Real Thing

John Naughton

  • Live from Number 10: The Inside Story of Prime Ministers and Television by Michael Cockerell
    Faber, 352 pp, £14.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 571 14757 7

Some years ago, during an American Presidential election, rumours began to circulate that Senator Edward Kennedy was again thinking of running for the Democratic nomination. A young reporter had the idea of asking ex-President Nixon for his views on this development. ‘If Teddy Kennedy is serious,’ Nixon is alleged to have replied, ‘then the first thing he should do is lose thirty pounds.’ In a country where Presidential politics have been turned into an adjunct of show-business, it is unlikely that any overweight person will ever again be elected to the White House. A necessary (if not sufficient) condition for electoral success nowadays is that one should ‘come over well’ on television. And fat people, by and large and on the average, do not.

Mr Cockerell’s absorbing book might, at first, be seen as a detailed account of how British politics have marched inexorably towards the same grim destination, with only a time-lag separating us from our transatlantic cousins. Just as generals are always fighting the last war, British political parties are always fighting the current election with the media tools of the last American Presidential contest. This import-import business started in 1952 when a certain John Profumo – then the Tories’ media man – visited the US during the Presidential election and came back dazzled by what he had seen. It was, he wrote to the Party Chairman on his return, ‘absolutely essential to get all our people on all the programmes we can: my view is that television is the real thing.’ Thus began a process which has taken us to the ‘Chariots of Kinnock’ broadcast of the last election, in which Neil and Glenys walked hand in hand on sunlit clifftops against a soundtrack of doctored Brahms. The fact that it was Labour and not their opponents which had contrived this little masterpiece merely served to underline the extent to which television values have penetrated British politics.

It would, however, be misleading to read the British experience as simply the American one with a time-lag. For there are two strands in our island story. One is the increasing sophistication of politicians and party machines in using television for propaganda purposes. The other is the problematic relationship between broadcasters and the state. What makes the British case so interesting is that the two strands are often interwoven: so much so that even an experienced observer like Mr Cockerell makes few attempts to separate them. The result is a book which is less analytical than it might have been.

The most intriguing feature of Live from Number 10 is its historical sweep. It is astonishing to be reminded that television’s current dominance over electoral politics is a comparatively recently phenomenon. Although Chamberlain’s return from Munich was televised live (with commentary by Richard Dimbleby), the general consensus in the early days was that television and politics didn’t mix. Thus Sir William Haley, Director-General of the BBC in the late Forties, believed that television was totally unsuited to political discussion. The ‘Fourteen Day Rule’, under which no subject likely to be debated in the Commons within the next fortnight could be discussed on television, was eventually swept away in the maelstrom of Suez. Party Conferences were not covered by television until 1955. There was no television coverage of general or local election campaigns until Granada ran the risk of prosecution by giving airtime to candidates in the 1957 Rochdale by-election. Up to then, ‘political television’ had consisted of panel shows rendered anodyne by the Fourteen Day Rule, stupefying party political broadcasts (begun in 1951) and the odd ministerial broadcast of the kind pioneered by Anthony Eden.

Mr Cockerell’s treatment of his subject is strictly chronological. He starts with Earliest Times and finishes at the Present Day. Well, not quite the present, for the closing chapter takes us only to the last General Election. Earliest times in this context correspond to the reigns of Attlee and Churchill, neither of whom had any time for television. The latter only watched it on a few occasions, but was nevertheless convinced that the BBC was a hive of Communist sympathisers. He did a secret screen test, growling at the camera: ‘I am sorry, I must admit, to have to descend to this level, but we all have to keep pace with modern improvements and it is just as well to see where you are in relation to them.’ On viewing the rushes of this effort, he decided to forgo a screen career.

