He played it straight

Volume 34 Number 2 June 2023

A Saturday afternoon in Brisbane in August 1988. We’re on an (unusually) less than news-packed trip with Margaret Thatcher to Australia and East Asia, my discomfort magnified by the fact that the Sunday Express and the Mail on Sunday were represented by their sister dailies’ formidable political editors Paul Potts and Gordon Greig. I didn’t have to be paranoid to assume they would be dreaming up something for the weekend, possibly together. I tormented myself by mentally totting up the daunting cost to The Sunday Telegraph of a trip on which its correspondent would, by contrast, have no story. Shameless, I sought Bernard Ingham out at a reception and threw myself on his mercy. Well, he said after some thought, Mrs T was now keen to see her favourite retailer Marks and Spencer open a store in what was, of course, still Soviet Moscow. My, er… exclusive would not come true for more than 15 years, in a new century, after the fall of communism and long after she had gone. But that weekend I was on the front page.

Poachers should be wary about thanking gamekeepers, even when they’re gone. Even now, it feels strange to do so about a man who incurred so much hostility from opponents – and victims – of his boss. Was this not someone, as he himself would cheerfully recall in later life, who was described by the late John Biffen as both a “Yorkshire Rasputin” and the “sewer not the sewage”? But as a reporter who, he knew well, was very much not “one of us”, I was never done a bad turn by Bernard Ingham, who died in February at 90, and he did me several good ones, including saving me more than once from career-threatening embarrassment.

Could it be because he, like me but more than a decade earlier, had been a member of that now-extinct tribe, the labour and industrial correspondents, in his case for The Guardian? Or because, though he had long forsaken his socialist past, hilariously unearthed by Robert Harris in his superb biography Good and Faithful Servant, as the author of the mercilessly anti-Tory “Albion” column in the Leeds Weekly Citizen, he didn’t think it was actually mad not to be a Conservative?

In fact, he treated most journalists in the same way. Indeed, for all his dogged loyalty to, and admiration of, Mrs Thatcher over the whole of her premiership, his approach was conditioned by his self-image: less as a political lieutenant – though many of his critics depicted him as just that – than primarily as a civil servant who had been a journalist. This had several consequences. One was that he hated being described as a prototype spin doctor. In his book The Wages of Spin, he took me vigorously to task for having compared his role – within limits – to Peter Mandelson’s as Labour’s communications director under Neil Kinnock. I had, he recalled, suggested that among the specialities of both men were “hectoring journalists” – a charge Ingham rejected, except when they were “trying it on” or had got their facts wrong – and “denouncing enemies in his leader’s own ranks”.

The latter stemmed from his famous briefings depicting Biffen as “semidetached” and on Frances Pym, in the Thatcher cabinet from 1981-83, quoting the “Mona Lott” catchphrase from Tommy Handley’s wartime radio comedy: “It’s being so cheerful as keeps me going.” Pym and Biffen were hardly happy with his explanation that, in response to a barrage of questions, he was trying to focus journalists on the two ministers’ “natural characteristics”, rather than on their perceived disloyalty. But he was still insisting on it 30 years later.

Damaging as they may have been, those remarks were not whispered in dark corners to individuals but at collective lobby briefings which, despite the theoretical anonymity of the briefer, were easy for their victims to attribute. When I interviewed him in 2018, he made it clear that his objection was not to ministerial special advisers – now political advisers, or “Pads” – but to what he saw as the takeover by many of the primary job of briefing lobby reporters either at No10 or in individual departments. It was a process he blamed the Blair government for starting but which has continued to the present. He surprisingly recalled one special adviser, Frances Morrell, at the time something of a leftist bete noire, when both were working for Tony Benn in the 70s, as an ally with “common sense”. She had helped him to extricate Benn from trouble after the minister had mediated a pay deal for striking nuclear power workers that would have driven “a coach and horses” through incomes policy.

Above all, he was a staunch champion of the (at the time, generally very professional) Government Information Service (GIS – all, like Ingham, civil servants), which he also accused the Blair government of undermining. The GIS figured, not all that convincingly, as part of his explanation for another notorious incident. This was the 1986 leaking to the Press Association’s Chris Moncrieff by the Department of Trade and Industry information head Colette Bowe of the advice Patrick Mayhew had minuted as solicitor general during the Westland affair, which was damaging to Michael Heseltine.

Breaking her 30-year silence on the affair, Bowe, whose secretary of state Leon Brittan was forced to resign because of the leak, told Thatcher biographer Charles Moore in 2016 that Ingham informed her that No10 private secretary Charles Powell had said the letter “must be got out”. Since Bowe reported that Ingham, who had also said that Mrs Thatcher must be kept “above the fray”, had not “ordered” or bullied her into the leak, his denial that he was responsible but that he regretted not stopping Bowe from leaking the letter was – just – compatible with Bowe’s account. More questionable was his contention in 2018 that “there wouldn’t have been a Westland affair if we had had a professional head of information at DTI” (Bowe, who did not rise through the GIS, was a professional economist).

A one-off in the business of news management

It might be futile to try to define Ingham’s role in the development of government communications: last of the old school, or pioneer of a more aggressive attitude to news management? In fact, he was a one-off. On the one hand, he was clearly vital to protecting and fostering Mrs Thatcher’s public image – including as the “Iron Lady”. On the other, he was not the continuous campaigner that some of the Blair government spokespersons – including Alastair Campbell – unashamedly became, since they regarded this as a key part of their job. In elections, for example, Ingham had no role.

And it was hard to link the blunt-spoken native of Hebden Bridge (which he lamented to me had become famous as “the lesbian capital of the north”) with “spin”.

