Sir Gordon Reece

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The Independent Online

James Gordon Reece, television producer and public-affairs consultant: born Liverpool 28 September 1929; joint managing director, EMI 1970-74; Adviser to Margaret Thatcher 1975-79; Director of Publicity, Conservative Central Office 1978-80; Kt 1986; married (three sons, three daughters; marriage dissolved); died London 22 September 2001.

During the 1979 general election campaign, Gordon Reece, the Conservative Party's Director of Publicity, was in his office having a midday chat with Michael Heseltine. A messenger entered, sent by Alistair McAlpine, the party Treasurer. He saluted and formally announced: "The Treasurer presents his compliments and asks if Mr Reece can join him in his quarters for a glass of champagne." Heseltine was gobsmacked. He complained that, while he and other politicians were at the battlefront, Central Office directors were quaffing champagne way behind the lines. Reece loved to tell the story: that 1979 election campaign was the high point in his career, although it coincided with a personal low point.

Gordon Reece was an early example of what is now called a spin doctor. He had a background in press and television and was in the process of becoming a public-affairs consultant, working to put the best face on his clients' activities. He came to know the secrets of prominent people in all walks of life and was well connected with the media. Although gregarious, he knew that he also had to be discreet. This meant that he could appear evasive, even disingenuous. He was agreeable in manner and appearance – a small, slight man, who wore immaculately cut suits and well-coiffed hair. His large spectacles and ready smile made him like a cross between Ronnie Corbett and Brian Rix.

Reece was born in 1930 in Liverpool, the son of a car salesman who was successful enough to send young Gordon to Ratcliffe, a Roman Catholic boarding school in Leicestershire. (A contemporary was Norman St John-Stevas, now Lord St John of Fawsley.) He read Law at Downing College, Cambridge. and decided on a career in journalism. He then worked for a time with the Liverpool Daily Post and then the Sunday Express. In 1960 he switched to train as a television producer and went on to work for ITN's News at Ten and produce religious programmes and chat shows.

The connection with Margaret Thatcher was an accident. In 1970 James Garratt was putting together a group of media and public- relations specialists to help Ted Heath win the general election. The group needed somebody to edit the party's election broadcasts and Garratt asked a friend at Associated Television, who suggested Reece. In the 1970 and 1974 general elections he came into contact with Thatcher and helped when she launched her successful bid for the party leadership in February 1975. It was his idea that she should be filmed doing the washing-up, presenting herself as a housewife. By now he had established a cassette-video company, which was taken over by EMI. He took leave from the company to help Margaret Thatcher with television appearances.

Thatcher came to rely on him completely on presentational matters. It was her decision to make him Director of Publicity in February 1978, realising the importance of television in modern politics. One of Reece's first decisions was to appoint Saatchi & Saatchi Garland Compton as the party's advertising agency in March 1978. This was a gamble but he wanted a new thrusting company which would seize the opportunity to make its name. He gave the relatively new agency a comprehensive brief and a great deal of latitude. He established a good relationship with Tim Bell and the agency made a breakthrough in political advertising.

Reece also did much to remake Margaret Thatcher. His intuition, reinforced by studies of audience reactions to her television performances, led him to believe that she was seen as "uncaring". It was a combination of her hair, clothes and "that voice". He worked to soften her image. He hired a National Theatre coach to teach her to practise humming exercises in order to lower and deepen her voice, advised on clothing, accompanied her to her television and radio interviews, and made sure that she avoided combative interviewers who would make her strident.

His opposition to a proposed television debate between Thatcher and the Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, in 1979, was crucial. He spoke of Thatcher as a highly trained and temperamental filly. He was a reassuring presence and helped her to relax. Reece gained a great deal of credit for the changes in Margaret Thatcher (he was often called a Svengali). Although he neither clamed nor disclaimed responsibility, the reputation suited both his image and his career. The less he flaunted his influence, the more was attributed to him.

He was ruthless in using the tabloids (except the Mirror), "soft" radio programmes like the Jimmy Young Programme and early-evening programmes to target housewives in Labour-voting households. He exploited his friendships with the editors of the Sun and Daily Mail. He dismissed politicians' interests in television programmes like Newsnight and in the broadsheets. "You have to appeal to ordinary voters, who are not very interested in politics." When researchers pointed out that the party had not significantly increased its vote among women, Reece countered by claiming that women were the opinion leaders in the home. To cater for the demands of television and the press for striking pictures, he developed the idea of photo opportunities.

Reece clearly had more influence on Thatcher than many other politicians around her. His champagne and cigars were a regular item in his small Central Office room. These indulgences led to complaints from Central Office managers about his expenses, even though he could have earned much more outside. In fact it was usually the appearance of the ad man so clearly enjoying high living – and his closeness to Thatcher – that the critics abhorred. McAlpine would sometimes invite Reece to his meetings with people from whom he hoped to extract a large donation to party funds. McAlpine introduced him: "This is the tip of the lance that will kill the dragon of socialism. He is our St George." Reece would then describe an idea for a poster campaign or election broadcast and, prompted by the Treasurer, put a figure on what it would cost. This often raised the necessary funds.

Margaret Thatcher regarded him as "one of us". At her first weekend at Chequers as Prime Minister, she and her husband Denis were joined by Reece, Tim Bell, Ronnie Millar the speech writer, and McAlpine. These were worldly, amusing, successful men, part of her extended family, and they stayed with her until the end.

Within a year of the election victory Reece had left for Los Angeles and a lucrative post with Arnold Hammer, head of the Occidental Petroleum Corporation. For five years he did his best to improve the image of his mysterious and rich employer. On his return visits he kept in touch with Margaret Thatcher and newspaper editors. This was not, however, a good period in his life. In 1979 his marriage broke up and he was separated from his wife and six children. As a devout Catholic he was deeply scarred by the experience. He was reticent about his private life.

Reece was a serious man. He appreciated that if Thatcher were to confide in him he would not talk about what passed between them. There were no memoirs or diaries, in spite of lucrative offers, and few media interviews. He rejected the American idea of being a campaign consultant for hire. He would only do what he believed in and could not work for any other political party.

During the 1987 election he was appointed Margaret Thatcher's adviser for television. But he kept a low profile because he had also been retained as PR consultant by Guinness in their controversial take-over battle with Distillers. He was a frequent visitor to the Thatchers at their Christmas Day dinners at Chequers, and continued to act as a troubleshooter for her with the media and with colleagues. He was part of her team of advisers when she failed to retain the party leadership in November 1990. Unlike many of her entourage, he maintained good relations with John Major.

Gordon Reece continued as a public-affairs consultant and his clients included the BBC and Diana, Princess of Wales. He remained low-key and discreet, working out of a small suite in Park Lane, behind the Dorchester Hotel. He was an excellent bridge player, read regularly to old people, and did good works in his local Catholic church. He was given a knighthood in 1986. This was remarkable because he had refused an earlier honour on the grounds that it was not an adequate reward for his services.

Dennis Kavanagh