Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Nicholas Jones reflected on almost sixty years in journalism in a lecture for the Old Tettenhallians (27.9.2018). He left school in the summer of 1959 at the age of sixteen. He admitted being a slow learner, having secured only four GCE ‘O’ level passes, insufficient to get into the sixth form to do ‘A’ levels. Back in the 1960s, in the post-war boom years, there were plenty of jobs for young people. He went straight in as a trainee and took up newspaper reporting:

“I have now spent my entire adult life as a journalist – even in retirement. You could say, that’s only to be expected once I tell you about my family. We can’t be helped. My grandfather was a journalist; my father was a journalist – and he became editor of the Wolverhampton evening paper, the Express and Star; my brother George was political editor of the Daily Telegraph; my son is a journalist on The Guardian newspaper; my daughter in law is another journalist, a programme editor at the BBC.  Even my mother loved journalism: here is one of the many book reviews she wrote for Express and Star.

So, I’ve got journalism in the genes. In criminal parlance, our family are known as recidivists, we are beyond help. But a great strength of being journalist is that you can, if you wish, continue to write and broadcast until, like a moth-eaten parrot, you fall off your perch.

For thirty years I was a BBC industrial and then political correspondent and I had a ring-side seat during some pretty momentous times. So, I can still be wheeled out if television or radio programmes are seeking a veteran commentator to give an eyewitness account or personal recollection of events thirty, forty, even fifty years ago. Looking back gives a perspective to events and helps to interpret what’s happening now, or hint perhaps at what may be in the future.

Being a broadcaster, doing television and radio interviews, involves getting close to the action and one realises how vulnerable our leading public figures are, especially our politicians, whether it’s a Prime Minister, Member of Parliament or one of the trade union leaders who thirty years ago were far mightier than they are today.

Perhaps my biggest story was back in the 1980s, covering the longest and most violent industrial dispute of recent years – the 1984/1985 miners’ strike, easily the most momentous industrial struggle since the General Strike of 1926.

At the time, this was portrayed by the news media as a fight to the finish between the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the mineworkers’ President Arthur Scargill...and it was Mrs Thatcher who won. Her victory marked the end of the trade union power that had been so dominant in the post-war years.

For trade unionists and mining communities – the areas that would later be devastated by pit closures and job losses – this was a struggle to defend the coal industry, to keep the pits open, to preserve the work that went with them, and to maintain their pit villages.

For the left, the pit strike is still celebrated to this day for the struggle that took place: for twelve months, the miners, their wives and families withstood all that the state could throw at them, the mass mobilisation of the police, mounted police charging on horseback through strikers’ picket lines at the infamous Battle of Orgreave.  The men believed they’d endured a year of hardship with their heads held high, surviving with the help of soup kitchens in the pit villages for needy families and children.

On the other hand, for Mrs Thatcher and the Conservative Party this was a confrontation that couldn’t be avoided. In their view – and this was backed by most of the newspapers – Arthur Scargill was to blame because he wouldn’t compromise on pit closures; he was organising, violent unlawful flying pickets who were trying to stop people going to work.

At the root of the dispute, was the National Union of Mineworkers’ refusal to accept the inevitability of the decline of the coal industry and the switch to other sources of energy. But the death of the coal industry has been a sad, drawn out affair. Kellingley colliery, in Yorkshire, the very last deep mine, closed only a couple of years ago.

Undoubtedly the miners’ strike was a turning point in British industrial relations, the last of the big all-out strikes and the taming of trade union power.

I was a radio correspondent during the strike, reporting what both sides were saying, and I got to know Arthur Scargill quite well. He’s in his eighties now and a bit of recluse but at the height of the strike he was a commanding presence in the media, hailed as a hero by the strikers, but loathed by Mrs Thatcher and her ministers.

One day, after a union event in North Wales, I was asked to give Scargill a lift back to London in my BBC car, back to his flat in the Barbican. I took a risk and said Yes. I certainly didn’t tell the editor – and if it had got out at the time I would have been carpeted, and no doubt hammered by pro-Thatcher newspapers like the Sun and the Daily Mail which condemned Scargill – and often the BBC -- at every turn.

