NEWS: Choose carefully not just what you say, but where you say it

We shall never know precisely what Labour’s employment spokesman Stephen Byers MP said unattributably about the killing of Labour/TUC links to four journalists over the Dover sole and Muscadet in Blackpool’s Seafood Restaurant last week, so I shall try to make an educated guess.

We shall never know precisely what Labour’s employment spokesman Stephen

Byers MP said unattributably about the killing of Labour/TUC links to

four journalists over the Dover sole and Muscadet in Blackpool’s Seafood

Restaurant last week, so I shall try to make an educated guess.



The Mirror’s Labour loyalist political editor John Williams, who was

there, confirms that Mr Byers speculated about a possible break. His

other hosts, from the Express, Times and Telegraph, naturally pursued

him as to how this might come about. The Telegraph’s Jon Hibbs reports

jotting down after the dinner the phrase ‘ballot of membership’.



The journalists certainly got the impression, as Jill Sherman who was

there for the Times says, that if a Labour Government were troubled with

strikes it would ballot the party’s membership on breaking its

institutional connections with organised labour. Not surprisingly, the

Express led with ‘Labour to dump unions’. Labour leader Tony Blair, it

said, was ready to sever Labour’s historic links with the union

movement.



Mr Byers, who had left the dinner feeling that he might have said too

much, promptly admitted having talked to the four journalists. He

protested that he had been grossly misinterpreted. The journalists, not

unnaturally, stood by their free translations of what he had said.



So what’s new? It’s an everyday story of Westminster folk. It reveals

the exact pedigree of most news stories, political or otherwise: by much

munching out of even more massaging. When I was in Number 10, and had an

extensive knowledge of journalists’ lunching alliances, I had a pretty

fair idea which eating house cooked particular stories. It was never

very difficult then to pin down the actual source.



Mr Byers saved everybody the trouble by putting his hand up. He hadn’t

much option. Mr Hibbs reports that a dozen BBC staff were eating in the

same restaurant. Against this background, it was assumed that Mr Byers

knew what he was doing and, given Labour’s Stalinist control over news

dissemination, that he had Mr Blair’s cover for doing it.



That is not beyond the bounds of possibility, given that Labour as well

as the Tories see political advantage in union blood sport these days.

But the lesson of the affair is not that unions which strike are

universally unpopular. It is that, if you do intend to fly a kite, don’t

do so in front of witnesses. Do it privately, one to one, and most

certainly not over dinner in a passable imitation of a BBC canteen.



You should also be aware that, even if you behave with the utmost

discretion, you could still be fingered if the story takes off. The

media have become fascinated with themselves and their sources. It is a

sign of pomposity.



Sir Bernard Ingham writes for the Daily Express



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