'Alastair is crucial to me': confessions of government comms bosses revealed

A new book charting the history of the Government Communication Service since its formation in 1917 provides an insight into what it is really like to work in comms at the very heart of government.

Simon Wren (L) and Sir Christopher Meyer (R) were both interviewed for the book (pic credit for Meyer: Max Nash/PA Archive/PA Images)
Simon Wren (L) and Sir Christopher Meyer (R) were both interviewed for the book (pic credit for Meyer: Max Nash/PA Archive/PA Images)

From not being trusted by suspicious policy officials to dealing with prime ministerial rudeness and resorting to acting a role in front of journalists, some of the country’s best-known figures from government comms speak openly about the challenges they have faced.

Yes Minister

Historian Alexander McKenna, in the preface to his book 100 Years of Government Communication, wrote that some government communicators "have seemed to conform to [BBC satire] Yes Minister’s vision of the civil servant as smooth – ruthless and loquacious in equal measure."

He added: "Others more recently perhaps have kicked against this stereotype in cultivating an earthy ordinariness tempered with colloquial toughness."

Introducing the book at a launch event last week, McKenna said: "The perception is that how the government communicates is an add-on. It's perceived to be flippant, rather than something very important."

In a series of personal interviews with McKenna for the book, some of Britain’s foremost figures in government comms have made candid admissions about their careers and views on comms.

Call me 'Press'

Barbara Hosking, who was Edward Heath’s press officer, recalled how she was treated by the former prime minister: "At first he used to call me 'Press'. It was a year until he called me Barbara."

In the book, released last week, she described the Downing Street Press Office as a "Rolls-Royce machine" and remarked: "The politicians are learner drivers."

Lord O’Donnell, the prime minister’s press secretary between 1990 and 1993, claimed that "communicators have often been slow" when it comes to finding new ways of listening to and learning from the public.

But he added: "Government Information Service people were very good at distilling things," while some policy people "were completely hopeless – they couldn’t summarise in 10 pages, let alone one".

Sir Christopher Meyer, Downing Street press secretary between 1993 and 1996, argued: "Thespian equalities are almost as important as the ability to learn stuff and regurgitate it to journalists."

But he warned: "Press secretaries who like to become the story are on the road to perdition."

Theatrical qualities

Meyer favoured policy experts who were good at dealing with journalists over PR practitioners from outside government. "There is no necessary correlation between someone who has been in the PR industry transferring into a government department and it all working like a charm. It’s a different skill."

He likened his time as John Major's press secretary as "a kind of Rorke's Drift situation with the hacks around you".

Things would get so bad that he would use "every theatrical device to divert their attention and send them off in the wrong direction, keeping them from asking the one thing you didn’t want them to ask. You’d make gurning expressions and behave like John McEnroe, picking deliberately on one journalist and exclaiming 'What? You can’t be serious?' You had to come up with anything. Anything!"

Simon Wren, the current director of communications at the Foreign Office, started his career in policy at the Ministry of Defence before becoming the MoD’s chief press officer in 2000.

Wren was "a bit shocked by how little the press office knew about defence and about what the department was doing". There was also a problem getting people to trust the comms team. They sometimes had to be reminded that there was "a difference between talking to the press and talking to the press office".

The book also reveals insights from Lord Butler, the former cabinet secretary who served under Margaret Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, into the country’s best-known political spin doctors.

Giants of comms

Of Bernard Ingham, Thatcher’s press secretary, Butler said: "He could give them Margaret Thatcher’s line without having to ask Margaret Thatcher."

Regarding Alastair Campbell, Blair’s press secretary, Butler recalled: "Tony Blair said to me when he took office: 'You can take some of my staff away, but you can’t take Alastair – he is crucial to me.'"

In addition to the revelations from senior government figures, the book shows how recent reforms to the way in which the comms function is carried out and a more formal professionalism have resulted in the creation and development of the GCS.

Comms in modern Britain

Sam Lister, former director of comms at the Department of Heath, and the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, commented that much has changed since the start of this decade.

In 2011, government comms was "often off the pulse in terms of public sentiment", with policy officials "stuck in a mindset of coming up with ideas in isolation in Whitehall and then sending these out as directives".

But now comms is "no longer a niche specialisation, it is an absolutely core leadership skill".

Also at the launch event was Alex Aiken, executive director of the GCS, who told the audience: "Government communications is more useful and more in demand than ever before. I hope history will inspire us."

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