Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Reading the reviews of the one-man play, The Confessions of Gordon Brown, I had a sudden pang of conscience: Did I perhaps encourage the former Labour Prime Minister to follow a path which in some small way may have played a part in the ultimate defeat of a driven but tragic figure?

Back in the distant days of Neil Kinnock’s leadership – and Gordon Brown’s promotion to the Labour front bench – we often spoke to each other the phone.

As a BBC political correspondent struggling to make his mark, I found the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury an eager pupil when it came to trying to understand – and then exploit – the demands of radio and television news bulletins.

Few politicians have applied themselves with greater diligence to the task of feeding the never-ending appetite of the news media.  During his decade as Chancellor of the Exchequer he effectively re-wrote the rule book when it came to publicising the Budget and I came to regard him as Labour’s “most prolific and longest-serving trader in government secrets”.

But as Kevin Toolis, the Scottish journalist, screenwriter and film-maker explains, Brown never managed to sell hope, the one commodity which mattered most of all, to a southern English electorate.

Toolis has crafted an insightfully-written monologue, performed by the actor Ian Grieve, and it tells how the “prize of power that Gordon Brown had plotted and schemed for all his life eluded him even after he finally seized the crown from his usurper Tony Blair”.

 

Brown and Blair were the two rising stars of the 1983 House of Commons intake but it was Brown, a former presenter and editor with Scottish TV, who had an unerring news sense and a sharp turn of phrase. He was propelled to the forefront of Labour’s Treasury team in the autumn of 1988 after John Smith’s first heart attack.

 

Within a few months we had the first of what would become run of friendly arguments over whether or not he was available to be interviewed. 

 

In February 1989 he was a visiting front bench spokesman at the Richmond by-election but would only answer questions on his Treasury brief. Despite what I thought was an entirely appropriate request, he stood his ground and refused to respond to wider constituency concerns.

 

However, I noticed that at all subsequent by-elections Brown was more than happy to be considered a jack of all trades, capable of dealing with any topical issue thrown at him by the news media.

 

Brown’s steepest learning curve was over how to handle the problem of the front-bench pecking order.  As shadow chief secretary, he took his orders from the shadow Chancellor John Smith and was anxious not to upstage his boss, but again he soon realised that interview opportunities should not be needlessly turned down.

 

On the Saturday after the 1989 Wall Street crash I approached Brown for an interview for the main Saturday evening news bulletin.  He refused, saying he had to defer to the shadow Chancellor; so I rang Smith but he was in no mood to have his weekend interrupted and promptly put the phone down.  As an alternative I tried Bryan Gould, then trade and industry spokesman, who was only too delighted to appear.

 

Several days later I told Brown I was surprised he had turned down the chance to appear on prime-time television. Saturday evenings, I reminded him, regularly attracted some of the largest news audiences of the week. To my knowledge he never missed a similar opportunity again.

 

Indeed, the following month, after Brown obtained his own front-bench brief on being promoted to shadow trade and industry secretary, there was no stopping him.

 

He was often at his busiest at weekends, when newsrooms can be a soft-target for exposure-hungry politicians. Television and radio stations grew accustomed to his Saturday morning news releases faxed from his home in Scotland.

 

Broadcasters on weekend duty would express their amazement at his readiness to drop everything for a television interview, even if it meant he would be late for an important rugby fixture or might miss the game altogether.

 

His slavish application to the daily news agenda bordered almost on the fanatical; he regularly left Labour’s publicity staff trailing in his wake, unable to keep pace with his press releases, newspaper articles and non-stop television and radio appearances.

Party workers marvelled at his skill in fashioning news stories even on the quietest bank holiday weekend. John Underwood, who briefly succeeded Peter Mandelson as Labour’s director of communications, spoke frequently of his surprise on finding Brown in his room at Westminster hard at work at his computer screen, busily drafting statements for the media.

 

Underwood considered it was his job as press officer to be writing the news releases, and he thought a shadow Cabinet member of Brown’s standing would have been better employed on long-term strategic thinking.

 

At social gatherings he would take the trouble of enquiring which reporters were next on duty and would offer to run through the likely publication dates of forthcoming statements and policy documents for their benefit.

 

He was an invaluable contact, always returning calls and making himself available. One New Year weekend when I discovered he was at home with a cold he insisted on ringing back with a quote. 

 

Such was the extent of his grasp of who mattered most in radio and television newsrooms that he was soon dealing directly with political editors and mere correspondents had to make do with the likes of Ed Balls and Charlie Whelan who became economic adviser and press officer to Brown on his appointment as shadow Chancellor.

 

Under Blair’s leadership Brown and his colleague Robin Cook became arch exponents of manipulating leaked document which they had acquired from sympathetic sources close to John Major’s government; they used leaks with devastating effect to capture the news agenda and damage the Conservatives.

 

I well remember how in 1993 Brown gave the BBC a copy of a leaked report on a government review of social security.  Later he demanded that a shot which showed part of the leaked document be removed from subsequent showings of the television news report because he feared it might be seen by Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health.

 

When journalists were offered illicit data which Brown had obtained, negotiations were usually conducted by Charlie Whelan. He operated what in effect became a clearing house for leaked documents, dispensing the Chancellor’s booty with deadly accuracy.

 

Once Whelan had reached an agreement on the likely timing and direction of a potential story, he would ask the reporter to contact Ed Balls for a detailed briefing on what the leaked document contained.

 

During his long years in opposition Brown had become a regular conduit for publicising confidential data leaked to him by civil servants and the like and he was admired within the party for the way he could put such information to good use when attacking the government.

 

By distributing leaks and tip-offs among the political correspondents of Westminster, he made some friends for life and once Labour were in power, he demonstrated an equally deft touch when making use of the journalists whom he could trust.

 

He realised that by choosing the correspondents to be briefed in advance he could exercise a degree of control over the presentation of his policies.  The press build-up to the Budget and other financial statements was always carefully manipulated to prepare the ground for any changes which he intended to make in tax and spending.

 

By the time of the 1999 Budget, his Conservative predecessor, Kenneth Clarke, could take no more and he accused Brown of engaging in the “institutionalised leaking” of Treasury proposals.

 

Brown’s decision to move gradually away from the idea that the Budget should remain a “big bang”, with all the significant changes kept secret until the Chancellor spoke as the despatch box, became the norm for his successors.

 

George Osborne has been as assiduous as Brown in trailing the contents of his Budgets and financial statements, doing all he can to capture the news agenda for the coalition government.

 

An insight into the way Brown micro-managed media presentation while he was Prime Minister is likely to emerge with the publication in September of Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots and Spin, an insider’s account of life in Downing Street by former Labour spin doctor Damian McBride.

 

McBride masterminded Brown’s media offensive against Tony Blair and accompanied the new Prime Minister into No.10.  He was forced to resign in 2009 after it was discovered he was the source of emails which were alleged to have smeared senior Conservative politicians.

 

The Confessions of Gordon Brown can be seen at the Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh until 26 August 2013; at Trafalgar Studios London from 2-28 September; and at the Old Courtroom, Brighton from 22-24 September.

 

 Illustrations: The Independent 27.7.2013; Mail on Sunday, 11.8.2013