Living with Monsters

Ferdinand Mount

  • Where Power Lies: Prime Ministers v. the Media by Lance Price
    Simon & Schuster, 498 pp, £20.00, February 2010, ISBN 978 1 84737 253 6

One of the odder political books I have read is The Abuse of Power, by James Margach, the veteran lobby correspondent of the Sunday Times. Published in 1978, the book was subtitled with a flourish: ‘The war between Downing Street and the media from Lloyd George to Callaghan’.

For 40 years and more, Margach had enjoyed the confidence of prime ministers. He was in the private sitting room of Number Ten when Ramsay MacDonald returned from the palace on resigning. He belonged to Chamberlain’s magic circle of lobby men, lunching with him at St Stephen’s Club once a week. He saw Harold Wilson every week too, with the other members of the ‘White Commonwealth’, as the handpicked political editors were then called. Yet he did not grow to love or respect these great men. On the contrary, in his book he portrays most of the prime ministers he was intimate with as vain, bullying, deceitful, paranoiac, unscrupulous and vengeful. But what is so strange is that for virtually half his life he lived with these monsters and never wrote a thing in his newspaper about what they were really like. He kept the lobby’s vow of omertà. Only after he had retired (and as it turned out only a year before he died) did he spill the beans. It is as though a war reporter had gone through the whole campaign from Omaha Beach to Berlin without apparently seeing a single dead body.

Margach’s book came out the year after I joined the parliamentary lobby for the Spectator, and I suppose what I saw were the last glory days of that hermetically sealed organisation, with its fiercely imposed code of conduct. It was like getting an inside view of the papal curia before Vatican II. The novice was issued with a little booklet bound in maroon rexine entitled Lobby Practice. Its instructions read like a mixture of an etiquette book and a secret police training manual, now and then lurching into unnerving capital letters:

The cardinal rule of the Lobby is never to identify its informant … don’t talk about Lobby meetings BEFORE or AFTER they are held … Do not ‘see’ anything in the Member’s Lobby or any of the private rooms or corridors of the Palace of Westminster … Do not run after a Minister or Private Member … When a member of the Lobby is in conversation with a Minister, MP or peer, another member of the Lobby should not join in the conversation unless invited to do so … NEVER in ANY circumstances make use of anything accidentally overheard in any part of the Palace of Westminster.

The highlight of the lobby week was on Thursday afternoon after business questions, when we climbed a winding stone stair to a remote attic chamber to be given an unattributable, wholly deniable briefing by Red Leader and Blue Leader – alias the leader of the house and the leader of the opposition, or the other way round, depending on which party was in power. Under lobby protocol, these encounters never existed and the poison was never dripped into our ears, nor the kite floated, nor the lie broadcast. With the aid of a system like this, a politician could survive for years with a false public face, his real behaviour unguessed at by those who were not in the know.

We used to think of Neville Chamberlain, for example, as a stiff, misguided but relatively honourable man. Yet Margach reveals him to have been as slippery a manipulator of public opinion as ever made it to the top of the greasy pole. Throughout the Munich crisis he used threats and lies to coerce the press into co-operation. His fixer, the sinister Joseph Ball, had the telephones of the anti-appeasement MPs tapped. When Eden resigned as foreign secretary in February 1938, Ball put it about that the real reason was that he was exhausted and could no longer cope with the job. Chamberlain founded the Conservative Research Department to pump out propaganda on his behalf to such an extent that it became known as ‘Chamberlain’s private army’.

He was not the first premier to use devious means to mould public opinion and improve his image. It was Lloyd George who coined the maxim: ‘What you can’t square, you squash. What you can’t squash, you square.’ His press secretary, William ‘Bronco Bill’ Sutherland, had a reputation every bit as evil as that of Alastair Campbell or Gordon Brown’s frightful pair, Charlie Whelan and Damian ‘McPoison’ McBride.

Nor was it always the PM’s press spokesmen who dripped the poison. At the time of Suez, Eden’s spokesman, William Clark, was startled to get a call from the Tory whips’ office suggesting that he might hint that the rebel MP Sir Anthony Nutting was ‘terribly under the influence of his American mistress’. I am not sure whether this was better or worse than Campbell’s ultimatum to Robin Cook that he must choose between his wife and his mistress. In any event, Clark resigned soon afterwards, complaining that ‘news management’ had become ‘news invention’. Even the young Queen Elizabeth was moved to remark to her press secretary: ‘I think the basic dishonesty of the whole thing was a trouble.’

