‘Welcome to the Press Office.’ A tall James Coburn clone walked towards me down the huge office with his hand outstretched.
What a seriously nice way to be greeted on your first day in a new job.
The first thing to know about press office work is that it is not journalism and a press office is not a newsroom.
The second thing to know is that every journalist thinks it should be run exactly like a newsroom and emulate the newspaper industry, failing to recognise the difference.
In fact, I was the only journalist in the office, which I found somewhat strange. The other five press officers had drifted there from wherever.
Back in the 80s, the government information service was not made up of journalists, much to my disappointment. There were far more career civil servants doing their press office stint as they moved onwards and upwards.
The job was pretty simple, if you can describe being a spokesperson for HM Government as simple.
You wrote press releases, which involved arguing with civil servants who thought they could write better than you and thought a 40-word intro, with 10 different clauses and a million commas was a good start. [I exaggerate slightly].
Occasionally you won the battle to remove one comma.
You answered the telephone. You tried your best to avoid speaking to Paul Brown from The Guardian and hoped you could pass that one to a colleague.
Even worse was speaking to The Sun or The News of the World or some other crappy tabloid about Rechem.
Rechem was an incinerating plant near Pontypool, South Wales. Amongst other things, it incinerated polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from fluorescent light bulbs, which as all the world knows, produce toxic dioxins.
It was probably totally co-incidental that there were some rather sick cows around the Rechem plant, a few illborn babies, and a rather high rate of toxicity on local foliage near the Rechem plant. Put it this way, I wouldn’t have wanted to live there.
And I didn’t like explaining that it was perfectly safe to the nasty aggressive tabloid Sunday paper reporter. Mind you, the one from the Daily Telegraph wasn’t much better. I waited in dread for the weekend papers to come out and wondered if I would still have a job on Monday.
Some brilliant photos here of Rechem. The plant closed in 2002.
A good Greenpeace report here about incineration and health.
The Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate (IAPI) wasn’t even my responsibility, but sadly the colleague who should have dealt with that one was swanning around elsewhere and we ‘shared’ the same desk. That meant we sat opposite each other and he was out most of the time leaving me to pick up his shit. If I was occasionally out, he said I would ring them back.
Luckily we ‘lost’ the responsibility for IAPI. Obviously losing part of your empire to another government department is not seen as a good thing, but I was pleased as punch. I went to the press conference which was lorded over by the obnoxious Nicholas Ridley, who was Secretary of State for the Environment.
I remember nothing more about the conference except that he was smoking all the time. How ironic, I thought, here we are talking about industrial air pollution and this ignorant git is chain-smoking.
Mostly though, the press enquiries weren’t too taxing, unless they were nuclear ones of course. But as I wasn’t the nuclear specialist, that wasn’t an issue, unless of course I was ‘on call’.
We had an on-call rota for taking calls at night, one or two nights a week and, every few weeks, we did the whole weekend.
This involved buying every single paper under the sun, including the Sunday Sport, reading through them and checking for stories, cutting out any that were relevant. We couldn’t go out as we had to be next to the ‘phone, although obviously the odd ten minutes to go and buy the papers was acceptable. Later, we had a mobile ‘phone in a suitcase that was more trouble than it was worth.
Of course it was at night, or at least early evening, when the ‘phone would ring from the morning national newspaper reporters, finishing their copy before the paper got printed.
‘Hello, Paul Brown here from The Guardian.’ Sigh. He might as well have walked round and knocked on the door, he only lived a mile or so away.
‘I’ve heard that a canister of nuclear waste has gone missing at Drigg……’
Pulls out list of contacts from the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate and tries to get hold of someone, preferably not the Chief Inspector – who was always incredibly helpful I might add, but low-level waste from Drigg was a bit low-level for him.
Worse still was the Herald of Free Enterprise. This was a roll-on roll-off (RORO) car and passenger ferry that capsized in 1987, moments after leaving the Belgian port of Zeebrugge, killing 193 passengers and crew.
Why did I have to be on-call when that happened?? In true government fashion I tried – and failed miserably – to pass it onto the Department of Transport. Not a chance.
And just to prove how obnoxious Nick Ridley was, despite Margaret’s adoration of him:
Nicholas Ridley was criticised for alluding to the accident (while speaking on another subject). He was quoted as saying that “although he is the pilot of the Bill, he has not got his bow doors open”. He apologised for the remark.
It wasn’t all drama. There were no charades. Although…. one colleague was in a local AmDram and was extremely good at taking off a couple of colleagues when they weren’t around. It’s just occurred to me that he probably mimicked me, goodness knows what I became, a cross between Diana Spencer and Princess Anne if that’s possible.
There were some good training courses, and, some interdepartmental stuff as so-called ‘career development’.
I spent a week at MAFF as was. They were rather snooty and withdrawn. I think it was a couple of days before they finally confided in me that they were a bit worried about something called bovine spongiform encephalitis, but that it hadn’t been picked up by the press yet and they were hoping to keep it that way. Yeah, right! Good one there MAFF.
Perhaps the most illustrious highlight was the few days I spent at Downing Street. No 10 to be precise. And no I did not get to speak to Margaret before you ask.
I have to say though, I was suitably impressed. Walking up to No 10 and being admitted because people know who you are and being escorted to the press office was pretty good.
In fact the press office was down a rather long poky corridor and housed in what seemed like the butler’s office. It was small, full of desks and people, and well, not what I expected. It was probably the size of my Chief Press Officer’s office.
One of the permanent staff explained the sort of queries they answered.
‘What size gloves does she wear?’
‘Where did she go to school?’
‘What’s her favourite colour?’
and variations on that theme. They had a list, rather like the journalist’s house style guide, of answers to the most frequently-asked questions.
Not quite what I expected, but it turned out the Foreign Office dealt with foreign policy, the Home Office with home office policy etc etc. Didn’t leave much really for No 10 apart from glove size.
They had to get up at the crack of dawn, or before, and listen to the radio while commuting in, so they could prepare a summary of the main news points as soon as they arrived.
This went on the desk of dear Bernard. Bernard Ingham was chief press officer at No 10 for those of you who haven’t heard of him. He actually had been a journalist and came from Yorkshire.
As I vaguely remember there were two off-the-record briefings a day by Bernard. We all dutifully filed into the briefing room (yet another beautiful room in No 10), and sat to await the entrance of the Grand Actor, because that’s what he should have been. I’m sure he put the Yorkshire accent on, it was so thick.
At the time, there was some report of a tiff between the PM and a minister. A row in fact. Bernard turned this round – at length – to talking about rowing (ie with boats, different pronunciation). I sat there gobsmacked, and considered it a total load of shite.
I think this was also the period when either The Guardian or The Independent were boycotting off-the-record briefings. I could see why.
Prime Minister’s Question Time was a must, so I toddled off to that one with one of my escorts from the ‘what-size-gloves-does-she-wear’ press office. It wasn’t very exciting.
We went back to the office and towards 6.30 – did these people never finish? – the fridge was opened and a bottle of wine produced.
No, it wasn’t in my honour. ‘We usually have a drink at the end of the day,’ someone said. I’ll bet.