Exactly 15 years ago I achieved my greatest PR success when
Margaret Thatcher arrived in the Falkland Islands without the media
knowing she was on her way. During her visit, I had a tremendous row
over the transatlantic phone with the BBC’s top brass who were denying
ITN pictures of the tour because they wanted all the benefit from our
preventing their man, Nicholas Witchell, the only TV reporter already
there, from going home.
My row and my subsequent call to No 10, reporting relief for ITN, were
recorded and soon broadcast by Channel 4. Later that year - as in every
year that I was press secretary - the media foamed at the mouth over
authorised and officially monitored telephone tapping by the security
services which, no doubt, prevented some terrorist atrocities. I often
use this as an example of journalism’s arrogant inconsistency.
Which brings me to Home Secretary Jack Straw’s awful festive season at
the hands of the press. A Mirror journalist, misrepresenting herself in
pursuit of a story, says she persuaded his son, William to sell her
cannabis in a pub. When the Mirror told him of this, Mr Straw, an
example to us all, promptly marched his lad to the police station. And
the press, having set up their Aunt Sally, promptly knock-ed it down.
No, there could be no question of the minister resigning. This wouldn’t
have happened under John Major but don’t let’s grumble when juvenile
editors mature slightly.
But every wile and pressure was exerted on Mr Straw to reveal himself
and his under-age son whose identification may or may not have been
protected by the law as distinct from - eventually - a court order.
Mr Straw was, of course, soon unmasked by Scottish newspapers operating
under different laws, which speaks volumes for a United Kingdom. And
then the press had a field day, drawing a distinction between his strong
line on parental discipline and against narcotic drugs and his son’s
All this came as a godsend to newspaper sales over a quiet
This was not, of course, acknowledged. Instead we had a great deal of
pious crap about the rights of investigative journalists (but not in
their book, policemen) to entrap their prey and enjoy immunity from
Who the bloody hell do they think they are? Who invested them with
Aren’t they, indeed, against (inconvenient) laws which single out
journalists for special treatment?
The lesson for PR people from journalism’s appallingly hypocritical
start to the New Year is that my craft is sans logic, sans shame, sans
everything except animal spirits in pursuit of circulation and profit.
In the process, it thinks nothing of ruining other people’s lives. I
fear things will get worse before they get better.