Certainly, he had travelled far politically since his days as “Albion”. Many of the columns he wrote in recent years for the Yorkshire Post – the paper he had left for The Guardian as a young and passionate Labour supporting reporter in 1962 – fiercely promoted Brexit, for example. Nor was he always good at admitting he had been wrong. His initial impression that the Hillsborough disaster was caused by “tanked-up yobs” among the Liverpool fans no doubt resulted from self-serving briefings by South Yorkshire Police when he visited the ground with Thatcher the following day. But it was much harder to justify his steadfast refusal to modify this view as the police story spectacularly unravelled over the years.

Yet his inner non-partisan civil servant made it easy for him to recall with warmth the two “rumbustious” ministers he had worked for as spokesman in the 70s, and who he thought had prepared him for life under Thatcher: Barbara Castle and Tony Benn. Castle, he said, recalling her four decades later, had the “the guts of a lioness”, adding (accurately) that politics might have turned out very differently had the Wilson cabinet persevered with translating her white paper on union curbs In Place of Strife into law. He had a shaky start with Benn, who effectively sacked him over a disagreement – in which Ingham was right – about a ministerial broadcast on North Sea oil. Urged by John Smith, then Benn’s deputy, to confront “Wedgie”, he sought a private audience to point out he had a “vested interest” in Benn’s success. “He said ‘I’ve treated you abominably. It will not occur again’. We got on pretty well after that. He was a wonderful person to travel with; he had a sense of humour and he always listened… even if it didn’t always go in if he disagreed with you.”

So while his devotion to Thatcher inevitably made him a propagandist of sorts, he was not one for “fake news” or glossing over uncomfortable facts. By now 86, he told me in 2018: “I took the job [at No10] on the basis that I would be as straight as I possibly could if they were straight with me… The spokesman doesn’t have credibility, he’s forever suspect, if [the reporter] thinks you knowingly misled him.”

And, at least in my experience, he lived up to that. I called him at home one Saturday morning in early 1990 from the Sunday Correspondent after a tip to our man in Beijing that an unnamed but very high-ranking British official had secretly visited the city despite an EU ban on contacts with the Chinese leadership in protest at the Tiananmen Square massacre of demonstrators. The conversation went:

Me (brightly, feigning a confidence I did not feel): “Well, Bernard, it must have been Percy Cradock [then Mrs Thatcher’s chief foreign affairs adviser] or Charles Powell.”

Him (gruff as ever), after a pause while he hit on the formula we both knew would mean a front-page lead: “Well, between you and me, it wasn’t Charles.”

Which meant that if he denied something – often with an eerie sense of where the story had come from – you knew it was a non-starter. I accosted Ingham once after the then-twice-weekly Prime Minister’s Questions for his confirmation of what I had been told by an, I thought, impeccable Treasury source (who, of course, I did not identify by name or department) that the multibillion European Fighter Aircraft (EFA) project was about to be cancelled. Ingham, studiedly deadpan, replied: “I wouldn’t believe everything you hear in the Treasury, if I were you.” Which was just as well, because the go-ahead for EFA was announced with some fanfare the following week.

Keeping above the fray in The Great Lobby Row

It was largely because of the value of such exchanges that the Sunday Correspondent did not join its natural soulmates, The Independent, The Guardian (against the advice of its celebrated political editor Ian Aitken, according to Ingham’s diaries) and The Scotsman in boycotting Ingham’s briefings in The Great Lobby Row of the late 1980s. This decision had little to do with the rights or wrongs of the argument: their demands that No10 briefings could only be made accountable with full, on-the-record transparency, or Ingham’s contention that the calls to abolish a decades-old collective system were led by a conspiracy-minded “liberal elite”. The alternative, as he put it in The Wages of Spin, “would facilitate one of the worst aspects of spin doctoring – playing one journalist off against another”. The Correspondent’s decision to stay with the lobby system (during its painfully short life) was pragmatic. If it boycotted Ingham, Ingham would boycott it back. And whereas the dailies could rely on the PA and helpful colleagues on other papers for accounts of what was briefed, that was not going to happen to the weekly briefings (which the PA did not report) to the fiercely competitive Sunday lobby. Moreover, it would mean that valuable one-to-one contacts with Ingham would cease.

There was, nevertheless, a Faustian bargain in that decision. For in return for not joining the boycott, Ingham granted the Correspondent an interview with Mrs Thatcher in November 1989 that it would not otherwise have got. But if Ingham was prepared to make a bargain to protect the lobby system and his role in it, there was never, again in my experience, any sense of bargaining along the lines of “If you write good things about Mrs T, you will get good stories from us”. He did not tend to “play one journalist off another”. Nor was there any risk that a journalist who had a story to himself would find it “laid off ” to a rival who might approach it more sympathetically.

For all his undoubted faults, Ingham managed over most of two turbulent decades to maintain a reputation for straight, if sometimes choleric, dealings with most of the journalists who came into contact with him, while loyally and efficiently serving his political bosses. First and foremost among these, of course, was Thatcher. But it seems he had developed the habit even earlier than that. Ingham would claim to be embarrassed by the final reference to him in Tony Benn’s diaries, after he was promoted from the press office to run energy conservation. But you couldn’t help feeling he was still just a little proud of it: “I miss Bernard.”

Donald Macintyre

Donald Macintyre is a British freelance journalist and author, formerly a labour editor, political editor, columnist and foreign correspondent. He has worked on, among other titles, the Daily Express, The Times, The Sunday Times, the Sunday Correspondent and The Independent.

From the same issue

Driven Snow

At times over the past three decades, viewers of Channel Four News probably made informed guesses...

read more

Hands off us

The debate surrounding press regulation in the UK is a contentious one, with many arguing that...

read more