On our drive south to London, we stopped at a motorway service station. I offered to take Scargill inside to buy him a cup of tea and a sandwich. He refused point blank: he said if was seen in a motorway café, the papers would accuse him of eating smoked salmon sandwiches while starving miners’ wives and their children were lining up at soup kitchens.

That four-hour drive was a pretty chilling experience. What struck me so forcibly was that Scargill was so calculated and so resolute. By the way he talked he seemed to have distanced himself from the suffering of the miners and their communities. Indeed, he made it clear that in his view the hardship served a purpose as it would stiffen the resolve of the strikers. 

I was quite shocked. I remembered so well talking a few years earlier to another union leader, Bill Sirs, who led steelworkers out on a 13-week strike. He told me he couldn’t sleep at night, because he was worrying so much about the hardship and suffering of his union members and their families. He told me he prayed every night for a resolution to the steel strike.

That made me stop and think, and I couldn’t help realising that Scargill’s resolve to carry on the strike was probably equalled by Mrs Thatcher’s determination to see the miners defeated and the men forced to go back to work. I realised that the two of them were well matched. Under Mrs Thatcher, countless thousands of workers were made redundant as the nationalised industries such as steel, shipbuilding, gas and electricity were broken up, sold off and privatised. She seemed to have no difficulty distancing herself from the pain and suffering that resulted from the break-up of these state- owned industries and the resulting mass redundancies and job losses, just as Scargill was able to insulate himself from the hardship and suffering of the year-long pit strike.

For me this was an unforgettable insight into what makes a dominant Prime Minister or an all-powerful trade union leader: they shared that steely resolve to carry on however difficult or harsh the consequences.

This was the Thatcher decade – and undoubtedly in my experience that’s the decade that so far in my lifetime, has had the greatest impact on work and life in Great Britain. Mrs Thatcher led the way in Europe – and then the Soviet bloc – in breaking up and selling off state owned industries. Her defeat of trade union power led to the introduction of the flexible working that brought so much inward investment to the UK, and of course the Big Bang in the financial world that created the conditions that led to the boom of recent years in the City of London.

But there has been a cost: the UK has far more shift working than in many other western countries and a sad record of family poverty and family breakdown. Set against that are the job opportunities and lower rates of unemployment that have benefited so many people. Our proportion of people in work is far higher than in much of Europe.

Mrs Thatcher was a formidable operator, and with the backing of her all-powerful press secretary Bernard Ingham, knew precisely how to put television reporters like me in our place. When she saw a posse of television crews she would bear down on us and launch her latest salvo. At times of conflict, for example the Falklands War, all it took to turn her on was to ask, “What’s your message to our boys?”

You might not think so, but there is quite an art to doorstep reporting – that’s when television and radio reporters shout questions. A favourite in Downing Street is: “Minister, are you going to resign?” The question is an important part of the television footage: it allows the reporter to say in a commentary that the startled minister was refusing to answer questions about his or her future.  

Doorstep reporting can be a perilous business. Just after the Tory leadership election in 1990 that forced Mrs Thatcher out of office, I drew the short straw on Christmas Day. Mrs Thatcher’s successor John Major had decided to follow her practice of spending Christmas at Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence.  Mrs Thatcher was renowned for her Christmas Day parties.

The one public moment during a Chequers Christmas is when the Prime Minister goes to morning service at the nearby parish church. It was a wet and windy morning, ...and there was I waiting at the church gate. Along the path came John Major and his wife Norma. We were in the middle of the Gulf War, so I fell back on a pretty Mickey Mouse question: “Prime Minister, What’s your message to our boys in the Gulf?”

Here was a non-threatening question, an open goal. Mrs Thatcher would have loved it. All Major had to do was give me a simple soundbite. But he stormed by without saying a word. I had no alternative but to wait in the rain until the end of the service and try again, trotting out the same question.

This time Major glowered at me, but did say in reply: “Christmas, Christmas is the message to the troops and to everybody. Thank you very much.”

I was very deflated. When I got back to television centre the editor said Major’s reply was so innocuous – when he was up against the Queen’s message, the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury – that the Prime Minister’s answer just hit the cutting room floor. Some weeks later I happened to be stopped by Mr Major at a social event.

It was clear he thought my question was an unnecessary intrusion and he told me in no uncertain terms that Christmas Day was NOT the day for a political message. And I was also being ribbed by other journalists for asking such a fatuous question.

