Lance Price, Where Power Lies: Prime Ministers V the Media, Simon and Schuster, £20.
As the BBC political correspondent, Nicholas Jones incurred Alastair Campbell’s enmity by objecting to his underhand deployment of spin. Here he finds Campbell’s deputy still spinning off-the-record.
Lance Price provides an engaging mea culpa for his days as a Downing Street press officer under Tony Blair. But he weakens his credibility by presenting a demolition job on Gordon Brown’s Premiership which is based almost entirely on un-attributable quotations from anonymous sources.
As Alastair Campbell’s deputy for four years, Price had a ringside seat in what he says was a government “obsessed with spin and counter-spin” and which struggled to come to terms with the debilitating fault line imposed by the Blair/Brown feud.
His book gives a blow-by-blow account of the difficulties which Prime Minister Blair faced having a Chancellor who was (rightly) convinced Downing Street was willing to “brief viciously against” him.
I applaud Price for acknowledging now that when he spoke to the news media in his role as an unelected politically-appointed special adviser the “public had a right”to know his name. He had “clearly got a lot of power” and I respect his revelation that he and two other special advisers in Downing Street at the time – Andrew Adonis and Geoff Mulgan – shared his view that they should have been identified on the Downing Street website.
More is the pity that his plea for greater transparency is then exposed as a charade by a chapter which argues that the infamous claim that Gordon Brown was “psychologically flawed” does not even “come close” to describing the reality of life under a Prime Minister who is “psychologically and emotionally incapable of leadership of any kind”.
Price gets carried away with his Blairite v Brownite narrative but the reader yearns for the openness which the author has trumpeted. His lurid tale – and the above quotations -- are based, surprise, surprise on the comments of a vast array of anonymous sources. His cast list of the unnamed beggars belief: “one adviser said”; “one person who has witnessed it”; “Another person said”; “said one civil servant”; “some of his closest advisers said”; and so it goes on. I longed to read the opinion of the Downing Street cat or even the fox which has sometimes been seen scurrying past the No.10 front door.
Having shared a desk with Price in the days when he was a BBC political correspondent, I am happy to admit the error of my ways. I often had no alternative but to use anonymous sources as the basis of news stories. In my final years with the BBC – and subsequently as a writer and commentator – I have done all I can to source quotations. My practice of revealing their identity has often worked to my disadvantage.
When Price left the BBC in 1998 to join Blair’s staff in Downing Street I knew that I would never be among his favoured clientele. Indeed, I considered Downing Street’s willingness to trade in un-attributable tip- offs and gossip one of the worst aspects of Alastair Campbell’s regime.
In my opinion Price, like Campbell, had few inhibitions about disregarding the code of conduct in his contract, requiring temporary civil servants to refrain from engaging in “political controversy” and to “avoid personal attacks”. In February 1999, when Downing Street mounted a covert attempt to thwart Ken Livingstone’s bid for the Labour nomination for Mayor of London, I noted in my own diary that Price asked if the BBC Westminster Live programme wanted the No.10 press office to help find a Labour MP to “bash Ken”.
Price lays much blame at the feet of political correspondents because of their addiction to scoops. Stories which he helped journalists with, and which often appeared as the “splash”, were based “partly on something that I had said which was an exaggeration, a distortion sometimes, of the truth”.
Again Price has underlined another compelling reason for identifying special advisers and forcing them to offer journalists quotations which are always on the record and not needlessly or gratuitously off the record.
Perhaps the most chilling of his observations is that Blair was entirely at ease with the media-management techniques which Campbell and his acolytes deployed. “None of us who worked for him felt in any way inhibited by the sense that he might disapprove of what we were up to”.
From my own personal experience I could say the same about Margaret Thatcher. Her press secretary Bernard Ingham was as ruthless as Campbell in ridiculing and bullying journalists who sought to question her government. But in fairness to Ingham I would point out that he at least confined himself to government business and did not engage in the underhand party political power play which became one of the hallmarks of New Labour’s spin doctors.
My own hunch is that David Cameron, like Thatcher and Brown, will keep himself at arm’s length from the day-to-day goings on in the Downing Street spin machine should he become Prime Minister next May.
While I might argue with Price for failing to identify the sources of the lurid quotes he uses, I agree entirely with him that Brown is at fault for trying to micro-manage the government’s attempt to command the news agenda. A Prime Minister who tries to become a player in the market place of media manipulation is almost certain to end up losing control of the government.
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