Obituary: Peter Brown
Wednesday 02 June 1993
PETER BROWN was a pioneer of something that is now taken entirely for granted: the professional government press and information service. Like his colleagues Keith McDowall and Bernard Ingham, he was a tough- minded journalist who impressed successive cabinet ministers with the vital need to communicate themselves and their policies to the media. He succeeded, and they were grateful.
Brown was born in 1913, into an artistic middle-class family - his father was a flautist in the nearest symphony orchestra. He was educated at Darlington Grammar School, and in the 1930s joined the Northern Echo as a reporter, rising to become Deputy Chief Sub-Editor.
When war broke out he joined the Navy as an Ordinary Seaman, and was promoted rapidly to become a Lieutenant, RNVR, on Atlantic convoys. He was an impulsive man, and as he humorously recounted, had some brushes with higher authority. Once, as officer on duty, there was a night alert which he believed was enemy aircraft: he fired a starshell, which lit up the whole convoy for 10 miles, and any lurking U-boat that might be about. It was the kind of mistake that could have led to a court martial. But, like the convoy, he survived.
This independent spirit was equally in evidence after the war. Following at stint at Westminster Press, he was persuaded by the late Harold Evans to join that fledgling, mistrusted, half-acknowledged breed of civil servants, the information officers, and worked for Harold Macmillan when he was Minister of Housing in the 1950s. His restless, assertive temperament meant that in this staid environment he would either rise or fall quickly, and he rose.
He was always fiercely loyal to ministers, but equally spoke his mind in a direct way that professional civil servants rarely dared to. When Macmillan launched his campaign to build 300,000 homes, Brown was not content with the usual Commons speech and polite press release - he accompanied Macmillan on stumping the country, with all his junior staff in tow, selling the message hard to local editors and broadcasters, which they had not expected from HM Government. Brown's dictum was: 'If you just want postmen, then hire 'em. If you want good communicators, hire journalists.'
His great days were with Richard Crossman, as Minister of Housing and later, Secretary of State in the new super-ministry, the Department of Health and Social Security. Over crises such as the Ronan Point disaster of 1969 (when a system-build council tower block collapsed) Brown did not hesitate to contradict senior civil servants and argue the presentational case. Later, when Barbara Castle took over the job, she admitted, 'I began to appreciate why Dick Crossman appreciated him.'
To her, he was equally loyal, equally devoted, and equally abrupt with top civil servants whom he believed were advising her wrongly. They too came to respect him, though sometimes grudgingly. It did not entirely help relations when Brown - a large man - with great politeness ripped an Under-Secretary unceremoniously out of a taxi, saying: 'So sorry, my need is greater than thine]' He helped Barbara Castle weather the storms of conflict with the medical profession, and continued to serve, until 1977, even after his nominal retiring age, under her successor David Ennals. In these years, with his uncompromising, idiosyncratic style, he set a standard of performance for a government information department which those many who worked for him will long remember.
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