pivotal figure in a system designed to give governments the maximum advantage in the management of their news. For politicians new to office this system is like a box of conjuring tricks handed to the birthday boy. It is capable of astounding transformations. What are sometimes little more than today’s nods and winks become tomorrow’s headlines by way of an alchemy of which Prospero never dreamed. At its heart stands the Premier. On hand is the Parliamentary press lobby.

This shadowy institution, created under Gladstone, is an essential part of the Westminster-Whitehall nexus, for it is through the Lobby correspondent that the newspaper reader learns what ministers are ‘thinking’, what premiers ‘feel’, what cabinets ‘intend’. He is the horse’s mouth, the insider, the confidant of the great who flitter, unidentified, through his reportage. And the thesis developed here is that for much of his time the pressman, and TV reporter, does little more than regurgitate, sometimes with embellishment, ‘constructive briefings’ given by the press secretary of the day. This civil servant, the authors assert, is the anonymous provider of more stories than all the Whitehall officials and cabinet ministers put together. There are, though, occasional high days when premiers themselves take a hand, but whether present or not, it is they who dictate the tone. Not all first ministers have had a taste for this collective audience which the Lobby provides. Lloyd George preferred to parade his thoughts before a handful of sympathetic Liberal journalists. Baldwin kept amiably distant. Neville Chamberlain, while courting the newsmen, was most accessible to papers soundly Conservative in tone. Churchill remained aloof except to the more exalted proprietorial ranks, though an editor or two would occasionally be admitted to his presence. For his part, Attlee was invariably laconic save on clues in the Times crossword. More recently, Edward Heath never quite overcame his unease with the press, while Harold Wilson could never wholly hide the peculiar fascination which it held for him. His relations with the Lobby ranged from love affair to stormy divorce. James Callaghan lacked Wilson’s flair as a political news editor but took a self-conscious pride in his acquired mastery of the trade’s little tricks. ‘You know the difference between leaking and briefing,’ he told a colleague. ‘Leaking is what you do, briefing is what I do.’ It is a definition which must appeal to his successor at Number Ten.

Earlier this year the Lobby celebrated its centenary with a luncheon at the Savoy Hotel. Mrs Thatcher was there. So, too, were the TV cameras to witness, in her phrase, ‘the first time the fourth estate has avowed its secret service’. In the light of that description the Lobby’s brotherhood can scarcely quibble if others, like Mr Cockerell and his colleagues, have reservations. They have only themselves to blame. They hold meetings which ‘never take place’. Their rule book enjoins: ‘If outsiders appear to know something of the arrangements made by the Lobby, do not confirm their conjectures.’ Their Westminster noticeboard has its own code. Mrs Thatcher is ‘Celestial Blue’, no less. The Leader of the Opposition is ‘Red Mantle’. On this level, their activities echo the pre-pubertal world of Our Gang.

Behind the metaphorical black mask there is an organisation through which leading politicians, but chiefly ministers, communicate. It is a process by which, albeit in roundabout style, they submit their thoughts to the litmus test of public opinion. What offends the critics is that none of it is ever, at any time, attributable. Thus journalists obliged to meet deadlines and keep pace with their rivals are increasingly driven into presenting news inevitably slanted in the Government’s favour. This rule of non-attribution, it is said here, has ‘turned the Lobby into the Prime Minister’s most useful tool’. It is a case which overlooks the independent initiative and vigilance of individual pressmen. ‘The idea that we can be manipulated by forces unseen is simply nonsense,’ says the Guardian’s Ian Aitken. Nevertheless, given a Tory government, a largely Conservative press and a premier with a talent for news management, these remain suspiciously muddy waters, and it is Mrs Thatcher’s accomplishments in this field of human endeavour which come under particular scrutiny. Here is her news machine effectively downing her then Leader of the House, Mr Francis Pym, for what she saw as his economic pessimism. ‘Senior Whitehall sources said that Mrs Thatcher was furious,’ reported the Daily Mail. Even a Budget leak, it seems, is not beyond her. In January 1981, four newspapers whose Lobby men were invited for a chat confidently informed their readers that, whatever else the Chancellor had in mind, there would be no increase in income tax. This message, said the Times, coyly withholding its source, had come from the ‘heart of government’.

