Lunchtime No News

Paul Foot

  • Kill the messenger by Bernard Ingham
    HarperCollins, 408 pp, £17.50, May 1991, ISBN 0 00 215944 9

Can you tell the difference in principle between these two leaks? In 1983, a young civil servant at the Ministry of Defence was so outraged by her Secretary of State’s plans to head off a demonstration against Cruise missiles that she copied the relevant document and delivered it in an anonymous envelope to the Guardian newspaper. In 1986, if Bernard Ingham’s book is to be believed, during the crisis about the Westland helicopter company, Leon Brittan, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, allowed his head of information, Collette Bowe, to read out to the Press Association a letter from the Solicitor-General to the selfsame Secretary of State for Defence (Michael Heseltine). Neither the Solicitor-General nor Heseltine knew of the leak. The letter, like the document about the Cruise missiles demo, was entirely secret. Though neither document was a threat to national security, both were plainly covered by the terms of the Official Secrets Act which was then in force.

Here comes the difference. The young woman who leaked the Cruise missile document, Sarah Tisdall, was prosecuted under the Act and sent to prison for six months. Leon Brittan was not prosecuted. He was knighted and later appointed as European Commissioner. Collette Bowe (who, after all, was only carrying out orders) was not prosecuted. She kept her high position in the Civil Service. Bernard Ingham, who admits in this book that he knew perfectly well that the secret document was going to be leaked and did nothing at all to stop the leak, was not prosecuted either. He stayed in 10 Downing Street as one of the most powerful men in the country, and is now Sir Bernard. The real difference therefore was this. To leak a secret document which embarrassed the Thatcher Government was a crime for which a savage penalty had to be paid. To leak a secret document which assisted the same government was an act of courage and integrity which could only properly be rewarded with a knighthood.

Bernard Ingham’s view of himself, expressed again and again in this interminable book, is subject to the same sort of double standards. One moment he flaunts his ‘sober, modest tastes’, the next he presents himself as a Monster Lunchtime O’Booze: ‘Twenty-three rieslings, traminers and Gewurtzraminers before a meal in Riquewihr leaves the sort of headiness that, I imagine, comes with a century before lunch.’

Lunch played quite a role in his time as the Prime Minister’s Press Secretary. He calculates that he ate no less than a thousand meals with journalists, mostly at sober, modest places like L’Ecu de France, where it is hard to eat for two (and partake of the standard rieslings) for less than £100. A passage about Eric Varley, the former Labour Secretary of State for Industry, echoes the contrast in his own life between the working-class boy from Hebden Bridge and the glory to which he rose: ‘He spoke of his miner father coughing up his pneumoconiosis in the next bedroom to himself at home and of the 18 constituents who had died when their cage crashed in carnage to the bottom of Markham shaft the previous August. We were of an age and we each had a single son. Our friendship continues to this day and he and his wife Marjorie used to invite us regularly to Ladies Day at Royal Ascot when he was chairman of the Coalite Group.’ When not at Ascot or at L’Ecu de France, Bernard Ingham presents himself as a bluff York-shireman, ‘an extremely awkward cuss’ with a ‘simple direct way’ of calling ‘a spade a spade’.

Part of the ‘awkward cuss’ image harks back to the rough days of his youth and his early leanings towards the Labour Party. He even joined the Party briefly and became a council candidate – largely, he says, because he knew some trade-union officials in Leeds. But the mask of an honest-to-goodness former Labour man who can see the good on both sides of the political fence slips all the time. Indeed, whenever Sir Bernard Ingham expresses his own political views (which is very, very often) he emerges as a crusted reactionary, a Thatcherite to beat all Thatcherites. He loves Nicholas Ridley and the Poll Tax, favours identity cards for football supporters, detests trade unions which behave like trade unions and not as satraps of the employers. He constantly rants against ‘NHS officials, teachers and all who would dip their hands into taxpayers’ pockets’. He was, he proudly tells us, brought up in the days when the map was dominated by the scarlet of the British Empire, and rather wishes it was that way now. As proof of his assertion that ‘Mrs Thatcher hates apartheid’ he discloses: ‘She got a lot of pleasure out of welcoming to general receptions at Number 10 members of the coloured community who were making a contribution to the life of the nation.’ (Perhaps some of her best friends were black as well.) The entire second half of his book is undiluted heroine-worship. ‘It is these qualities – nerve, conviction and courage linked with her refusal to succumb to defeatism – that eventually carried us through more than three million unemployed to a different kind of society.’ A different kind of society, he forgets to add, based on, er, three million unemployed.

Double standards in Bernard Ingham are not perhaps all that remarkable since his whole existence at No 10 was a contradiction. He was a press officer who on his own admission had contempt for the press. By that of course I don’t mean the servile press, the toadies who crawled round his office looking for new ways to present the Prime Minister and her government in a favourable light. There must have been hundreds of these in the 11 years Ingham was in charge of Thatcher’s press office, and just as he has totted up the meals they bought him, so he reckons that he gave at least five thousand ‘Off-the-record’ briefings to journalists who could not report him as saying what he said. Sir Bernard loved that. What he couldn’t stand were the journalists (always a minority, but especially so in Mrs Thatcher’s time) who asked disturbing questions, and insisted on following them up.

