PROFILE: Romola Christopherson, Department of Health; Directing the media traffic

Watching Department of Health information director Romola Christopherson steer Stephen Dorrell through the nation’s BSE-hungry press is like observing a hybrid of security guard, choreographer and mother hen.

Watching Department of Health information director Romola Christopherson

steer Stephen Dorrell through the nation’s BSE-hungry press is like

observing a hybrid of security guard, choreographer and mother hen.

Having accompanied the minister through yet another press briefing, she

shadows him as he faces photographers and tourists outside the

department’s Whitehall offices. She judges how long he should pose,

gestures him towards a waiting outside-broadcast van and, as he re-

enters the building, steps back to avoid eclipsing him in the final

shots. Fifteen minutes later, in an office hung with scenes by her art

teacher father, framed cartoons and photographs, including one signed by

a grateful Margaret Thatcher, her relaxed manner barely hints at the

fact that, for the last two weeks, her department has been at the eye of

the BSE storm.

Her air of calm - and a good humour that defies her somewhat forbidding

appearance - is legendary. But then she’s had a lot of practice. During

her decade at the DoH, she’s overseen the NHS reforms, pay disputes, the

growth of Aids, salmonella, drug safety alerts, Care in the Community,

the first BSE scare, six health secretaries and the everyday rigours of

running a department of more than 80.

After graduating from Oxford, Christopherson entered the civil service

in 1962 as an assistant information officer at the now defunct

Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. From there she moved

through the ranks via six different Whitehall locations, including the

Department of the Environment, the Northern Ireland Office and Number

10, where she was deputy press secretary under Bernard Ingham.

Grant Edward, chief press officer at the Monopolies and Mergers

Commission, says she is the ‘professional government press officer par

excellence’. Sammy Harari, of ad agency Harari Page, who worked on

several campaigns with Christopherson in the late 80s, echoes Edward’s

praise, but stresses that her professionalism does not mean she

necessarily toes the line. Recalling the ‘It only takes one prick to

give you Aids’ campaign, Harari says: ‘She could have easily have sifted

things out before they went to ministers, but she was terribly

supportive. It must have taken a lot of bravery: this was a time when

ministers did not even want the word condom to appear on TV.’

Christopherson says she would feel she was failing if she did not

express her views to ministers. On being asked whether this approach has

ever caused ministers to be aghast, she responds with a delivery that

hints at her love of amateur dramatics: ‘There have been occasions when

they have been surprised but I cannot ever remember them being aghast.’

On which of her six health secretaries was her favourite, she says: ‘I

probably had the most fun with Kenneth Clarke but I always have a

particular fondness for the one I’m working for at the time.’ Despite

such humour, which some contemporaries say can be mistaken for

flippancy, Christopherson is totally dedicated to serving her minister.

‘It is absolutely crucial to have a close working relationship based on

absolute confidence in each other,’ she says.

Her anecdotal interview manner gives surprisingly little away as she

parries questions about her own feelings on BSE with a practised

description of the new evidence and how it had to be communicated. On a

professional level, one feels she may have felt galvanised by the

challenge. She explains away her decade-long tenure at Health, as due to

a lack of senior jobs and her ‘geriatric’ age of 57, but it may be that

she feels it is too good to leave.

As she says: ‘This department affects every single member of the

population. Apart from Number 10, I think that the director of

information post here, and at the Home Office, are the most interesting

and challenging jobs in government.’


1962 Assistant information officer Department of Scientific and

Industrial Research

1981 Chief information officer Northern Ireland Office

1983 Deputy press secretary to the Prime Minister

1984 Head of information Department of Energy

1986 Director of information Department of Health

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