My advice to new Downing Street spin doctor: Don’t do it – Bernard Ingham

MY mischievous friends are urging me to apply for the £100,000-a-year job as Government spokesman giving daily televised White House-style media briefings. No chance. I am no masochist.

Boris Johnson is looking for a journalist to host televised press briefings - is he right to do so?
Boris Johnson is looking for a journalist to host televised press briefings - is he right to do so?

I had my fill of media bloodsport and bear-baiting conducted behind closed doors as Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary in the 1980s. In any case, the sight of this aged cantankerous grump pontificating daily would put people off politics for life while feeding the media’s enduring fascination with my eyebrows.

More seriously, I have my principles. The post is a constitutional outrage even if we have been subjected to televised briefings since the onset of coronavirus.

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It is a further ill-considered undermining of our Parliamentary democracy. And Parliament will be for ever damned if it permits this further step down the road to US-style presidential government. Don’t hold your breath.

Bernard Ingham with Margaret Thatcher - he never took part in televised press briefings.

It has been a long march which started in 1986 with the Guardian, Independent and Scotsman boycotting my unattributable briefings because I would not allow myself to be quoted. Ministers should be the front men and officials better neither seen nor heard.

In fact, they thought Mrs Thatcher too powerful and hoped to clip her wings by putting me on the record – as was confirmed by their frequent invitations to Ministers to off-the-record lunches. Hypocrites.

The Government is not short of official spokesmen. What it lacks is a coherent approach to as tough a set of problems as any faced by a British government since the Second World War.

First, I think the system has been weakened by the departure of some of the brightest who saw richer pickings elsewhere because of the curb on public expenditure – and pay – following Gordon Brown’s £153bn deficit 10 years ago.

White House press briefings are televised - with or without the President in attendance.

Second, it is demoralized by the removal of a number of heads of Government departments – whether or not up to it or insufficiently Eurosceptic.

Third, at its heart is the malevolent presence of Dominic Cummings, the PM’s principal adviser, who thinks the Civil Service is pretty useless and the machine would be in the better hands of weirdos like himself.

Fourth, nobody in their right mind should take the job without a clear understanding of their unlimited access to and close relationship with the PM.

As I know only too well, you cannot properly represent the boss through somebody else’s filter, whether in the shape of Cummings or arrogant administrators who think their job is to protect you from too much knowledge.

Fifth, attitudes are all wrong. It is not hindsight to say that a certain humility was required at the outset of a pandemic caused by a new virus with still no antidote. Yet, while the uncertainties have been implicit in the “following the science” mantra, Ministers have tended to convey a certain command instead of admitting they are learning as they go along.

The result has been a confused mess as the anomalies thrown up by measures such as social distancing and masks have demonstrated beyond peradventure that government, national, regional or local, cannot cope with the infinite variety of personal circumstances.

In the end only common sense by the public and those administering the rules will get us through it in a reasonable state. The crucial message now should be: take care, get back to work, rescue the economy and save jobs. But would our new televised spokesman be allowed to say it?

Coronavirus, however, is only one subject the proposed new TV figure would have to cope with. The media have an unquenchable thirst for stories and, as I know only too well, you may have to cope with anything from the significance of Mrs Thatcher wearing black – a media alert that someone is in for a handbagging – to the intricacies of East West relations.

How is a political spokesman (or no doubt preferably a pretty woman) to be armed not merely with knowledge of issues likely to be raised but, just as important, the background to them?

Don’t forget Brexit is still unresolved, Europe and the USA are in a mess. China and Putin’s Russia are a serious threat to the world’s well-being. And what about all those economic, social and infrastructural problems lying around?

My advice is that Government spokesmen, however fast on their feet, should not regularly reveal their inevitable ignorance to the nation. It is bad enough Ministers being occasionally all over the show.

Editor’s note: first and foremost - and rarely have I written down these words with more sincerity - I hope this finds you well.

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Sincerely. Thank you.

James Mitchinson