My Greatest Mistake: Anthony Howard broadcaster and political commentator

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The Independent Online

In January 1965, I joined The Sunday Times as the new Whitehall correspondent, and not long after, it ran what I think was a rather unwise leading article. It said that it was going to be starting an entirely new sort of journalism, in which it would describe the real clashes that took place in Whitehall. It was a kind of declaration of war. There was an article by me, opposite this piece, doing just that, about two departments that were doing the same job.

The idea, simply, was to say that if the country is run by civil servants, why should they be completely in the shadows? Although that concept is more or less accepted now, at that stage it was an idea whose time had certainly not come, and all hell was let loose. The Sunday Times was thrusting a dagger at the very heart of every politician, which is his vanity. He needs the public to believe that all decisions that are made in his name have been made by him personally.

In retrospect, it was a major error on my part to accept the job. A memo went out on 26 February 1965, from Harold Wilson's private secretary at No 10 to all cabinet ministers. It said, "As regards the Whitehall correspondent on The Sunday Times, ministers should refuse him any facilities for the fulfilment of his task as set out in The Sunday Times's leading article." Every civil servant also received a memo from the head of the Civil Service, saying that there was to be no co-operation with the new correspondent. It is almost impossible to carry out your job if every politician in the Labour Party and every civil servant has been told that they shouldn't speak to you.

Within about three months, I recognised that it was not going to succeed at all. I had the most frustrating and miserable summer without really having any work to do.

I was rescued by David Astor, editor of The Observer. Out of the blue, he asked me to go to Washington to be their chief American correspondent, and I leapt at it. I was absolutely delighted and relieved to have got out of a totally untenable position. At the time, I was very young and I never realised just what a direct challenge to politicians it was.