Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220
THURSDAY 15 DECEMBER 2005
Q220 Mr Prentice: It is plain English?
Sir Christopher Meyer: Okay, I
will give you a plain answer. Yes.
Q221 Chairman: Do you think that
is an extraordinary answer to match an extraordinary question?
Sir Christopher Meyer: I think
it is a very good answer to a very good question.
Chairman: Thank you very much indeed.
Thank you for all your evidence this morning.
Q222 Chairman: Let us move on to
the last section of our morning. Welcome, Lance Price, another
diarist of recent events that has caused some controversy. Do
you, like Sir Christopher, want to say something by way of introduction?
Mr Price: If you do not mind.
Chairman: Thank you for your memorandum
by the way.
Mr Price: I submitted in advance
of this session essentially a chronology of the events and discussions
leading up to the publication of The Spin Doctor's Diary.
To summarise that process very briefly, I submitted my manuscript
to the Cabinet Office expecting a process of discussion and negotiation
leading, with luck, to an agreed text for publication. I knew
from the outset there were a number of principles in which I believe,
which were likely to conflict, for example the legitimate interests
of official confidentiality and the public's right to know how
government is conducted in its name. I, for my part, was prepared
to try to resolve those issues as part of a sensible discussion.
What I did not anticipate at the outset was being told that my
book was completely unacceptable and that there was therefore
no room for negotiation. That seemed unreasonable to me at the
time, given the nature of previous books by special advisors,
officials, ministers, prime ministers, given the fact that it
was more than five years since I had worked at Downing Street,
two general elections had passed, the Prime Minister had said
he was not going to contest the next one as leader of the Labour
Party, and given that much of what my book contained was already
in the public domain. Hodder and Stoughton, my publishers, sought
legal advice at that stage because they agreed with me that the
judgment of the Cabinet Secretary did not appear reasonable. That
advice supported the view that what I had been told, was unreasonable
and, furthermore, was neither legally nor contractually sustainable.
In the absence of the Cabinet Secretary's guidance, which I had
sought, but mindful of the legal advice, I then took out a significant
amount of material from the text, and when I submitted the revised
manuscript the Cabinet Office expressed their gratitude for the
cuts I had made and, in a new spirit of cooperation, suggested
a relatively modest number of additional changes, some but not
all of which I accepted. It was far from an ideal way to go about
things, and I have to say that, as a result, material survived
from the original draft that I may not originally have expected
to see in the final version. I say this not to try to shift responsibility
for my book onto anybody elsethat responsibility is entirely
minebut it is nonetheless true that the published Spin
Doctor's Diary was not the book that I had expected. Although
I remain of the view that workable rules are desirable and necessary,
those that now exist did not appear to work in my case. It was
not simply a matter of defiance; I did not set out to the break
the rules, but I found myself forced into testing their legitimacy.
If they are to work better in future, which I take to be the principal
purpose of your investigations, people must not be put in that
position again. The rules, once agreed, need to be much clearer
and must be applied to all parties reasonably and responsibly.
People will, in my judgment, continue to keep diaries and to want
to publish books after working in government. Whether or not those
books have literary merit, most will have some academic or historical
value. It was a well respected, I think, contemporary historian,
Anthony Seldon, who urged me to publish mine. If we really are
to say that what may be of value to future generations is to be
denied to those now living, then it must be on the basis of a
very good and demonstrable argument. Despite what has been said
on occasions, I did not rush into print, and nor did I abandon
all sense of responsibility. I believed there was a public interest
in what I published, and I have yet to see evidence that it has
done any harm to the processes of government. This particular
government has made big strides in the direction of freedom of
information and, indeed, has put that freedom into statute. As
a journalist, which is what I was before I went into government
as a temporary civil servant and is what I am again, I have always
believed in demystifying the process by which we are all governed.
