Early evidence of Wilson's press paranoia

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The Independent Online
JOHN RENTOUL

Despite the overwhelmingly favourable tone of most press coverage of the new Labour government, Harold Wilson began to complain about the newspapers almost from the start.

Throughout 1965, he devoted considerable amounts of the Cabinet's time to lectures about the need for strict confidentiality. But he was also unusually obsessed in the activities of one journalist, Anthony Howard, the Sunday Times's new Whitehall correspondent.

On 21 January, Derek Mitchell, Wilson's private secretary, wrote a peremptory letter to the private secretaries of two ministers: "The Prime Minister wishes to know whether your minister has recently spoken with or given an interview to Anthony Howard, the soi- disant Whitehall correspondent of the Sunday Times; and, if so, where and when precisely the discussion took place."

Mitchell reported to Wilson that it turned out that Howard "seems to be an old friend of both ministers and will presumably not wish to cause undue embarrassment to them", but went on: "There remains the problem of putting him in baulk in the longer term." He noted: "Howard would be a disturbing influence if, as you think likely, his object in life will be to go ferreting around Whitehall in search of departmental differences."

At its meeting on 22 February, Wilson said he "felt bound to draw the Cabinet's attention to a new and potentially dangerous development of press technique". This turned out to mean the technique of interviewing people and writing about disagreements within the government. Howard had written a well-informed article the previous day "which purported to describe a conflict of view between the Department of Economic Affairs and the Treasury about the direction of economic policy".

The Prime Minister's response, just four months after the Labour government was elected, shows that his paranoid tendencies were present from the beginning. He told the Cabinet that the article "represented a novel challenge to the established conventions governing the conduct of public business".

According to the Diaries of Richard Crossman, Minister for Housing, Wilson then forbade ministers to speak to Howard. The Cabinet minutes do not record this instruction, but Mitchell wrote two days later: "We are to tighten up the instructions to ministers - and departments - on the rules governing relations with the press and to mount a blockade against Anthony Howard personally."

Mitchell issued new orders to Wilson's ministers on 26 February: "It will therefore be a firm rule, to be vigilantly observed, that ministers should not give press interviews, whether attributably or unattributably, except in the presence of a reliable witness such as a public relations officer or a private secretary." As for Howard, "ministers should refuse him any facilities for the fulfilment of his task".

This prompted one mildly sarcastic reply from Ian Smart, private secretary to George Thomson, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, asking if his minister were allowed to lunch "tete-a-tete" with journalists. Mitchell scribbled on the letter: "I propose to tell this chap (orally) not to ask silly questions."

Trevor Lloyd-Hughes, Wilson's press secretary, added his comment: "A lunch is not an interview."

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