What is this Bernard?

Christopher Hitchens

  • Good and Faithful Servant: The Unauthorised Biography of Bernard Ingham by Robert Harris
    Faber, 202 pp, £14.99, December 1990, ISBN 0 571 16108 1

In the dismal mid-Seventies Patrick Cosgrave, later to be Margaret Thatcher’s adviser and biographer, took me to a Friday luncheon at the old Bertorelli’s in Charlotte Street. Here was a then-regular sodality, consisting at different times of Kingsley Amis, Bernard Levin, Robert Conquest, Anthony Powell, Russell Lewis and assorted others, and calling itself with heavy and definite self-mockery ‘Bertorelli’s Blackshirts’. The conversational scheme was simple (I think it had evolved from a once-famous letter to the Times defending Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam and signed by all or most of those present). One had to pretend that Britain was a country where it was dangerous to hold conservative opinions. So that a sample sally might begin, ‘I know it’s unfashionable to say this’ and go on to propose that, say, Hans Eysenck was on to something. Someone would lift a riskily brimming bumper and cry, ‘Down with Oxfam!’ Someone else might recommend a piece of samizdat from Encounter. And so the afternoon wore on agreeably enough, with daring satirical calls for South African port, Chilean wine and so forth.

One of the number could never get enough of the joke. This was John Braine, whose special party-trick was the skipping of ironic bits. When he said that England these days was run by the trade unions and the pansies, he meant it. When he went on about treason and the intellectuals there was grim, literal relish in his tones. Once, in dispute with Lord Soper – ‘socialist, divine and peer of the realm’ – he had been met with the naive argument that he might not say such-and-such about absolute freedom in America if he were black. An incredulous pause, a bulge in the vinous features and then the outraged roar, ‘But I’m not black, yer daft booger!’ Fond, perhaps over-fond of recalling his days as a working-class Yorkshire socialist lad, he began to get the others down. After one too many of his excruciating hortations (‘Call me old-fashioned if you will, but ah always say …’), the club began to break up. In the end it broke up altogether, with only Kingers and Conkers present on one dismal day, and Braine turning all chippy on them and saying, ‘You ’ate me doant yer? ’Cos I’ve not bin to uni – i – ver – sity.’

Harris’s portrait of the bulldog-visaged, anti-intellectual, aggressive, insecure, class-conscious reactionary tyke reminds me powerfully of old Braine and his blatherings. It’s no surprise to find that Bernard Ingham, who failed to get to university and who, on internal evidence, has also been trying to compensate for missing his National Service, began his political life as a boorish, hectoring columnist – with the nom de plume, as he wouldn’t have dreamed of calling it, of ‘Albion’ – on the Labour machine mouthpiece the Leeds Weekly Citizen. From this anonymous pulpit he abused grousemoor Tories, metropolitan eggheads, unofficial strikers, disbelievers in the Yorkshire sage Harold Wilson and all those too feckless to see the connection between muck and brass. Reading his reprinted stuff, which was mostly written out of a sort of turgid, inarticulate resentment rather than with real rage or outrage, one recalls the blustering world of George Brown, Ray Gunter and Robert Mellish – those Labour dinosaurs who used to invoke the common man but who, while envying the Tories their vowels and their ease of manner, would turn into RSMs when confronted with party dissidents like Bertrand Russell or even Aneurin Bevan. Then a sublimated loathing for the toffs would be vented on those who ‘didn’t know they were bloody born’, ‘didn’t know how lucky they were’, and so on. The mentality that Tories disdainfully call ‘chippy’, or christen ‘the politics of envy’, has very often been their secret weapon in the class war. Thatcher is probably the first senior Conservative to have understood this by instinct.

As an occasional jobbing hack for British newspapers, I had the opportunity to see Ingham in action a few times, and I’m annoyed that his rapid undoing cheats me of the opportunity to kick him while he’s erect. Still, as he would be the first to affirm, down is better than nothing at all. During his time in office, Fleet Street took several steps towards an American system of Presidentially-managed coverage and sound-bite deference, without acquiring any of the American constitutional protection in return, and indeed while surrendering a few of the local and traditional ones. I have seen Ingham lie abroad for his prime minister (on the ‘dual key’ for Cruise missiles at a briefing in Washington in 1986) and bluff abroad for her (in Paris at the amazing dénouement last November). I have also seen him handle a breaking story which involved the ‘credibility’ of his mistress. This was in the think-tank territory of Aspen, Colorado, last August, on the first day of the invasion of Kuwait.