Not all the stratagems work. The attempt to retain Mr Cecil Parkinson in the Cabinet following the disclosure of his affair with his former secretary, Miss Sara Keays, was an epic failure. Newspaper enterprise swiftly scuppered the official line (‘the issue of Mr Parkinson’s resignation does not and will not arise’). Again, the bid to diminish, if not effectively hide, the extent of Mrs Thatcher’s eye complaint was promptly exposed. A press which thirty years before accepted bland and misleading briefings about Churchill’s stroke was not prepared to be ‘had’ twice. But does this same insistence on the right to know always extend to important, complex issues lacking an immediately sensational or piquant, personal flavour? Alas no, and with hindsight’s benefit and documents subsequently released, the authors show what the papers didn’t say about the making of Britain’s bomb, the 1949 devaluation and the origins of coloured immigration. Their charge, however, is less against fallible men than the formidable apparatus of secrecy erected by successive governments, Labour as well as Tory, in the name of prudent confidentiality. But if it is possible to see the media as a party to the process of news management, it is also possible to see them as its victim. In present-day Whitehall it would be a courageous individual indeed who would spurn the institutionalised channel. Certainly he could scarcely do so without the support of an editor willing to withstand the disadvantages his newspaper would suffer, and in a highly competitive trade such boldness could be expensive. What might unnerve the Establishment would be a wholesale disavowal of the entire system by both press and broadcasting organisations. Given their fundamental distrust of each other, and the pressures under which they operate, such a gesture seems hopelessly remote. Nor would all journalists embrace it, if only because of an understandable fear that they would lose out. The authors, on the other hand, have no doubts as to the benefits that would ensue. ‘Our belief,’ they assert, ‘is that those ministers and civil servants having good reasons of their own for wanting to speak off the record will find a way of doing so whatever the system in force. But denied the facility of mass non-attributable briefings they will be unable to manipulate the media with the ease they enjoy at present.’

These perils relate to the written word, but there are other dangers too, and none more pervasive than the use to which the astute politician can put the services of a well-nigh defenceless television service. Harold Macmillan, with his jaunty actor’s instinct, first perceived the possibilities. In turn, Mr Wilson portrayed the homely Northern pipeman preoccupied by larger concerns and James Callaghan faced the cameras with avuncular aplomb, but it is Mrs Thatcher who has emerged as the prime ministerial mega-star. It is she who has recognised a truly distinctive difference between small screen and printed page. Through the camera the politician can both create news and play the leading role in its projection. And she is both screenwriter and performer. Her visit to the Falklands, with its shots of a windswept heroine on rugged island hillsides, must rate as a masterpiece of the genre. Her election campaigns are less triumphs of debate than of film-set management. The celebrated scene with a newly-born calf belonged in essence to a Julie Andrews movie. All that was missing was the song. It is a process which enables her to be packaged and sold like a commodity. Her party, backed by advertising expertise, now has the lesson at its fingertips. The 1983 election campaign, says the book, was not designed to inform the electorate. ‘Rather it was like a high-class magic show aimed at diverting the audience’s attention from what was really going on.’ The overall picture is one in which simple images have replaced ideas and argument has been supplanted by razzmataz. On this reading, Margaret Thatcher must rank as the premier who has hastened the reduction of the democratic process to the level of show-business.

The writers’ tone is journalistic, and not always far removed from that of some of those whom they deride. However, their credentials, as well as their evidence, give them the right to a serious hearing. Michael Cockerell reports on politics for Panorama. Peter Hennessy burrows Whitehall for the Times, which David Walker also serves, as social policy correspondent. They have brought into the light much which, if not actually hidden, has never been articulated quite so fully. Politicians, civil servants and Fleet Street have always known these ‘secrets’. The voters have not. If those involved have any doubts as to whether the public interest is being best served, such doubts appear to be outweighed by the mutual convenience which marries their own requirements to those of the time-honoured news channel at their disposal.