Meeting the kings of spin

At the height of New Labour’s dominance of the political landscape, a visit to the heart of their media machine

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The Independent Online

2 June 2001

At the foot of the Millbank tower on Tuesday morning, we of the media gathered like a punishment battalion of termites briefed to attack a steel traffic bollard. We knew in advance that there wouldn’t be much to chew on. Soon Tony Blair’s bus would be heading out for an undisclosed destination. We would follow. When we got there, nothing much would happen.

We could dream of Blair being attacked with rocket launchers by a half a dozen female OAPs screaming, “75p was a bloody insult, you grinning berk!” There were shadowy figures within Millbank who believed that we might stop dreaming of something like that and start arranging it: that we might hire the Nolan Sisters, fit them out with a few lengths of plastic drainpipe, and let them loose at a photo op.

In the Millbank mind, where media control was invented, the media out of control is the demon that never sleeps. Unless you had signed on the dotted line for a seat on one of the two press buses, you weren’t supposed to go. I linked up with ace freelance photographer Brian Harris, who was covering the day for the Indy along with me. His handsome features weathered from years of room service, Harris is the breed of smudger who gets the shot if he has to wade through a swamp, surface through pack ice, dance with the seventh wife of the mad revolutionary general. But he wasn’t too keen to get on a press bus that charges £550 for a day trip, and neither was I. Why not just hire a car and follow the buses? After all, it was a free country.

Patiently awaiting its precious cargo, the Blair bus was surrounded by demonstrators with signs saying, “KEEP CLAUSE 28”. The kind of enthusiast who can surround you all on his own had a sign saying, “SEEK THE LORD WHILE HE MAY BE FOUND”. Here was an argument for the prudence of keeping Blair’s various destinations a close secret: otherwise he would face torrents of this stuff when he got there, and perhaps worse. If Millbank overdid the caution vis-a-vis the press, Special Branch was merely being wise when it came to the loving public. In large letters, the back of the Blair bus was marked: “LEADERS TOUR”. It was heading for the land where the possessive case has been abolished, and apostrophes are never used except incorrectly, to mark the plural. If I knew where Blair was going every day, I would be waiting there myself, holding my sign that says: “SO MUCH FOR YOUR EMPHASIS ON EDUCATION, DIMWIT”.

To the drooping disappointment of the sign-holders, the Blair bus pulled away with no Blair in it. Maybe the Blair bus would pick Blair up at Downing Street. We piled into the car and headed off in that direction, but at Downing Street there was no Blair bus. Back at Millbank there were no press buses, either. Luckily, Harris had a contact on the second press bus who owed him one after a hairy moment in Beirut. Ducking beneath the surveillance of the on-board Millbank commissar, the contact whispered into his mobile that the bus convoy was proceeding through Notting Hill Gate, perhaps on the way to the West Midlands via Shepherd’s Bush roundabout.

We caught up with the second press bus on the M40 and sat behind it while Harris communed again with his contact. Newport had been mentioned as one of the day’s locations. It couldn’t be Newport Pagnell, and probably wasn’t Newport, Rhode Island: but there might be a Newport in or near Staffordshire. Harris signed off on the moby and studied the map, on which Staffordshire occupied about a thousand square miles. So there was no point trying to run up there ahead of them and lie in wait. Meanwhile I was calculating the total revenue per bus from 40 or 50 media personnel all coughing up the full whack: somewhere north of 25,000 quid. “Almost enough to pay for the petrol,” said Harris. It would have been a good line for Hague, who had run out of good lines the previous night while being trampled by Paxman.

The great Australian philosopher Rod Laver once said: “When you’ve got your man down, rub him out.” Strategically, the idea makes sense, but not when extended to the spectators. By now Millbank had dealt with Hague: he had been rubbed out with such thoroughness that the only way you could tell where he had lain was by a man-shaped area cleaner than the surrounding pavement. But Millbank still had many enemies, and two of them turned out to be me and Harris. Whispered word came through from the bus that we had been spotted.

