Saturday, 19 March 2016

Before Spin - at the interface of government and the media

My first job after leaving journalism school was at the Confederation of British Industry, where I was employed as an information officer. My first boss, Keith McDowall, at that time, director of information at the CBI, has just published his autobiography; I was delighted to have been invited to the book launch held on Tuesday at the Reform Club in London's Pall Mall.

Before Spin, offers fascinating insights into the interface between government, business and media over half a century. Covering the period from the Second World War to the Blair era, Before Spin reveals many of the human stories from behind the headlines of those years, fleshing out the social history of post-war Britain.

Keith began his career as a young local newspaper reporter before landing a job on the Daily Mail, then making his way from Fleet Street into government PR in several ministries, then heading the Information Directorate at the Confederation of British Industry, and finally running his own PR firm.

The historical narrative begins in the late summer of 1939, when Keith, then a boy of ten, discovers his summer holidays will be prolonged because of the outbreak of war. The arrival of Canadian artillerymen, with their guns, uniforms and swing records, provided huge excitement for the lad, who from the photos of the time, looked like the eponymous hero of Richmal Compton's Just William books.

A critical point in the autobiography is the death of Keith's father at the age of 43 in 1941. He died in hospital of bronchial disease, leaving the family to fend for itself, an experience that strongly shaped Keith's political views. The war dragged on as he grew up fast, for Londoners the night-time bombings were something to get used to; "we just got on with it," he says. Later in the war came the V-1 flying bombs, but it was the V-2s that were most terrifying. Over 1,300 of these ballistic missiles hit London from mid-1944 into early 1945. "Rumours of major incidents in London were circulating in which there was no sound of an an engine, but just a sudden massive explosion with far more devastating damage that could be caused by a doodlebug. We heard on the grapevine that 164 people had been killed as they queued at Woolworth's in New Cross... The V-2 rocket... literally arrived out of space...[it was] so terrifying because there was no way we could prepared or take cover."

For me, the most fascinating period portrait was of British journalism in the post-war years - a bygone era of typewriters, boozy lunches, rushing round bomb-sites in pre-war sports cars to get the scoop, and the greatest prize of all - a Fleet Street byline. Keith started his career on the South London Press, a paper covering London south of the Thames, from Wandsworth to Deptford. After several scoops which did not go unnoticed in the national newspapers published across the river, he was offered a job on the Daily Mail, eventually taking on the industry beat, this at a time when unions, strikes and industrial action were making Britain the 'sick man of Europe'.

Some beautiful vignettes tell us much about the political climate of 1950s Britain. Hiding in the back of a Morris Minor van with a photographer, McDowall of the Mail caught the leadership of the Amalgamated Engineering Union, days before their policy-making conference, leaving the HQ of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Black and white prints in hand, Keith confronted an executive member of the union with the accusation that they had been taking instructions from the communists. The resulting story and photo made the front page.

The expenses system oiled the wheels of the newspaper industry. Informal payments, ostensibly to buy a pint to loosen the tongue of a copper or eye witness, were also used as financial bonuses to incentivise ace reporters, while highly paid printers and their closed-shop unions kept the newspaper owners under constant pressure.

An extremely interesting time, certainly the Fleet Street of those days would make an excellent backdrop to a TV series (more interesting than detectives, vets or midwives). And there are many hilarious anecdotes (my favourite concerns a certain crime reporter on the Daily Mirror) that capture that era perfectly.

In the late 1960s, Keith made the jump from being an industrial reporter to working for Her Majesty's Government as a public relations man. His Fleet Street experience proved invaluable in all the ministries he worked in, starting from the Department of Economic Affairs, then - and I think the most exciting part of the story - in the Northern Ireland Office, finally a spell at the Department of Employment under a Tory then a Labour government, before going on to head the PR unit at the newly-nationalised British Shipbuilding. So the book has lots of insider portraits of politicians such as Jim Callaghan, Willie Whitelaw and Michael Foot to mention but three.

Precious insights emerge from this part of the book as to how Britain's Civil Service runs. "Four-fifths of civil servants say 'we can't' and one fifth ask 'why can't we?'" On paper, there are hundreds of people in each department at a ministry, but the trick is to identify the 12 or so people who - despite their official job titles and formal place in the hierarchy - actually make things happen.

As a child and teenager I was ever a keen student of current affairs and voracious newspaper reader, and it is fascinating to read an insider's account of the events that I recall from those years; Bloody Sunday, the sectarian Tit-for-Tat Murders, the Three-Day Week, the Grunwick strike, nationalisation of the shipyards, right through to the election of Margaret Thatcher, and the birth of the world into which I started work as a young adult. There was Operation Motorman, the clearing of Londonderry's No-Go areas by 4,000 British Army troops. And there was the Three-Day Week, from January to March 1974, the culmination of the industrial strife that characterised Britain in the '70s.  I remember it well; my family would have get into the car and drive somewhere with electricity (in our case Ruislip for fish and chips) when the lights went out in Ealing. The book shows what was going on between the government and the unions at that time - and how the media reported it.

Keith moved to the CBI in 1981 and recruited me in September of that year into his Information Department team. My 16 years at the CBI have been put to good use in my current work, using best practice picked up there to help build a new Poland.

There are also the stories that didn't grab the nation's attention but are nonetheless well worth recounting, such as the attempted takeover of the Cooperative by an asset-stripper who was, as it turned out, was basing his £1.2-billion bid on stolen data. This was after Keith had left the CBI to set up his own PR agency. During this time, he had been involved in the conversion of London pirate radio station KissFM into a legitimate broadcaster in the early 1990s.

The final chapter, the one that gives the book its title and theme, compares today's sound-bite focused PR on the profession as it evolved in the pre-internet, pre-social media era. This should be compulsory reading for all students of journalism and media studies. Slipping standards, brought about by the young Special Advisers (SPADs) on short-term contracts who've replaced many of Whitehall's full-time PR people, are more interested in photo opportunities than in-depth briefings. Perhaps the politics we have - lurching from one form of populism to another - are a reflection of 24-hour media bombardment when too little time is allotted to checking facts and too much attention is given to sound bites.

Keith McDowall at the launch of Before Spin at the Reform Club
As expected from a former Daily Mail journalist, the book is written with clarity and an easy-to-read style, which allowed me to devour all 373 pages in a few sittings. For anyone of my generation or older with an interest in current affairs, Before Spin will evoke plenty of memories of the stories that made the front pages and TV news headlines. For students of post-war British social history, the book fleshes out the names and the dates.

The foreword is written by Peter Hennessy, and it looks like half of the House of Lords has endorsed the book on its back cover!

Before Spin by Keith McDowall [ISBN 978-1-910792-17-9] is available from Melrose Books for £19.99 (hardback).

This time last year:
Mill town Łódź (Liked it so much, I've since bought a flat there)

This time two years ago:
Today, a tipping point in European history

This time three years ago:
Church and state

This time four years ago:
Scrub fire in Jeziorki

This time five years ago:
Airbus A380 visits Warsaw

This time six years ago:
Lenten recipe no. 7

This time seven years ago:
Poland's economy - upturn in sight? (answer of course: yes!)

This time eight years ago:
Spring? Feels like Christmas in the snow...

1 comment:

adthelad said...

Looks like one I will look forward to reading :)