Now, 30 years on, Lance Price, himself a former BBC reporter who then worked as a media adviser to Tony Blair, has brought the story up to the present (his title and subtitle are on much the same lines as Margach’s). At first blush, it is hard to see that much has changed. Price is particularly good at showing how half the prime ministers of the last hundred years have been hysterically obsessed with their press coverage. Eden would telephone both press lords and their editors from 6 a.m. onwards, objecting to unfavourable items. At various times, Wilson attempted without success to get the political editors of the Sun, the Observer, the Times and the Sunday Times sacked. Dick Crossman reported that ‘Harold spent ten minutes at cabinet, complaining about a disc jockey, I think they’re called.’ Wilson did manage to persuade the director-general of the BBC, the normally robust Hugh Carleton Greene, to postpone that week’s episode of Steptoe and Son until after the polls closed in 1964, on the grounds that it might deter Labour voters from turning out. Wilson’s obsession later grew into a full-blown paranoid belief that the security services were plotting a coup against him. John Major was not far behind. He would leave a cabinet discussion to go and read the latest edition of the Evening Standard in the anteroom, then come back to suggest they begin the discussion again in the light of what the Standard was saying. In his memoirs he gives credence to the idea that Conrad Black, Rupert Murdoch and Vere Harmsworth had met to plot his downfall, as though such prickly egomaniacs would ever co-ordinate anything.

When Blair came in, he kept telling everyone that he had cancelled the first editions of the morning papers, which Major sent for to read before he went to bed. Yet, as we soon learned, Blair’s public nonchalance concealed an even greater obsession with how he was presented in the media. He was so determined to bludgeon Brown into dismissing the seditious Whelan that he failed to listen to his plan to make the Bank of England independent. The timing of public announcements became an obsession too. Jo Moore, a special adviser at the Department of Transport, was only responding to the prevailing tone when she sent her notorious email on 9/11, pointing out it was ‘a very good day to get out anything we want to bury’. But then even the saintly Bill Deedes readily admitted that, when he was Macmillan’s information minister in the early 1960s, at his weekly conference of chief press officers, ‘if their news was bad, we tried to tie that in with some juicy distraction.’ Churchill had a small ‘leak committee’, not to plug leaks but to decide which confidential documents should be leaked to which papers. Both he and Lloyd George would, I am sure, have sympathised with Blair’s plea for more ‘eye-catching initiatives’ which he ‘should be personally associated with as much as possible’. Blair’s mania for initiatives reached such intensity that the press officer at the Department of Health complained that ‘this is the Number Ten problem; they are asking for announcements before we have a policy.’

On second thoughts, though, there is a difference between more recent experience and the period covered by Margach. For what made Margach’s book so eerie is that nothing got out. He gave no inkling of the grisly daily experience of the lobby men. They were habitually lied to, deceived and bullied. And what slim pickings they got in return for their discretion and the appalling hours they worked: the odd early hint of a new bill, a steer, often a bum steer, on the next reshuffle or the date of the next election.

In these gabbier days, nothing stays under wraps for long. Churchill’s severe stroke in 1953 was successfully kept secret until he had recovered. Half a century later, the sexing up of the ‘dodgy dossier’ was revealed almost before the ink was dry. Gordon Brown throws a telephone at an aide and the world knows of it inside a fortnight; it was 40 years before Margach told us about Chamberlain thumping the table as he hectored the hacks when they were not telling the story the way he wanted. As for spin doctors, we were scarcely aware of their existence. And as they are the first to lament, the moment they themselves become the story, they are busted flushes. Just as cabinet ministers were portrayed in Yes, Minister as quivering jellies manipulated by their urbane and Machiavellian civil servants, so now they are bullied and sworn at by spin doctors in The Thick of It and In the Loop. How quickly Blair’s pose became exposed. As early as June 2000, his pet pollster Philip Gould was reporting their focus groups as saying that ‘TB is not believed to be real. He lacks conviction, he is all spin and presentation.’ It is a bitter irony that this image of him became fixed in the public mind just as he was beginning to embark on some decidedly unpopular policies, such as the Iraq war and student top-up fees.