Margaret Thatcher summed up his role succinctly when she introduced him to President Gorbachev. ‘ “This is Bernard Ingham,” she said, “who keeps our press in order.” I shake the Soviet leader by the hand as he fires back: “But I thought you said the press were independent?” Mrs Thatcher looks at me. “Altogether too independent for my liking, sir,” I reply. He roars with laughter.’

Was it a joke? Bernard Ingham makes it clear that there are some journalists he detests. They are not the gutter journalists on the Sun or the Star: these newspapers are obviously among his favourites, since they had nothing but praise for Margaret Thatcher. No, the journalist he hates most is Anthony Bevins, Political Correspondent of the Independent. Bevins won an award last year for his consistent questioning (and exposé) of Thatcherism. Ingham’s fury is almost deranged. ‘There is only one qualification for a media award these days: undermining of elected authority.’ His second pet hate is Peter Hennessy – one of the very few journalists to explore and expose the inner recesses of the Civil Service. Sir Bernard hates Brian Redhead of the Today programme, which he regards as subversive, hates Mark Lawson of the Independent, whom he describes as a ‘bearded hulk’ and ticks off for appearing at 10 Downing Street in an anorak and boots. And of course he hates the Mirror and the Guardian.

Sir Bernard hates all these journalists and papers chiefly because they would not play his silly lobby game of ‘not telling on teacher’ – but he hates them also because from time to time they dared to spoil his fanatical heroine-worship. ‘Of course I tried to manage the news,’ admits Ingham – and you can find out why from the last section of the book, where he appears to go over the top. In a splenetic section on current affairs journalism, Ingham writes: ‘One feels that no sooner has someone gone down for a most heinous offence than someone in television will be trying to get him out of jail.’ This is a subtle reference, no doubt, to the television campaigns to free the Birmingham Six (World in Action) or the Guildford Four (First Tuesday). Without those programmes ten innocent people would still be in prison for crimes they did not commit. Thames TV’s crime was to broadcast the programme Death on the Rock, which questioned the shooting of unarmed IRA members in Gibraltar. The programme, which won an award, was exculpated and praised by an independent inquiry after a terrific huffing and puffing of outrage in which B. Ingham played his usual part. ‘My relations with ITN,’ concludes Ingham, ‘were much easier. I got on extremely well with Sir David Nicholas and Sir Alastair Burnet and Sue Tinson.’ No wonder. Burnet was a legendary Thatcher-worshipper and Sue Tinson was once a candidate for the job of Head of Information at Tory Central Office. On page 366, Sir Bernard declares his hatred for ‘the lowest form of newspaper life – the investigative journalist’. Just as Sir James Goldsmith – that great enemy of the ‘see-through’ society – started a news magazine which was reluctant to publish news, so Sir Bernard Ingham was an information officer who loathed any journalist who sought out information.

Naturally, therefore, there is no information in this book. I picked it up eagerly, refusing to believe that someone so close to the top for so long could fail to reveal, even by mistake, a single interesting piece of information. Save perhaps for filling in some of the details about Mrs Thatcher’s plundering of public museums and art galleries to grace the walls of 10 Downing Street (which is not open to the public) and a single tantalising hostile reference to the two ‘ad-knights’ Sir Gordon Reece and Sir Tim Bell, Sir Bernard has managed 400 pages without a single disclosure of the remotest interest to anyone at all, let alone to the lowest form of life. There is, for instance, nothing but gung-ho guff about the sinking of the Belgrano before (not during, remember, Sir Bernard?) the Falklands War; nothing about the secret pay deals with other public sector workers during the miners’ strike; nothing about the Guinness swindle and the famous Tory fund-raising lunch hosted by Sir (as he is no longer) Jack Lyons; nothing about the really interesting guests who dined or lunched at Downing Street: Asil Nadir, for instance, of Polly Peck; Abdul Shamji of Gomba, the Fayed brothers, Gerald Ronson and all the others. If you want to understand why there is nothing in this book, and also to appreciate the full glory of its prose, here is the passage with which its last chapter, ‘The Undefeated’, begins:

Like a mighty oak, it took more than one axe to bring Mrs Thatcher down. In November 1990 they were cutting into this solid timber from all angles. The frenzy was fearsome to behold. Heaven preserve us from political axe-men in a state of panic. They would cut off their grandmas in their prime if they thought it would serve their interests. And so they cut off a grandma in her international prime by the stocking tops, to borrow one of Denis’s phrases, which Mrs Thatcher often used. May God forgive them. For the road to 22 November 1990, when Mrs Thatcher resigned, was mostly paved with gold. Never have we seen such an advance in the condition of the ordinary decent hard-working socially responsible and ambitious people of Britain. My kind of people. Where did it all go wrong? Why did she come a cropper?

Because, Sir Bernard, most people in Britain were sick to death of the ugly, mean, philistine, narrow-minded, divided, racialist, violent and impoverished society over which Mrs Thatcher presided; and sick of your own brand of ‘news-management’ which helped to keep it going for so long.