His successor in the Tory leadership, however, had no such inhibitions. In 1951 he made one of the first party politicals – a cod interview with the well-known broadcaster Leslie Mitchell. It opened with Mitchell saying:

Good evening, I would just like to say first that, as an interviewer, and as what I hope you will believe to be an unbiased member of the electorate, I’m grateful to Anthony Eden for inviting me to cross-question him on political issues. I would like, too, to feel that I am asking questions which you yourselves would like to ask in my place. Well, now, Mr Eden, with your very considerable experience of foreign affairs, it’s quite obvious that I should start by asking you something about the international situation today, or perhaps you would prefer to talk about home. Which is is to be?

Clearly the classic British style of ‘sympathetic’ interviewing – as practised, for example, by Michael Aspel, Miriam Stoppard or Jimmy Young – has an ancient lineage.

Eden’s problem was not so much that he thought he was terrific on TV (though he did), but that he saw television as essentially a kind of megaphone for the Government. So it was with the Suez crisis that television first encountered the problem which hit radio at the time of the General Strike – how to maintain impartiality at a time of national crisis. The problem was to recur three times in succeeding decades – the Three Day Week, the 1984-5 Miner’s Strike and the Falklands War – and in each case the Government’s argument echoed Churchill’s challenge to Reith: ‘One cannot,’ he said, ‘be impartial between the fire and the fire brigade.’

Harold Macmillan is widely credited with being a TV ‘natural’. Mr Cockerell’s account makes him out to be anything but that. Huw Weldon observed after his first broadcast as prime minister that the script ‘could not be spoken by one human being to another without embarrassment to both parties’. But Mac did realise from an early stage that he would have to take television seriously, and he was smart enough to perceive that mastering the medium might require some work. He learned how to read an autocue without looking demented and discovered that foreign travel, as well as being the occasion for expenses-paid visits to exotic locations, is attractive to television producers because it produces moving pictures. He also paid attention to props – arriving in Moscow, for example, wearing a fur hat, albeit of the kind normally worn in Finland. The end-product was an assiduously cultivated TV image – of a world statesman, effortlessly in control and reading Trollope in the evenings. Ironically, it was an image which eventually came unstuck under the satirical glare of a new television programme called That Was The Week That Was.

Of Sir Alec Douglas-Home (as he then briefly was), Mr Cockerell hasn’t much to say, beyond revealing that the BBC had a special studio-lighting arrangement which took 40 minutes to set up and whose sole function was ‘to give the unfortunate Prime Minister the semblance of a chin’. Like Macmillan, Douglas-Home had to put up with a good deal of abuse and ridicule from the broadcasters, but he seems to have regarded it as something to be lived with rather than as an affront for which a remedy should be sought. He took it, you might say, on the chin he never had. But he was the last British party leader to take such a relaxed view.

Wilson is justly celebrated as a wizard manipulator of the broadcast media, and Mr Cockerell gives chapter and verse to support that reputation. He credits Wilson, for example, with inventing the walkabout as an election gimmick. One wonders sometimes, though, how Wilson managed to get away with it. In his final term, for example, he began to develop footballing metaphors in television interviews to enhance his folksy image. He explained that in his first term so few of his colleagues had ministerial experience he had to do everything himself. ‘I had to take corner kicks and penalties, administer to the wounded and bring on the lemons at half-time and score all the goals myself. Now I will be the deep-lying centre-half, concentrating on defence, initiating attacks, distributing the ball for my star forwards. They’ll score the goals and, by heavens, they are scoring goals.’

Wilson’s problem was that there came a time when the political impact of external events could not be masked by any amount of media manipulation. Having had a marvellous honeymoon with the press, he became paranoid about the television networks, and particularly the BBC, when the going got rough. In some cases – for example, that notorious film Yesterday’s Men – his paranoia now seems more reasonable than it did at the time. There appears to be little doubt that some of the slights he complained of were not imaginary. But they were the accidental by-products of devolved editorial freedoms rather than of a concerted Corporation policy. What seems odd at this distance is that although Wilson fulminated against the BBC, he contented himself with rather petty gestures – like making Charles Hill its chairman, or giving ITN a key interview and refusing the BBC one – rather than taking more substantive measures to punish the Corporation or bring it to heel.

