Martin Sixsmith will be a familiar face to most readers from his
many years as a BBC foreign correspondent. His reports have captured
history in the making on television, spanning politics, natural
disasters and conflict.
For a week in 1991 he reported on the collapse of the Soviet Union from
outside the besieged Russian White House, as the Communist coup plotters
held Mikhail Gorbachev prisoner and Boris Yeltsin emerged to address the
crowd dramatically from the back of a tank. Later that same year, it was
off to Washington to cover the election of Bill Clinton and his first
term as president.
It is because of another news story that I go to meet him in his office
at the Department of Social Security on Whitehall, where he has been
information director for the last year.
Last month industrial conglomerate GEC announced the sale of its Marconi
defence business to British Aerospace for pounds 8 billion.
GEC now needs to reposition itself in the media and its chief executive
Lord Simpson wanted a communications heavy hitter to get the job
Step forward Sixsmith, who on 22 March joins GEC as media relations
’It’s going to be a high-growth, high-margin, hi-tech big player in the
telecoms and electronics market,’ says Sixsmith of his future
Sixsmith will report to group communications director Sir Geoffrey
Pattie, a former Tory defence minister, who was until recently GEC’s
head of marketing. With 17 years of BBC experience behind him, it is
expected that Sixsmith will get a more or less free hand in running the
For now, however, Sixsmith is still up to his eyeballs at the DSS. There
are endless issues related to the Welfare Reform Bill to be dealt
Sixsmith joined the DSS from the BBC in January 1998 after deciding it
was time for a change from foreign affairs broadcasting. ’As a foreign
correspondent there is a limit to the number of postings you can do. I’d
done Russia twice, Washington for four years and Brussels for four. And
anything you do after that is a bit of a let down.’ Moreover, as a
father of four he wanted stability for the family. But reporting on
domestic matters simply did not appeal.
The feeling of ’euphoria’ that followed Labour’s landslide election
victory of 1997 encouraged him to make a move into government
communications (it is important to note he is a civil servant, not a
special adviser a la Charlie Whelan). It was, by his own admission, a
’turbulent’ baptism as he worked initially for the embattled Social
Security Secretary Harriet Harman. ’It was an impossible task,’ recalls
Sixsmith. ’I think Harriet had been very badly damaged by the lone
parents cuts. She got a very bad press for that and the backbench Labour
party turned against her.’
Harman was soon on her way, to be replaced by Alistair Darling, a man
whom Sixsmith describes as one of the ’intellectually and
presentationally brilliant members of this Government’. Together,
Darling and Sixsmith have been drip-feeding announcements on welfare
reform to the media since last summer ’to keep the momentum going’.
Mike Granatt, head of the Government Information and Communications
Service says: ’He’s impressed everybody with his intellect and ability
to get to grips with issues and people very quickly.’
In person, Sixsmith still resembles a hack more than a corporate
He wears brown shoes with a dark suit and documents are piled untidily
all over his office floor.
Sixsmith’s CV reads like a list of great educational institutions of the
world: the Sorbonne, Oxford and Harvard - with a year at the Leningrad
Polytechnical Institute thrown in as part of his Russian studies; which,
along with Polish and French, he speaks fluently.
Author of a twice-reprinted book on the death of the Soviet Union,
Sixsmith is clearly exceptionally bright. No wonder GEC’s headhunters
wanted to get hold of him.
Moscow correspondent, BBC
Washington correspondent, BBC
Information director, Department of Social Security
Media relations head, GEC