Somewhere in the command centre of the bus, Millbank operatives were processing the information that a mystery car had been observed trailing close behind the tinted back window. The face in the car’s front seat checked out against the hostile media list. James, Clive, 61, Australian origin. Used to be on television, now active on the internet. Thinks he’s funny. Backseat passenger could be Harris, Brian, freelance photographer. Paying for divorce, ready for anything. Once got a shot of Blair in pyjamas with Mandelson picking his nose: not his own nose, Blair’s nose. High possibility of upcoming satirical attack at arrival point.

The easy course of action for Millbank would have been to buzz Special Branch and suggest that we be removed from the bus’s tail. It would have worked, too: Harris has so many points on his driver’s licence that he isn’t even allowed to be a passenger. But someone higher up the chain of command must have been given pause by two further considerations. The first consideration was that people are still legally free to travel on the open road, unlike on the railways, where they can travel only under tight restrictions. The second consideration was that the Bremner Battlebus Ban had gained negative publicity. The current potential satirical attack was headed up by comparatively minor players, but there could be a nasty media backlash if Special Branch took them out. Better use the charm weapon and suck them in.

Although we were getting our information from on board the bus, we had to deduce that last part. Until the bus arrived in Stafford, we were still expecting to be stopped any time by a fast car full of heavy bluebottles saying, “Breathe into this bag.” But suddenly, strangely, we were both in favour as the two press buses disgorged their cargo at a complex called The Staffordshire Ambulance Service National Health Service Trust Head-quarters. The Blair bus, which Blair had joined en route after a quick flight, was circling the district in a holding pattern while the media took up position to cover the forthcoming spontaneity. The smudgers toted their aluminium stepladders for seeing over the heads of the public, although these locations are so secret that it usually means seeing over the heads of the reporters. I grabbed a spot on the ropes where I could clock the scene.

It looked like a military base. I counted at least 30 ambulance personnel in green overalls, most of them marked, “PARAMEDIC” on the right breast, while the left breast bore the name: “ALAN”, “PETER”, “GEORGE”. (In the empire of New Labour, the valley of the lost apostrophe leads to the plateau of the missing surname.) The ambulances were all inside the hangar, where the main action would take place. A bomb-squad copper was towed past by his sniffer dog. The dog had that particularly hangdog look that dogs get when their biggest thrill of the week is snorting Semtex, but every other life form on the concourse was polished and alert.

Abruptly, I found myself being loomed over by an upright man in green overalls called Roger. He turned out to be the guy in charge of the whole outfit. Roger Thorne OBE, an ex-lieutenant colonel whose background in medical service includes the Falklands and Lockerbie. We had a point in common. Roger’s son-in-law commands the Royal Australian Rifles, currently active in East Timor, where they had been in a skirmish only yesterday. After telling him how I approved of the Australian government’s action with regard to East Timor, I discovered that Roger didn’t necessarily approve of the British government’s action with regard to the health service. “What you’ve got in the Department of Health are people who have never seen a patient, and they are advising people who do see a patient.” I asked him if more money would fix things, and the answer was: not without a rethink. “It’s a question of morale. Doctors, nurses, want to look after patients, not paperwork.”

I was busily writing that down when the Blair bus pulled in and gave forth the power couple – Blair and Cherie both in full smile mode, a grand total of 64 scintillating teeth exposed to scrutiny from a satellite. Blair had his jacket off already; ever since Peter Mandelson noted with horror that one of the smudgers had nabbed an underarm sweat shot, Blair has been pre-cooled for all occasions. Bad news for jacket manufacturers, but it makes media sense. So do Cherie’s long-top trouser suits with the long-toed shoes. During many a chat-stop on the way to the hangar, she proved her grace. She has a way of standing with one foot in front of the other, like a figure on an Egyptian frieze, although she does so with her legs crossed, as if Nefertiti were dancing the tango.