Edward Heath, in contrast, was an image-maker’s nightmare, for he despised the whole process, disliked television and generally felt that there were more important things in life than being interviewed on camera. Some of the funniest bits in Mr Cockerell’s book concern the attempts of Heath’s media advisers to present him as a cuddly human being. In one such effort, Heath was filmed in a Conservative club making small talk with a cloth-capped member:

Man: Are you going to reduce the income tax?

Heath: We’ll reduce it for you.

Man: What about reducing mine, because I’m a family man?

Heath: Well, you will get it reduced more.

Man: You see, I’m a home-loving man.

Heath: Well, you had better go home now, I think.

On another occasion Heath’s media team, alarmed by Wilson’s image as a family man, arranged for the Tory leader to go sailing in the company of a young woman he’d never met before. Camera crews from BBC and ITV were invited to film the couple setting sail on Morning Cloud. Then a reporter asked Heath who the woman was and whether there was a romance in the air. ‘Of course not,’ replied Heath, ‘she is only the cook.’

There is something quixotic about Heath’s unwillingness to allow himself to be packaged for media consumption. It is something he shared with, for example, Michael Foot. But it proved his undoing. For while Heath was (just about) willing to accept image-building and packaging in order to get elected, after he took office he dismantled the entire puff-dispensing apparatus. He tried to treat broadcasters in the manner of a cut-price de Gaulle. The result was that when the crisis of the Three Day Week broke and Heath badly needed to improve his image, there was nothing to build on, save recordings of press conferences and soporific statements about Europe.

James Callaghan’s spell in office was short and bitter and does not warrant much of Mr Cockerell’s time, though he does let slip one fascinating scoop. This is the news that Callaghan had a serious plan, up to and including a White Paper, for bringing the BBC to heel by inserting a new layer of government-appointed senior management. The plan was allegedly scuppered by some masterful behind-the-scenes lobbying by the Corporation. Of Michael Foot’s tenure the less said the better.

Which brings us to the present occupant of Number 10. Mr Cockerell’s account of her developing relationship with the broadcasters is competent but contains little that is new. He retails the usual stuff about the hair-do and the voice and Gordon Reece and Saatchi and Saatchi. The only surprise is that in this context the prime minister whom Margaret Thatcher most closely resembles is Macmillan. Like him, she instinctively understood the importance of television; like him, she was not naturally good on the box; like him, she was prepared to work at it and to take advice; and like him, she has achieved unrivalled pre-eminence as a television performer.

There is, however, one important respect in which the current prime minister differs from all her predecessors – with the possible exception of Eden in his most hysterical phase. This is in her view about the proper relationship between broadcasting and the state. There are certain areas – national security, police matters, espionage – where she believes that the inevitable conflict which exists between the interests of the state and those of journalists must always be resolved in favour of the former. No doubt many of her predecessors have also thought this at times. But none of them appears to have contemplated using the naked power of the state to bring the broadcasters under control. They have preferred to lobby and telephone and issue threats behind the scenes. The Iron Lady, however, prefers more direct methods. Hence the packing of the BBC’s Board of Governors, the appointment of reliable trusties to the chairmanship and deputy chairmanship of the BBC, the destruction of the ITV monopoly, the draconian replacement proposed for the Official Secrets Act – and the recent ban designed to deny terrorists ‘the oxygen of publicity’.

Live from Number 10 pre-dates Douglas Hurd’s order that representatives of certain Irish groups shall not be heard on British TV. This is a pity, because the justifications advanced for the new regulations throw some light on how our political masters see the relationship between broadcasters and the state. At the height of the furore about the restrictions, the Home Secretary protested that they were more or less identical with what the government of the Irish Republic has had in place for decades.

He was referring to Section 31 of the Republic’s 1960 Broadcasting Act. What he failed to mention is that this Act – which brought Radio Telefis Eireann into being – was designed to enshrine in legislation a particular view of the relationship between broadcasting and the state. This relationship was once summarised by the then Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, in characteristically brutal style. ‘Broadcasting in Ireland,’ he said, ‘is an arm of government.’ And in Britain too? We will just have to wait and see.