Media: Sorry to mention the war

When Robin Cook was asked about attitudes to Germany on `Today' it made headlines. But was it a fair question?
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The Independent Culture
Guilt has gnawed away, has done its work at night. For a week now, the last thing I've seen before sleep brings its merciful release is the Foreign Secretary hovering above me; baleful, hurt and - worse than these things - unquestionably in the right.

He's kept me awake each night and now the time has come to wash my hands, and to speak the truth. It's worth doing so in public because Robin Cook's disagreement with the Today programme last week is part of a much wider debate - about news management, spin doctors, interview techniques and even the role of the BBC.

It began with Michael Naumann, the German Culture Minister, suggesting that Britain had made victory in the Second World War its "spiritual core"; that, in effect, we were an obsessed people. On the morning that these comments were reported, amid much outrage in Britain, we were due to talk to the Foreign Secretary about an arguably rather loftier issue - the launch of the Government's "green" foreign policy (or foreign-policy- with-a-green-dimension).

Towards the end of the interview our presenter Nick Robinson, at my request, asked Mr Cook for his views on Herr Naumann's thesis. His response was impeccably anodyne, weighed in at a succinct 11 seconds and was along the lines of: "I haven't mentioned the war in meetings with my German counterparts, and I won't do so in future." I'm paraphrasing, but that was the gist - pretty harmless stuff.

The Foreign Office, however, was seething, in so far as press officers can be said to seethe. Why had we diverged from our arrangement? Why hadn't we cleared the question with the Foreign Secretary? Outrageous behaviour, they raged, civilly.

I was inclined to laugh it off. What was the problem, after all? The programme surely must have some leeway when talking to the Foreign Secretary about what was, after all, a subject directly within his ambit. And the response was bland enough.

Eleven seconds, however, is a long time in politics. Three hours later, the news agency wires had headlined the story "Cook Backs Down over Germans!". I felt a brief spasm of contrition, but even then I hadn't expected the following day's coverage.

Next morning, the Foreign Secretary rang himself, in person, to share with me The Star's story headlined "Heil keep quiet!". He then moved to page one of The Daily Telegraph, where his 11-second response had been spread across four columns (plus editorial comment on page 23), The Mirror, meanwhile, began its account: "Basil Fawlty's catch phrase `Don't mention the war' became official Government policy yesterday..." Mr Cook was irate, but still remarkably polite.

The galling thing for me was that he had predicted this very outcome the previous day, which I had laughed off as political over-sensitivity. After all, he couldn't possibly have answered the question in a blander, less controversial manner.

I mean, even if Bill Cash were foreign secretary I doubt that he'd talk about the war very often during discussions with his German counterpart. And only then under his breath. But this was Robin Cook's point: that he couldn't possibly have answered the question at all without landing himself in hot water.

If he'd voiced my own response to Herr Naumann's comments - that we talk about the war just about enough, but that we should do so more loudly and with a thinly veiled aggression when German politicians tell us we shouldn't - then there would be an entertaining diplomatic incident, apologies and the whiff of resignation. There was, simply, nothing he could have said.

All Robin Cook wanted was advance notice of the subjects to be discussed during our interview; not the questions themselves, mind, just the areas of debate. Our response on these occasions is to harrumph and talk about editorial independence, and refuse to enter into negotiations.

But things are changing, and perhaps we should change with them. We talk about public accountability and the right of challenging programmes such as Today and The World at One to have access to Government ministers on important issues. At the same time, we are experiencing news management from the Government which is subtler and more successful than at any time I can remember. In a crude sense this Government is more open than the last; we do not lack access to ministers, or to Downing Street. This Government is offensive in its relationships with the press rather than defensive. In fact, we carried six interviews with the Prime Minister in 1998, more than in any previous year - but there is the growing feeling that the crucial politicians are less frequently made available at the crucial times.

We may receive 10 offers of government ministers launching comparatively small-change programmes, which very often they launched six months before; but they are mysteriously absent when accused of a policy U-turn, or involved in a disagreement with colleagues, or party to financial shenanigans. Can you remember a single interview on Today - or Newsnight or The World Tonight - with Geoffrey Robinson, ever?

There is a feeling at those difficult times that they will appear on programmes that are less challenging, and that this allows the Government to draw a line under what would have been a difficult issue. The next time that the minister is made available it may be on a much softer issue - we are back to the policy initiatives. We on Today still think the policy initiatives are important and deserve a public forum, but there are times when it is less in the Government's interest for us to talk to ministers, and this is when the shutters come down. Not all Government departments are alike; it would be hard to find a more open minister than Jack Straw, the Home Secretary.

And perhaps that's where we need to be clearer with the politicians, with ourselves, and with the audience. Offering Robin Cook the chance to refuse to take a question about Herr Naumann offers us the option as to whether or not we should run the interview. Of course, in this instance we would.

There are other occasions when we wouldn't - and we should tell the audience when that happens. The spin doctors should look on it as a welcome adoption of the moral high ground; we'll be straight with you, but in return we expect to be able to examine, with rigour, ministers on thorny areas that they may not wish to confront in public. And when they refuse to answer, or appear, we should explain to the audience why.

In the meantime, instead of shedding responsibility and blaming the Press when Today programme quotes get taken out of context, I apologise to Robin Cook.

The writer is editor of Radio 4's `Today' programme