The Dark Arts of News Management Have Been Practised for Years and by All Parties. Yet Alastair Campbell and a Paranoid Labour Administration Have Taken Them to New Heights
Perkins, Anne, New Statesman (1996)
It is a law of nature that Downing Street and the BBC are uncomfortable in each other's company. They are two near-monopolies, one in the supply of political news, the other in its consumption for broadcast, and for them to be on anything more than the terms of most formal courtesy would be a disaster for the rest of us.
Politicians always feel faintly aggrieved that parliament allows the BBC to tax the voters without a quid pro quo. The old struggle by politicians and officials to train the writing of journalists into willing conduits of friendly reportage takes on an extra edge when it is conducted with the BBC's extensive corps of political and specialist correspondents. But if it has reached unparalleled heights, it is far from a new phenomenon.
It is popular now to contrast Clement Attlee's government with Tony Blair's, to the detriment of the latter. No one doubts that Attlee himself was beyond media manipulation (an art requiring fluency which the prime minister left to others). Yet it is not hard to find specimens of the spinners' art emanating from his government a generation before the term was invented.
Take the story of how the dockers were tricked back to work. One Sunday afternoon in the late 1940s, the BBC duty editor's phone rang. It was the Foreign Office. The foreign secretary, aka the founder and former general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, Ernest Bevin, was anxious to know how the BBC planned to report the dockers' attitude to a return to work.
Earlier that day, an inconclusive vote had taken place. Bevin thought it was vital to Britain's economic well-being (and his government's survival) that the show of hands be reported as an overwhelming vote in favour of going back. But the BBC reporter who had been at the meeting thought the result inconclusive, and intended to say so. The duty editor rejected the offer of a conversation with the foreign secretary. Thwarted, Bevin found the BBC director general a more willing audience.
Soon, other weighty leaders from the world of labour were brought in to lean on the humble news team engaged in the final minutes of preparation for the six o'clock news. They capitulated. The vote was reported as Bevin wanted, the dockers went back to work, the economy began to pick up and Labour narrowly won the next election.
This tale perhaps belongs in the same category as a chancellor claiming the idea of devaluation has never troubled him when in fact he plans to slice 20 per cent off the value of the pound the moment the markets close: there are times when a politician is permitted to lie for his or her country. …