When the honeymoon is over, the mutual adoration turns to loathing. In the autumn of 1939, a disenchanted Chamberlain told the cabinet that the criticism of him ‘bore no relation to any spontaneous feeling of indignation in the country. The explanation of so unpatriotic a course of conduct on the part of newspaper proprietors lay in the degeneration of our press.’ Nevile Henderson, the appeasing British ambassador in Berlin, claimed that ‘history will judge the press generally to have been the principal cause of war’ – whereas in fact most newspapers had given Chamberlain a following wind all the way to Munich and back.

Just before Blair stood down, he turned on the press whose pet he had been for so long. Now he claimed that the relationship between politics and the media had become ‘seriously adverse to the way public life is conducted’. The impact of the media was overwhelming. ‘Today’s media, more than ever, hunts in a pack. In these modes it is like a feral beast, just tearing people and reputations to bits.’ From baa lambs to feral beasts seemed to be only a short step. By contrast, it is noticeable that those other PMs who were indifferent to the press and either disliked or ignored journalists saw little reason to blame the media when things went wrong. This Other Club consists principally of Baldwin, Attlee, Heath, Callaghan and Thatcher.

Attlee consented to have a telex machine installed in Downing Street only so that he could keep up with the cricket scores. When Hugh Dalton had to resign after leaking the contents of his budget to a passing reporter, Attlee remarked with his inimitable laconic touch: ‘Behaved like a fool. Can’t see why anyone would want to talk to the press.’ During Heath’s first hundred days in office, virtually no news emerged from Downing Street. It did not occur to the new PM to go anywhere near a television studio. Thatcher scarcely read the newspapers, relying on a press summary prepared for her by her spokesman Henry James, a career civil servant who had worked for both Heath and Wilson and was as grave and imposing a figure as his literary namesake. When James was succeeded by Bernard Ingham, who had worked for Barbara Castle, presentation certainly hotted up. Ingham gave a robust account of his new mistress’s views, stamped on the latest rumours with his trademark dismissal, ‘bunkum and balderdash’, and did not hesitate to pass on news that this or that minister had fallen out of favour – Francis Pym was a moaning minnie, John Biffen a semi-detached member of the cabinet. But unlike Campbell, Ingham never became part of the policy-making machine; nobody would have dreamed of dubbing him the deputy prime minister. He did not even attend cabinet, though he was briefed on its proceedings, unlike his predecessor under Callaghan, Tom McCaffrey, who was denied access even to the cabinet minutes.

My point is that the more laconic prime ministers seem to have suffered no real damage by refusing to court the press and paying only spasmodic attention to the newspapers. Of course, there are differences within this group. Thatcher and Murdoch enjoyed a mutual admiration society. She would never have given voice to the marvellous words about Beaverbrook and Rothermere that Kipling helped to write for his cousin Stanley Baldwin: ‘What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power and power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.’ Less often quoted is Baldwin’s elaboration of his theme: the Mail and the Express ‘are engines of propaganda for the constantly changing policies, desires, personal wishes, likes and dislikes of two men. What are their methods? Their methods are direct falsehood, misrepresentations, half-truths, the alteration of a speaker’s meaning by publishing a sentence apart from the context.’ That was telling them.

But neither being abused nor being ignored dented the incurable boastfulness of newspapers and their proprietors. Cecil King, Northcliffe’s nephew and then director of the Daily Mirror, claimed that it was the Mirror which had provided the real opposition during the war. ‘The result was the Labour landslide in 1945 to which Messrs Attlee, Bevin and Co had contributed nothing’ – hardly surprising since they had been part of the national coalition government. After Major’s surprise victory in 1992, the Sun famously claimed ‘It’s the Sun Wot Won It.’ The defeated Neil Kinnock and Thatcher agreed in giving the credit to the Tory press, but mostly because they were reluctant to give any credit to Major. Yet all the evidence suggests that it was doubts about Kinnock himself and about Labour’s tax policy which persuaded thousands of voters to give the Tories one more chance. I remember several friends who normally voted Labour (and never read the Sun) going through last-minute agonies of this sort.