Perhaps that confrontation had a greater impact on Mr and Mrs Major than I understood at the time. Because they never again spent Christmas at Chequers, preferring instead to have a quiet entirely private Christmas at their family home in Huntingdon. Never again were they going to have to interrupt their Christmas Day to go on parade for the media.

In complete contrast, Tony and Cherie Blair loved to spend every weekend they could at Chequers and indeed, so it is said, made sure the tennis courts and swimming pool were all in working order. One Sunday afternoon, I again drew the short straw, and had to go to Chequers to interview Mr Blair about the Kosovo conflict, at the height of the break-up of the former republic of Yugoslavia. This was a pooled interview – Mr Blair’s responses were going to be used by all other tv channels.

I was on my best behaviour as I was ushered into the Chequers drawing room. We busied ourselves setting up the tv camera. I could tell it was a rather frosty moment when – as we were waiting for Mr Blair to appear – Cherie Blair walked through the room in her tennis shorts, glowering at me, making it clear she resented this intrusion into their Sunday afternoon. Finally, Blair emerged in suit and tie and did the interview – and all the tv stations used his answers.

Years later, when Blair’s spin doctor Alastair Campbell published his diaries, my Chequers interview merited a paragraph to itself. Campbell was in full rant: “I was pissed off again with the BBC that they sent that tick Nick Jones who they claimed was the only reporter available.”  I had already tested Campbell’s patience on several occasions but what did he mean, “that tick”   

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of a tick is a “parasitic insect that gets under the skin...or alternatively, an unpleasant and despicable person.”

Perhaps I had only myself to blame for getting under the skin of Campbell and Blair’s other great media manipulator, Peter Mandelson. I had always been fascinated by the way politicians seek to exploit the news media.

Back in the 1960s when I had been at home, I had seen how my father Clem Jones had spent many years advising the late Enoch Powell on how best to promote his speeches in the press. That family connection is all the more relevant this year in view of the 50th anniversary last April of Powell’s Rivers of Blood Speech. Powell had told my father a few days before that he was going to make a speech that would go up like a rocket and that the stars would stay up.

We’ve all read and heard the fall-out from that speech and the many repercussions that continue to this day. My books on media manipulation tackled the rise of New Labour under Tony Blair and the belief of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell that they had to control the message: that before a political party could even agree on a policy, the spin doctors had to think through how it would be presented.

The titles of my books hold the clue as to why Campbell found me so irritating. After Soundbites and Spin Doctors I wrote Sultans of Spin, Control Freaks – and then Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs. When tackling such highly contentious political issues a journalist has to be sure of his facts – and in my case I had to rely on my shorthand note so that I could reproduce verbatim what a politician had said.

The accuracy of my shorthand notetaking almost got me the sack from the BBC in 1993 when John Major was Prime Minister. I did escape by the skin of my teeth – although I was admonished by the BBC Controller for Editorial Policy for having become excitable and untrustworthy.

What had happened was that Major had just won a critical vote on Europe – it was all about the Maastricht Treaty and the social chapter. Euro-sceptic cabinet ministers were threatening a rebellion and after seeing them off, Major gave a round of television interviews that Friday evening. What happens on such occasions is that the Prime Minister sits in the chair in front of the camera and the correspondents, in turn ask their questions.

Michael Brunson of ITN’s News At Ten was the last to go...and after the interview Brunson and Major started chatting away. But the microphones were still live and the feed was being picked up in other studios and newsrooms, including the BBC. I had been assigned to monitor these interviews and in his chat with Brunson, Major came out with the memorable but explosive line about the rebel ministers:

“Do we want three more of the bastards out there.”

This was political dynamite —here was Major savaging the likes of Michael Portillo and Peter Lilley.  By accident we journalists had been listening in and there was a terrific buzz in the newsroom over what we had heard. The duty editor at BBC Westminster immediately took away the tape and said it must not be broadcast.

It was a private conversation.

But the word was out and that Saturday morning I was bombarded with telephone calls from Sunday newspaper journalists. They had been told: “Oh, that Nick Jones he took a shorthand note of what Major said. You can trust Jones’s shorthand.”

I was in a terrible dilemma. I did think that ITN and even the BBC should have at least hinted that Friday evening that Major really was on the warpath.

