Before Spin suggests there was once an age of innocence for government information officers, but Keith McDowall’s insider account of his time with the civil service in the 1960s and 1970s reveals that he was already trying out some of the routines that would later become common place under the likes of Bernard Ingham and Alastair Campbell.
In McDowall’s day, the “heavies” – i.e. the serious papers – were the only show in town: the highest accolade for a ministerial press officer was to secure a positive comment piece in the leader column of a national daily such as The Times.
By the 1980s, after switching to become the press supremo at the Confederation of British Industry, McDowall recalled the thrill he felt on finding that one of his stories had merited a favourable page one splash in the Sun, an achievement that still excites the spin doctors of today.
Blurb for McDowall’s book castigates his successors in Downing Street and Whitehall for succumbing to the concept of spin, a media strategy that he considers “naïve and lacking in integrity”.
Before Spin captures the era when the national press dominated the news agenda, long before the days of the 24-hour news cycle, rolling television news and the constant reaction, and unpredictable impact, of social media.
McDowall was spared the non-stop pressure and intense scrutiny that today’s information officers have to withstand. He had the good fortune to operate at a time when newspapers reported at considerable length what the politicians had actually said; there was nothing like the current level of negativity; nor the personality-led, celebrity-style reporting that treats so much of political life as nothing more than a soap opera.
By castigating the “kids” that worked for Tony Blair, McDowall invites a closer examination of his own track record. He accuses those around Alastair Campbell of “being supremely ignorant of the potential of a professional government information service, and quite happily watched it cut to pieces”.
He rebukes the well-paid Labour-supporting special advisers brought in by Blair for being “oblivious to the public duty to tell the truth, the need to uphold Parliamentary standards, and the integrity of their ministers”.
My eye was drawn to McDowall’s account of Labour’s controversial pledge ahead of the 1970 general election to build the Humber Bridge. Harold Wilson was “shrewd enough” to see that there was no time to start to build the bridge before polling day, “so arguments about funding” could be deferred. “Oh, and there were two important Labour seats in Hull.”
McDowall describes how he arranged for Peter Shore to fly to Hull, make the announcement, and fly back for his statement in Parliament. Next day, Shore’s department had “one of its best mornings for years in the morning papers”.
Under the scrutiny of today, McDowall’s help in spinning the story of the Humber Bridge might well have opened himself up to accusations of media manipulation.
His permanent secretary might well have ruled that Wilson’s promise of the go ahead for the construction of the bridge so close to an election might be seen as a party political decision.
Perhaps, if the politically-appointed special advisers had been as numerous as they are today, the task might have been taken out of McDowall’s hands so as to keep the civil service above any suspicion of political involvement.
In the late 1960s, as a departmental head of information, McDowall had no fear of either being cross-questioned by a parliamentary select committee or made the subject of a Freedom of Information request.
Bearing in mind McDowall’s strictures about his successors “crossing party political lines”, I had another wry smile when reading his account of the advice he gave the then Home Secretary. Jim Callaghan, on how to handle a Boundaries Commission report that threatened Labour’s chances of holding 12 safe seats. What would happen, asked Callaghan, if he sat on the report, rather than pass it to Parliament at the earliest opportunity?
“Callaghan looked at me.’ Now put your hands over your ears, you civil servants. Keith, can I get away with it?’ It was so blatant that I almost gasped’ ... ‘I reckon you can, Home Secretary.’ ... That was what Jim Callaghan wanted to hear.”
Callaghan took advantage of McDowall’s many years’ experience as an industrial correspondent for the Daily Mail when the Labour government was threatened by a firemen’s strike. After reaching an agreement with Terry Parry, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Callaghan asked McDowall to accompany Parry to an FBU delegates’ meeting to explain the deal.
McDowall described how he nodded his head vigorously when Parry outlined the deal and the strength of Callaghan’s pledge. “No doubt at all in my mind, I assured the firemen, and then I left the meeting before some industrial reporter woke up to the fact that a temporary civil servant was about a million miles out of his territory. And depth.”
The black art of trailing stories in advance to friendly journalists – or the prior leaking of government announcements to give it another name – was in its infancy in McDowall’s day, but was becoming a tempting option for a government information officer.
Here is the way to start setting the agenda, preparing the ground for an important announcement, and hopefully securing favourable coverage in the media.
At the Board of Trade, McDowall was instrumental in trailing the news in 1970 that the newly-elected Conservative government was encouraging a merger between British United Airlines and Caledonian Airways to challenge the two state-owned monopolies, BOAC and BEA.
He contacted Chapman Pincher at the Daily Express. “While I did not give a direct leak, I certainly pointed him in the right direction ... the Express led on the news of the impending creation of ‘The Second Force’ ... I admitted nothing, and braced myself for the inevitable Whitehall inquiry into leaks. As usual it got nowhere.”
Seeing the fruits of their work in print is always a high spot for a spin doctor. Early on in his career McDowall was tasked with promoting a follow-up to Labour’s National Plan, entitled Economic Assessment to 1972. He insisted on giving it a snappy title to catch the eye of newspapermen and suggested instead The Way Ahead, which Peter Shore changed to The Task Ahead.
After he had successfully briefed a number of senior journalists from the “heavies”, McDowall was “delighted to see the magic phrase The Task Ahead over the main leader in The Times. We had made a bit of a splash, and the lift to departmental morale was almost tangible.”
Before Spin, by Keith McDowall, published by Melrose Books, £16.99