Meeting His People:
Having taken over the UK premiership from Margaret Thatcher and fought off the Tory “bastards” on the Eurosceptic Right in Parliament, John Major called a General Election for April 1992. BBC Chief Correspondent John Simpson was asked to cover the PM’s personal campaign. After covering the bombing of Baghdad, this should have been a stroll in the park. It turned out to be one of his less pleasant of his assignments to date. On Sunday 15 March he travelled to Sawley in Huntingdon, Major’s own constituency. Here he was to Meet the People, his people of course. As he commented:
The words were always said with a particular reverence by his handlers, as though real people were the greatest rarities in the world, unpredictable creatures who could only be approached with extreme care.
It has some echoes, a generation later, in the contemporary confection, the Will of the People, in the current Brexit debate. Simpson recalls that the whole event was dreadful. Major sat on a stool, looking uncomfortable, and a group of specially invited, carefully scanned local supporters sat equally uncomfortably in front of him. Everything had been so rehearsed that any life it originally had had long since been sucked out of it. The party ‘hacks’ reminded Simpson of Jehovah’s Witnesses. They were true believers, trying their best to be patient with the sceptics. This isn’t a press conference, it’s a people conference, he was told. You’ll be able to spectate at it. He’s not just going to speak to the people, it’s for the people to be able to ask whatever’s on their minds. As it transpired, the people were as embarrassed and shy as Major himself seemed, perched on his stool. What was on their minds was the kind of thing they had read in the tabloid newspapers:
‘Is it true,’ one asked, ‘that if the Socialists win, they will do lasting damage to the British economy?’
The questions were sometimes so extreme that Major, a fair-minded man, sounded less anti-Labour than they were. The best he could do was to say that nothing much was going on in the country.
“Transcript of report from Sawley, Northants, 15.3.92
“Speaker: Rt Hon John Major, PC, MP.
“JM: Back in 1979 there was a real feeling for change. I’m telling you, it ain’t there now.”
As Simpson drove to the studios, he thought over whether he should give his report without adjectives, just giving a bald account of what had happened. Yet he felt that if the overall impression he had received of the event was of a lack of imagination and understanding, he should say so. He stopped beside the road and began writing:
“Transcript of report for 6.25 News. 15.3.92
“JS: The campaign proper began for John Major with a chance on BBC Radio to get in a brief, quotable thrust at his opponents:
“JM: This fetish the opposition parties have for raising taxes seems very damaging to the economic interests of this country.
“JS: But the business of meeting the people began on his own home ground: In Sawley, part of his own constituency. The people he’d come to see had been carefully invited by the local Conservative Party and the questions weren’t exactly designed to cause him problems…
“JS: Mr Major is no great orator, and his handlers think he’s better with small groups. But it was all desperately tame today. There are promises that his campaign may liven up a little later.”
‘Spin Doctors’ and ‘Heavy Breathers’:
The ‘spin-doctors’ at Conservative Central Office were furious when they heard this all-too-truthful account. The editor who began taking their angry calls even before the end of the broadcast rang Simpson to congratulate him on the report, but he wouldn’t have been human if he hadn’t wished that this particular cup had passed him by. The functionaries from Tory Central Office had identified Simpson as a wrecker, probably a paid-up member of the Labour Party. Yet the Labour Party was claiming that the BBC was biased against them. Neil Kinnock’s campaign manager warned:
If the BBC believes it can operate like this because the Conservatives hate it but Labour has a sentimental attachment to it, it had better think again. If it goes on like this and Labour wins, there won’t be as much sentiment around for the BBC as it believes.
In reality, the Labour Party wanted to control the BBC just as much as the Conservatives did. The only difference was that under Margaret Thatcher the latter gave the impression they were always thinking of tampering with the BBC’s structure. Over the decades going back to its founding, senior politicians have retained the habit of picking up the phone to the broadcasters as if they themselves own them. This is known by TV and Radio journalists as ‘heavy breathing’, and it succeeds in frightening them far too often. All too often the journalists or their editors try to be conciliatory and to explain that no offence was intended. The mere fact of replying like that encouraged the politicians to complain again. Although a genuine mistake was sometimes made, in John Simpson’s experience that was relatively rare. The parties complained most when their senior politicians had done badly in an interview, and they chose to blame the broadcasters for the poor performance. Simpson singled out ‘a new gladiator’ who had turned up in this ‘arena’ for particular attention:
I rather liked Tony Blair’s press spokesman, Alistair Campbell, when I was at Westminster: he was one of the freer-thinking political correspondents. Perhaps, like me, his time at Westminster left him less than starry-eyed about the nature of the lobby. He says what he thinks, without worrying too much about the feelings of those he talks to…
But Alistair Campbell is a man with an agenda. He wants government ministers to look and sound good on air, regardless of whether the are good. When interviewers of the quality of Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys are questioning them, they don’t always shine. The Paxman style of interviewing is something that can only exist on British television. He is a national asset, and someone the BBC can and should feel great pride and confidence in. Of course Alistair Campbell and all his equivalents in British politics dislike him: he is the scourge of sloppy policy-making and muddle-headed ministers. And of course he is feared by all those who have a vested interest in tame interviews and tame broadcasting.