Now it is always said among journalists, that dog eats dog.  But in fact, we reporters do tend to help each other out. In return for a promise of anonymity I did confirm the “bastards” quote to Simon Hoggart and Paul Routledge for The Observer. Unfortunately for me, their front-page splash that Sunday morning didn’t need any decoding by my BBC bosses: they knew who the culprit was, and I was for the high jump.

Luckily the BBC director general John Birt was away that week, and his deputy resisted calls from the then Conservative Party chairman Norman Fowler for the BBC leaker to be sacked. Luckily for me Birt’s deputy accepted the journalistic reality of what had happened: John Major’s words had already been picked up in other recording studios and by numerous other journalists and Birt’s deputy decided the BBC shouldn’t shoulder the blame. So, a lucky reprieve for me.

But it was a tricky moment and I do accept that many other journalists think I should have respected what Brunson and Major believed was a confidential, off-the-record chat.

John Major hung on as Prime Minister, despite his mauling at the hands of the Eurosceptic insurgents, and he served his full five-year term until 1997, but the Conservatives were doomed. They had been in power for 18 years and the up-and-coming Labour Party leader Tony Blair was putting together a formidable political machine – New Labour – that would sweep the Tories from power and usher in 13 years of Labour government. Labour really did succeed in hanging the tag “sleaze” around the neck of the Major government after a string of sex and financial scandals.

Although I was critical in my books of New Labour’s control freakery – that is of putting spin before policy and silencing critical voices – I was full of admiration for Blair’s ability to command his party and to set the agenda.  

Never since have we seen a British political party in such a commanding position. Blair’s landslide victory in the 1997 general election really was something to behold. While the range of Blair’s achievements is impressive – take the introduction of the national minimum wage and the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland -- I think it is dwarfed by the scale and scope of the changes imposed during the Thatcher decade. And of course, Blair’s Premiership will forever be tarred by the ill-fated support he gave to President Bush in the Iraq War and the failure to find chemical weapons.  I always had my doubts about Gordon Brown’s potential as Prime Minister. He was an obsessive, nit picking over points that didn’t matter. And he had very unwisely stoked the feud between himself and Blair by giving his aides free reign to attack and undermine the Blairites. 

The feuding and infighting had been so corrosive in the later years of the Labour government that it had damaged Brown himself. When Blair finally stood down in June 2007, Brown should have gone for a general election that autumn and sought a mandate – having built up the expectation he would be going to the country.  By backing off, he became a lame duck Prime Minister.

Looking back on David Cameron’s election in 2010 and his coalition with the Liberal Democrats, with Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister, there is no doubt the country was more at ease then, and more united than it is now. Cameron, like Blair before him, was an assured media performer and broke new ground in the media access that he allowed to his family.

We saw much more of the home life of David and Samantha than we have of any other Prime Minister.  Cameron had been steeped in the techniques of party publicity and propaganda since leaving university.

As a political journalist, I had dealings with him when he left university and when he first worked at Conservative Central Office back in the Major years. He was there at Norman Lamont’s side when we crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

But Cameron’s over confidence with the media, his sense of superiority, was his undoing when he called the European Referendum in 2016 and was so confident he’d win. Project Fear, as it became known, was a disaster. The narrow vote to leave the European Union -- by 52 per cent to 48 per cent – has divided the country in a way that has left me feeling very uncertain.

I do understand why there was such a strong leave vote in areas like the West Midlands and the North where so many jobs have been lost and where communities have been so deprived of investment and services. But in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Leavers and Remainers are now like opposing tribes, the split is like a religious war of old

Never before in my experience, as an avid reader of newspapers, has the majority of the national press been so partisan in its support for Brexit. We read constantly that the country is booming – that all the predictions of Project Fear were rubbish, that the country has nothing to fear from a hard Brexit. I have to admit I hang my head in shame at the BBC’s coverage of the referendum and the Brexit aftermath. The BBC took the soft option of hiding behind balance – of giving equal time to both sides.

While the BBC might like to claim it was being impartial, I don’t think it has been serving the interests of the listening and viewing public. Broadcasters failed to hold either Leave or Remain properly to account...and in my opinion the BBC is still all too often still failing in that editorial duty. Instead of what I call Punch and Judy reporting – of allowing one side to say this