As Price points out, most of the evidence suggests that the media have had little influence on the outcomes of modern elections. Specific policy campaigns by the press barons have tended to flop miserably, notably Beaverbrook’s interminable crusade for Empire free trade. Despite huge press hostility, Major rammed the Maastricht Treaty through; there has still been no referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The media enthusiastically backed Barbara Castle’s plan to reform the trade unions, but Wilson could not get it through cabinet. Even if Alastair Campbell had never existed, the Tories were so discredited, vituperative and split that Blair was always going to win several elections; ditto Thatcher against a split and erratic Labour Party, with or without Murdoch’s support. Francis Williams, Attlee’s press secretary, concluded that the media have to go with the prevailing mood; they can’t deflect the wagon once it has started rolling, but they can enormously increase its weight and velocity.

Price suggests that ‘the fundamentals of the relationship between Downing Street and the media have changed less than might be imagined.’ It remains true that, as John Delane, the first great editor of the Times, said in 1852: ‘The purpose and duties of the two powers are constantly separate, generally independent, sometimes diametrically opposed … the press can enter into no close or binding alliances with the statesmen of the day, nor can it surrender its permanent interests to the convenience of the ephemeral power of any government.’ Are we then reduced to saying that the only difference between prime ministers is between the one who labours under the illusion that he can seduce the media so that they stay seduced and the one who doesn’t give a damn what the media say and would not care if he never spoke to another hack? Is it merely a question of temperament: that some PMs keep their cool and the press in its proper place, while others lose it and develop a disabling paranoia? And is the only difference in audience reaction that these days we find them out a bit more quickly?

Naturally, Price would like to draw some more resonant conclusion, but he is stronger on narrative than on analysis, and I don’t think he really brings out what may be lurking in the mephitic swamp that he explores so well. Perhaps we might approach it by tracing two related but not interdependent trends: the rise of the mass media at the end of the 19th century and the decline of Parliament through the second half of the 20th. Northcliffe’s Daily Mail, its rivals and successors are often identified as a transforming force sweeping through the culture, informing, agitating or vulgarising the public, according to taste. But from the point of view of the politicians, the alarming feature of the modern mass media is their independence.

In the old days, newspapers and journals had been founded and financed mostly by vested interests in order to push a party or a point of view. The terrifying thing about the new mass media is that their proprietors are, first and foremost, out to please their readers and make money. The new press lords have their own personal views, which may break out in a forceful and sometimes repellent way, but their strongest wish is to make a profit. Rothermere abandoned the Blackshirts the moment the advertisers complained. With Murdoch as with Lord Copper, the most important thing is to be on the winning side. In fact, pretty much all you need to know about newspaper proprietors is contained in Scoop. That is what terrifies the jumpy politician: that the support of any newspaper group is never guaranteed but remains capricious and importunate.

Alongside this new phenomenon we witness the slow transformation of Parliament from the secretive, introverted yet dominant centre of British political life into a transitional and sometimes bewildered institution which finds itself forced to accommodate new demands for transparency, openness and responsiveness and does so with visible ill grace. While the stagy scuffles between politicians and the press continue to entertain, a more serious – and as yet incomplete – alteration has been taking place in the relationship between Parliament and the outside world. Margach had already detected it over the course of his own career: ‘For close on half a century I have witnessed a revolution inexorably taking place. Parliament has gone into decline, with its powers shifting to a menacing extent to No. 10 Downing Street.’

Price notes in passing several of the landmarks in this journey. In October 1938, the first Gallup poll to test the public’s satisfaction with the prime minister was taken; it recorded strong support for Chamberlain and peace. From then on, MPs could no longer regard themselves as the sole interpreters of public opinion. The polls not the pols would influence the ups and downs of governments, drive policies to be softened or abandoned, compel ministers and even party leaders to be dropped if they weren’t cutting the mustard.

Then, in 1957, the government abolished the extraordinary ‘Fourteen-Day Rule’, which had since 1944 banned the BBC from discussing any bill before Parliament or any subject that was due to be debated over the following fortnight. A year later, Robin Day interviewed Macmillan on ITN’s Tell the People, the first full-scale television interview with a sitting prime minister. Naturally, the first full sit-down newspaper interview had to follow – conducted as it happens by Margach. Swiftly, the BBC’s licence to discuss was broadened to include a licence to satirise, with That Was the Week That Was and, on the stage, Beyond the Fringe. A process was set in motion which was to culminate in Jonathan Ross asking David Cameron whether he masturbated when he thought of Mrs Thatcher, and Little Ant and Little Dec asking Blair: ‘If you make an ugly smell, do people pretend not to notice because you is the prime minister?’ The coming series of election debates on TV between the party leaders is only the logical conclusion. So is Brown’s choosing YouTube rather than the House of Commons to make his statement on MPs’ expenses.