Scene: a briefing-room in a hotel basement. Ingham opens gruffly by saying: ‘Usual rules. “British sources say.” ’ He then gives a laboured digest of events, already well-known to any journalist who has had the wit to telephone London and talk to the desk. I ask a question about the Shi’a prisoners held by the Emir of Kuwait these many years. Their release is a demand made by many local fundamentalist factions, including those supposed to be the captors of Terry Waite. They were also the subject of covert talks between Oliver North and the Ayatollah’s men during a time when Mrs Thatcher was publicly exonerating Ronald Reagan of the charge of hostage-trading. So much is known. Any news of them today? Suddenly, HMG becomes HMV. I am fixed by Ingham with a dull Wackford Squeers look, combining ignorance with nettled hostility. ‘I don’t know what you’re bloody on about’ would be a summary of his reply.

Other reporters look away and change the subject when I ask sotto voce why a. he’s so pig-ignorant, and b. so hog-rude about it. Why their lack of solidarity? ‘Bernard, can you tell us any more of the PM’s thinking this morning?’ Bernard? What is this Bernard? I swiftly learn that Mrs Thatcher is to make her keynote speech in Aspen on a Saturday morning, and that selected members of the ‘Sunday Lobby’ will be vouchsafed advance ‘guidance’ on its shape and content. Not being a member of the Lobby, but having still to meet the Sunday Correspondent’s needs by Saturday noon, with a seven-hour Rocky Mountain time-zone lag, I suddenly get the point.

It’s an easy point, too, and one which Robert Harris understands very well and analyses very deftly. Who wants yesterday’s papers? This relatively simple blackmail, which places the regular political staff of newspapers and networks at the mercy of the ‘British source’, also gives the ‘First Among Equals’ an advantage over other members of Cabinet. With ‘leaking’ made into a prime ministerial, taxpayer-supported state monopoly, a crucial ‘edge’ is available. Earlier figures like Chamberlain and Eden and Wilson were quick to see this advantage – Attlee and Churchill both rather despised it – but not until Thatcher and Ingham was it made into a fully politicised system and a major department of state. Here is how it has evolved since the days of its founder, the well-named George Steward:

Chamberlain used Steward repeatedly to bypass the Cabinet and promote his policy of appeasing Hitler. In the autumn of 1937, for example, Lord Halifax, the Foreign Secretary, had received a private invitation to visit Germany. The Foreign Office was anxious to play down the importance of the trip. Chamberlain’s purpose was precisely the opposite. Steward briefed the Lobby with the Number 10 version. The next day the Times and the Daily Telegraph appeared with almost identical stories about the visit’s vital significance in the eyes of ‘the Government’ – an interpretation which horrified the anti-appeasers and caused delight in Berlin. By exploiting his press secretary’s contacts with the Lobby in this way, Chamberlain was able to raise ‘news management’, in the words of the historian Richard Cockett, ‘almost to the level of an exact science’.

Obviously, it’s a long march from making Lord Halifax look like an appeaser (which Harris might have pointed out he was already) to making Michael Heseltine look like a fool or a knave, which is, in Britain at least, a matter only within the competence of the libel courts. But between them, Thatcher and Ingham obviously employed the law officers of the Crown as well as members of the professional Civil Service and the daily Press to win an inner-party faction fight over Westland helicopters. Heseltine had already enmeshed himself in the net that would choke him by agreeing to the hounding of Sarah Tisdall and Clive Ponting, and by not deploring Ingham’s remark, made to the Meeting of Information Officers (MIO) on the eve of Ponting’s trial at the Old Bailey, that the case should be heard by Judge Jeffreys. Nor had he dissented when Ingham told the IBA in crude and direct terms that the Official Secrets Act was a weapon which those in power might employ with almost feudal discretion: ‘I must tell you that I – and I am sure my colleagues – have never regarded the Official Secrets Act as a constraint on my operations. Indeed, I regard myself as licensed to break that law as and when I judge necessary.’

