The donkey jacket that never was and the birth of spin: Brian McArthur reviews Keith McDowall's Before Spin

  • Before Spin is an illuminating memoir of McDowall's distinguished career
  • The title of the book is a deliberate tilt at modern spin doctors 
  • The book should be read by journalists, civil servants and politicians

POLITICS 

BEFORE SPIN 

by Keith McDowall

(Melrose Books £16.99) 

As a government press officer, a director of information in the Government Information Service, Keith McDowall worked side-by-side with Labour and Tory Cabinet ministers, polished their images and inevitably got to know them very well.

He worked for James Callaghan, for instance, when he was Home Secretary dealing with Northern Ireland, and recalls the moment 'Sunny Jim' decided to meet Rev Ian Paisley, the tub-thumping preacher who had been stirring the Protestants into a frenzy. 

Uproar: Michael Foot (with Margaret Thatcher on Rememberance Day at the Cenotaph in 1981) in his maligned coat

Uproar: Michael Foot (with Margaret Thatcher on Rememberance Day at the Cenotaph in 1981) in his maligned coat

As Paisley flayed the Catholics, Callaghan tried to cool the atmosphere:

'Come, come, Dr Paisley, we're all children of God,' said Callaghan.

'We are not. We are all children of wrath - Ephesians 2:3,' snapped back Paisley.

Callaghan soon decided there was no point in sweet-talking the cleric whom the Daily Mail described as Ulster's 'turbulent priest'.

This is one of many anecdotes in McDowall's illuminating memoir of his distinguished career in Fleet Street and Whitehall. It is one that should be read by journalists, civil servants and politicians, as he looks back to the days when there was honour in public life. He instructed his staff never to lie. Avoid the question perhaps, but never mislead.

McDowall's hero was Willie Whitelaw, Margaret Thatcher's deputy of whom she memorably said, as those listening struggled to keep straight faces: 'Every prime minister needs a Willie.'

Whitelaw had given up his job as Lord President in 1979 to take on the crisis in Ulster. McDowall found him decisive, authoritative and good-humoured, a once-in-a-lifetime boss. Whitelaw was a delight to work for and he quickly took command. 

Keith McDowall was also fond of Michael Foot (pictured with Liberal leader David Steel and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), the Left-wing Labour leader, whom he found friendly and humorous to work with - although he watched him become a pushover for the unions

Keith McDowall was also fond of Michael Foot (pictured with Liberal leader David Steel and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher), the Left-wing Labour leader, whom he found friendly and humorous to work with - although he watched him become a pushover for the unions

As he sat down with fellow ministers and his top civil servants, he boomed: 'The first thing we must all remember is that we must all laugh together. Unless we manage to laugh we are not going to get anywhere.'

When his daughter married, Whitelaw invited all the staff of the Northern Ireland Office to the reception, including the office cleaners, switchboard staff, doormen, drivers and messengers.

McDowall believes that it may have been Michael Foot's lack of taste in clothes that later deprived him of the prime ministership 

When he flew back to London leaving his team in Belfast after a particularly difficult Easter, he telephoned the wives of each of them personally and apologised profusely for ruining planned Easter holidays.

As McDowall says, this was a completely genuine and thoughtful act on Whitelaw's part and a textbook way of getting total loyalty from his staff: 'It was a lesson some of today's ministers might well take on board.'

McDowall was also fond of Michael Foot, the Left-wing Labour leader, whom he found friendly and humorous to work with - although he watched him become a pushover for the unions. By the end of negotiations with the miners, a rise of £4.50 a week had become £11.50.

McDowall believes that it may have been Foot's lack of taste in clothes that later deprived him of the prime ministership. Foot was bitterly and unfairly criticised for wearing a 'donkey jacket' when laying a wreath at the Cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday.

The title of the book, Before Spin, is a deliberate tilt at modern spin doctors

The title of the book, Before Spin, is a deliberate tilt at modern spin doctors

'As he told me, it was a rather smart, new, half-length topcoat that Jill (his wife) had bought him at Harrods. But the Tory papers had found a stick to beat him with.'

There is also a snapshot of Neil Kinnock at the Albert Hall for the launch of Jazz FM - McDowall was its chairman after he had founded his own company - when Ella Fitzgerald sang Every Time We Say Goodbye: 'Tears were streaming down Neil's face.'

The title of the book, Before Spin, is a deliberate tilt at modern spin doctors, although he doesn't exempt papers from his criticisms. Have today's journalists no pride left, he asks? 'Would they rather take Richard Desmond's shilling on the Daily Express than tell him where to put his job if it meant inflicting further torture on the McCanns, falsely accused of murdering their own child?'

Senior government press officers and civil servants were itching for the arrival of a new Labour Government in 1997. But those around Tony Blair's spin doctor Alastair Campbell were supremely ignorant of what the true role of such press officers should be. 

They were oblivious to the public duty to tell the truth, to uphold parliamentary standards, and maintain the integrity of their ministers.

The trend has continued during David Cameron's premiership, says McDowall. No wonder the public no longer believes what politicians say.

Cynicism reigns supreme. 

The comments below have not been moderated.

The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.

By posting your comment you agree to our house rules.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now