Repeated efforts by successive speakers to compel ministers to make policy statements to the House first rather than on the Today programme have failed miserably. It is now accepted practice that every announcement must be thoroughly ‘pre-briefed’ in the media, because if you don’t, the other side will get in first. By contrast, prime ministers of the Churchillian vintage took it for granted that all important statements of public policy should be first made to the House or, if it were a more personal declaration, to a large public meeting.

Hopes that the broadcasting of Parliament’s proceedings might slow down or reverse the trend have come to nothing. Broadcast news producers can barely bring themselves to use clips from the BBC Parliament channel when there is a chance of a piece from their own correspondents. Newspapers for their part have virtually stopped reporting proceedings, except for a winsome parliamentary sketch.

We should not undervalue the proposals for reforming and reviving Parliament which MPs have just voted for (mostly against the whips’ advice): to strengthen the independence of select committees, to make debates more topical, and to give the House rather than the government control over the business of the Commons. But even if these reforms work, any prospect of reviving public respect for Parliament has been knocked way into the future by the scandal over MPs’ expenses.

The net effect of all this is to make a more presidential system seem natural. The prime minister now relates directly to the public through the media; he is no longer merely the leading element in a complex parliamentary system. His is the only face that counts. Everything flows from and to his office. Parliament is for him little more than a locus of tiresome formalities which have to be gone through now and then, like a sheep dip. After Lloyd George fell from power, he stayed in Parliament for 23 years; Blair left the same day. The modern prime minister is gone from the front bench the moment his question time is finished. He wouldn’t dream of dropping in again later in the evening to take the temperature of the House for an hour or so, as Baldwin used to do.

Previous generations would have thought it bizarre that Alastair Campbell should have the power to give orders to civil servants and to brief incoming ministers on what was expected of them and what would be ‘the line to take’. More bizarre still that the chief whip, the focus of parliamentary opinion and discipline, should have been turfed out of No. 12 Downing Street to make way for Campbell’s burgeoning staff.

Price seems to think much of this inevitable, perhaps even desirable. In his view, the PM’s director of communications is today what Bagehot would have called one of the ‘efficient parts’ of the constitution. We must not hide behind outdated myths about the sovereignty of Parliament. This is the way the system actually works now, and we had better get used to it: ‘The British Parliament must compete for attention like everybody else,’ rather as though it were an unfancied contender on The X-Factor. To my mind, though, Price is curiously optimistic. ‘However inglorious Brown’s premiership may have looked,’ he says,’ from its many tribulations has emerged the possibility of a healthier relationship between the government and the governed and even perhaps between Downing Street and the media.’

Has it? I wish I could be so confident. It seems to me that both government and opposition are just as likely to learn some decidedly unhealthy lessons: that power needs to be further centralised and concentrated rather than dispersed and pluralised, that the leadership must devote even more time and energy to enforcing its will and boosting its own image. Look how party leaders now routinely and unashamedly interfere in the selection of their parliamentary candidates; by contrast, Baldwin famously said that if it were known that he supported a particular candidate, that would finish the man’s chances. Look too at how white papers and green papers have become highly coloured boosterish propaganda with titles couched in the participial optative: ‘Working for Safer Streets’, ‘Modernising Our Rail Network’, ‘Making Poverty History’. All this has a whiff of some low-calorie authoritarian regime rather than of a vigorous parliamentary democracy in which power is devolved to and contested in many different institutions.

Of course, we want government to be open, transparent, accountable, responsive and all the other nice things. But that is not all we want. Where Power Lies is an entertaining, judicious and comprehensive survey, but there is not much comfort in it for those who believe that pluralism is what our kind of politics should be all about. In the end, I find myself brooding not on the punning but on the literal sense of Price’s title. The challenge now is not so much to train power to tell the truth (an uphill task, to put it mildly) as to make sure that it lies in more places.