This pugnacious nastiness sits alarmingly well with a man who had laboured for too long under the (correct) impression that he was second-rate: doomed to obey instructions rather than issue them. Ingham is now convinced that as a no-nonsense son of a weaver he mastered the craft of journalism early, trudging through Hebden Bridge to cover weddings, traffic accidents, flower-shows and industrial exhibitions, and only falling victim to jealousy when he came to London to be done in by city slickers on the Guardian labour desk, where he was indentured to Peter Jenkins: ‘ “He was very nice to work with: extremely conscientious,” recalled Jenkins, who was two years younger than his deputy. “He probably thought I was a bit flash and metropolitan.” ’ One doubts that even our Bernie could have been so gormlessly provincial as that: even so, the psychic wound was obviously a deep one. And his grinding apprenticeship took its grisly revenge. For him, reporting had also been a cap-in-hand business – getting names right, flattering local worthies, taking down self-serving prose in shorthand, being impartial about tripe-fests and passing off the homogeneous, conformist result as tough objectivity. This was precisely the mode of journalism that he sought to impose, with conspicuous success, on the Fleet Street national routine.

Here is an example of journalistic pluralism as given by Harris. After John Biffen, one of the few thoughtful and gracious members of the Thatcher Front Bench, had hinted at prime ministerial megalomania in a Weekend World interview in May 1986, Ingham summoned the Lobby and instructed them that Biffen, then Leader of the House of Commons, was an un-person. The phrase employed was ‘semi-detached’. In the next day’s Times: ‘The sources said that Mr Biffen was a “semi-detached member of the Cabinet”.’ The same day’s Guardian had him as ‘a “semi-detached member of the Government” whose views were of little consequence’. In the Financial Times, ‘Biffen was yesterday being authoritatively described as “a well-known semi-detached member of the Government”.’ The Sun was, if anything, more honest than the pack, writing that ‘in an unprecedented bid to discredit Mr Biffen, Downing Street sources made it clear …’ before going on to repeat the ipsissima verba. But then Bernard Ingham always loved the Sun, because as well as getting his and her wishes down at dictation speed, it also behaved so disgustingly on occasion as to license his frequent attacks on press ‘irresponsibility’. This leak-hate relationship between Thatcher and Murdoch, which gives the Tories two birds with no stone, would be a study in itself.

There isn’t a single recorded occasion, in this book or in anyone’s memory, of a real challenge to Ingham’s assumption of news-management power, or to his replacement at public expense of the idea of accountability with the pseudo-science of deniability. When the BBC was bullied into sharing exclusive photo-op footage of Thatcher in the Falkland Islands, it caved in to one minatory telephone call. When reporters from the Independent, the Guardian and the Scotsman, whose editors had sought to modify Lobby practice very slightly, were denied privilege on an Ingham-Thatcher jet to Moscow, they whined at the withdrawal of his megaphone from their ears.

Nor did any Member of Parliament – Tam Dalyell excepted – raise the constitutional point made by Harris that ‘in the past, the rule which Prime Ministers had insisted upon was that the Cabinet could argue strenuously in private, but that in public a united front must be presented. Mrs Thatcher used the Lobby in precisely the opposite way: Cabinet discussions were kept to a minimum, whilst she reserved the right to make public her disagreement with her own ministers.’

Harris has made an important and well-written book out of the study of an essentially nugatory individual, who was empowered by a surreptitious form of democratic centralism. Excellent on the suggestive detail, he is good at connecting with the more ample implication. Really Bernard Ingham, with a staff of 1200 at the peak of his power, four interlocking spokesmanships and a budget of £168 million, would in a serious country have been titled Minister of Information. But the amateur, informal British state has no such position, any more than it has a Director of MI6 or MI5 or a Ministry of the Interior. And without a democracy, there is always room at the top for an ambitious and obedient mediocrity.