Soon they were inside being shown how the ambulance unit could electronically monitor patients at home, with the aim of cutting down the number of death- defying sprints to the hospital. A handsome South African doctor name- tagged “ANTON VAN DELLEN” (doctors still have surnames) proudly informed me that this was a cutting-edge set-up, but I wondered if, inside, anyone was telling Blair (a) that the secret of its success lay in the determination of its commander to fight his own war with no bullshit from upstairs, and (b) that the doctor was an import.

Dr Van Dellen strode handsomely away on his mission of mercy, to be replaced in my view by the celebrated Blairite apparatchik Anji Hunter. Access-starved journos tell me that Anji is a hard case, but she didn’t seem that way today. At my age I am immune to sexual desire, but there is a lingering aesthetic sense that appreciates a tall, slim female form draped in a black linen trouser suit underpinned with strappy high-heeled sandals for the shapely feet, the toenails painted with the blood of slain lovers. This was one chic apparatchik. Getting as tough as I can when drowning in a woman’s eyes, I asked her why the Labour poster campaign was still screaming at the punters to get out there and vote in case Hague got in. She said, “Why don’t you have a word with Alastair. She meant Alastair Campbell, so she might as well have recommended having a word with Napoleon Bonaparte: nice idea, but it would depend on the availability.

Anji drifted elegantly back into the Blair bus and Alastair Campbell came hulking out of it. He was very nice. You could fill the Millennium Dome with media people eager to testify that he is not nice, at all, but he was nice today. I don’t think he was turning it on, although clearly it can be murder when he turns it off. He wasn’t guarded in the least. When I suggested that New Labour no longer had any challenge from the left, he guilelessly let slip that Charles Kennedy might fill the bill. I noted that one down: the whole potential realignment of British politics compressed into a moment. His answer to the question I had asked Anji was simple: a foregone conclusion meant that the voters might stay home. When I said that the Tories might vanish altogether, he said: “Good.” He said it with a smile, but he meant it. “What about democracy?” I wailed. This time his smile said he didn’t mean it. “Ah come on, don’t give me that stuff.” I could have quoted him cold and launched a thousand cartoons, but it wouldn’t have been fair. His laughter said that what he was saying was preposterous. There is nothing preposterous, however, about the possibility.

Even with some of the polls adjusting the Labour lead downwards because of new rules for asking questions, we are looking at a one-party state for at least one parliament into the future. As Campbell went back into the bus to plug himself back into his information system that deals with millions of people all at once instead of one sweating hack at a time, I was pondering the implications. Tony and Cherie emerged from the hangar and proceeded down the concourse. Craning sideways, I could see Cherie dropping to a crouch, either to kiss babies or else to converse with children and very small adults. We were informed that at the next stop Blair would reassure Shropshire and the waiting world about New Labour’s commitment to a Strong Society. Medical staff would be safe from attack by schoolteachers driven crazy by late trains.

But I could catch the speech on the fringe channels late at night. Harris had got his stuff. The great thing about photographers is that they bring the same expertise to baby-kissing as they do to a Palestinian kid bouncing rocks off an Israeli tank: they do what they must and when it’s done it’s done. But for a scribbler, the story rarely fits the frame unless he lies. Integrity means you can’t stop taking things in, and on the road back to London I took in the thing that mattered. It was buried on page 17 of a stapled wodge of bumf handed to me by the indefatigable Roger. At the request of the NHS board, his ambulance unit was being studied by Sheffield University “to identify the transferability of the Staffordshire performance throughout the National Health Service.”

Bingo! If Roger’s irascible voice was going to be heard at government level, the implications were enormous. It meant that Labour would not just be bringing the private sector into the health service, it would be dumping its cherished top-down, target-setting management system. This was the very thing that Portillo was saying the Tories would do. The Tories wouldn’t be doing anything for the next hundred years, but if Labour moves in that direction it will be a clear confession that from the health angle the whole of the last parliament was a waste. Tony’s campaign slogans for the public services boil down to “I’ve started so I’ll finish”. If he really means “I got it wrong last time but this time I’ll get it right” he is open to an objection that uses the words “piss-up” and “brewery” in the same sentence. But New Labour certainly can organise a bus-trip.

 

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