One morning John Humphrys had just walked out of the studio at the end of the ‘Today’ programme (on BBC Radio 4), and picked up the phone which was ringing on a nearby desk. He listened for a while to some threatening character from one of the parties.
‘Thanks for that,’ he said when the phone went quiet, ‘and I wonder if I could make an observation?’
‘Yes, of course.’
And he put the phone down.
In many ways my complaint is less against the robustness of the politicos and more against the feebleness of the broadcasters. There is no reason on earth why, in a free society, people like Alistair Campbell shouldn’t try to put pressure on the broadcasters.
But equally there is no reason why the broadcasters should pay the slightest attention, except in cases where they have broadcast something which is false or tendentious. In that case they should be forced to put it right as soon as possible. There should only be one answer to the bully, the blackmailer and the heavy breather:.. ‘le mot de John Humphrys’.
Perhaps the current American Press and Media pack should take courage from the British example in their dealings with Donald Trump’s accusations of ‘fake news’ operations among the White House Press Corps, and not be so deferential, but rather stand up for their freedoms as The Fourth Estate.
Meeting ‘Real’ People:
According to Simpson, the 1992 UK General Election was altogether nastier than either the 1987 or 1997 campaigns. Like some of the US press today, he was branded an enemy, and was treated so unpleasantly by the more obsequious editors and reporters that he preferred to travel with the photographers and television cameramen. Meanwhile, John Major’s television advisers continued to create a campaign which emphasised the very qualities which seemed to diminish him most: the mildness, the uninspired speaking style, the pen-in-the top pocket concern with detail.
On Wednesday, 25 March John Major was in Scotland, and the Media representatives flew up there with him. This was a more pleasant trip for Simpson, as he got on well with one of The Guardian columnists. He knew he had to be careful: everything he said was likely to be taken down and used in evidence against him. He was beginning to write up his notes on the plane at the end of the day when John Major came down the aisle and asked him if his campaign was really as bad as Simpson was reporting. The Guardian columnist, David Hare, published the conversation in his book, Asking Around, chronicling the campaign, later the same year:
John Major moves behind me to talk to John Simpson, and I suddenly realize he is asking for professional advice. Scraps of their conversation drift across me.
Simpson: …not sure about your campaign… not sure you’re showing yourself to the best advantage.
Major: No. I agree. I agree.
Simpson: …all seems a bit pointless… ways in which you could be better presented…
Major: I know. I know. What do you think I should do?
Simpson told Major that it wasn’t his job to give advice to politicians, but that it didn’t make good television to see politicians with ‘believers’ rather than ‘real people’. The following Saturday they were in a particularly depressing shopping centre in Luton. They had turned up early, and so had the Trotskyists, ready to give Major a hard time. When his blue coach arrived, the PM stayed on board, but one of his aides got off, opened the baggage compartment and pulled out a wooden construction of some kind. Then Major got off and someone handed him a megaphone. He got up on the construction, a soapbox, and began to rate:
Something came over him, some distant memory of being a Young Conservative in the sixties, perhaps, and he grew louder and more confident, and his voice started to drown out the shouting. There was no actual violence, though somehow the unworthy thought came to my mind that if he took a bottle on the head and a trickle of blood were to run down those decorously mild features, it would be worth at least ten marginals to him… Of course, the sight of chanting, egg-throwing lefties did wonders for John Major’s standing.
“No one’s going to keep me away from the people,” he proclaimed in his harsh, much imitated, amplified voice, as though anyone was trying to…
He was sweating slightly as he got down from his box, and the rain had speckled his glasses.
“So that is the kind of thing you wanted?” he asked me…
“It’ll look good on television, certainly,” I said. And it did.