Media: A Spot of Bother with the In-Laws ; Why, in 1967, Did Harold Wilson Ask the the Times's Editor to Sack His Economics Correspondent? Was It Nepotism, or Had He Breached the Official Secrets Act?

Article excerpt

A CURIOUS piece of media history emerged in the release of 30- year-old documents by the Public Records Office. The case of the Prime Minister, the editor and the economics editor with a famous father-in- law shows how Harold Wilson tried to get the then editor of The Times, William Rees Mogg, to sack the young Peter Jay.

In a bout of dynastic political in-fighting, Harold Wilson and other Labour ministers wanted to prosecute Peter Jay under the Official Secrets Act on the grounds that he had used secret government information in a newspaper article. Significantly, Peter Jay was then the son-in-law of Wilson's Chancellor of the Exchequer, James Callaghan.

Peter Jay, nowadays the BBC's economics editor, was then the economics editor of The Times. In November 1967 he had written an article headlined "Devaluation - who was to blame?", an analysis of why Britain had been forced into devaluing sterling. The article blamed both Wilson and the former Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan. Wilson and his advisers suspected Jay of using information he had gained in his previous post as a senior Treasury adviser.

On the day of publication, Richard Crossman, the irascible Lord President of the Council and Labour left-winger, wrote to Wilson complaining about the article. It was outrageous, he claimed, that "this gifted son of the family" should publish the full details of a major Treasury exercise the previous July.

"This article goes beyond any tolerable limit as it reveals absolutely inside information, not only about the content of Top Secret documents but about the way they were handled in No 10," Crossman wrote. "It is surely a sign of the times that this political trouble-making is coolly undertaken by an ex-Treasury official in the impudent assurance that he will get off scot-free in an outrageous violation of the Official Secrets Act."

In an interview on David Frost's TV show later that day, Peter Jay claimed that his father-in-law had no knowledge that he was writing the article.

Wilson was clearly angered that Jay should have placed the blame for devaluation on him; the PM felt that he had taken this decision in agreement with his senior colleagues, including James Callaghan. …