I think that is good for democracy. The Spin Doctor's Diary,
whatever its faults, may have, I hope, furthered those principles
a little, but there are undoubtedly lessons to be learnt from
what happened and, if I can assist in the process of learning
those lessons, I am delighted to do so.
Q223 Chairman: I thought in your
earlier remarks you were advancing the Meyer defence, which was
the rules are all very complicated, they are unsatisfactory, that
somehow it is the fault of the rules that this happens, but the
latter part of what you said was more of a clarion call for openness,
that these things should be out anyway so the rules fall away.
Which of those defences do you want to put forward?
Mr Price: I think both arguments
have merit. When I started the process I was unclear about what
the rules were. Even having worked in Downing Street and been
aware of books that were published during my time in Downing Street,
I was not clear as to what the rules were. I do think, given that
people are going to want to do again what I have done, publish
diaries or memoirs or write books after they leave an advisory
capacity within government, they do deserve to know the criterion
by which they will be judged if they submit something so that
there is at least some clarity about what the process will be
and how the Cabinet Secretary, or somebody working on his behalf,
will form a judgment about the contents of a book, and I do not
think that is at all clear at the moment. I do feel that the system
as it currently stands let me down in that I was not given the
opportunity to engage in any discussions or negotiations about
the kind of book that I might want to put forward, having submitted
it to the Cabinet Office before there was any commitment on behalf
of my publishers to publish it, and before any newspapers had
seen it or anything like that. I felt at the outset of the process
I was abiding by the rules as I understood them and sought clarification
as to what those rules were, and then a rather substantial roadblock
was put in our way. Had that not happened we would not have gone
to the expense and bother of seeking legal advice to find out
exactly what the legal situation was. That was quite an illuminating
process. That resulted in the book appearing in the form that
it did, I suppose, although there was subsequently negotiation
with the Cabinet Office. They had the opportunity to request changes,
they did request some changes, and we made some of those. At the
same time, I think it is fair to make the more general point,
because I suppose I was anticipating some of the questions you
might want to ask, about whether or not books of this kind do
damage, particularly given that a period of time had elapsed after
my leaving working for the Government, and whether or not there
is this balance to be struck between legitimate confidentiality
and an equally legitimate process of seeking to let the public
know how that is conducted on their behalf and give people an
insight into government and demystify it a bit.
Q224 Chairman: People get suspicious,
do they not, when public interest coincides with private advantage
so perfectly? You tell us in your book, which I have read with
great interest, that you learned how not to tell the truth. That
was part of your trade, was it not?
Mr Price: I think that is a bit
of an exaggeration.
Q225 Chairman: I do not want to embarrass
you by reading the bits.
Mr Price: No.
Q226 Chairman: This was what you
Mr Price: In the book, which was
very much what I wrote at the time and I made a decision early
on that I felt it was better to publish a strict narrative as
I wrote it rather than trying to colour it with hindsight and
change the narrative according to any agenda that I might wish
to impose on itthis book does not have an agendaa
lot of attention has been focused on the fact of what I consider
to be a relatively small number of cases when I was part of a
process of putting information into the public domain that was
not strictly true.
Q227 Chairman: When you were doing
the job, did you know that you were going to publish this?
Mr Price: No, I did not. I was
keeping a diary because it was a fascinating period in my life.
I certainly had in the back of my mind the thought that I might
publish some sort of book, and I do not resile from that in any
way at all. As I said in my opening remarks, I was a journalist
before I went into government as a temporary civil servant and
journalists tend to make their living by words. I know this strays
into other areas that the Committee is interested in, but I think
when special advisers leave they tend to go back into the professions
they had when they started.
Q228 Chairman: I was trying to work
this out reading the book because at the beginning you say that
you kept the diary with no intention that it should be published
and a bit later on you say you had a vague intention and then
you quote Alastair Campbell in the context of someone else who
may be disclosing information, saying that Alastair said as a
result, "life is on the record, so I guess it will now be
okay for me to publish my full and frank account of life at Number
10exclamation mark". This was in 1999. You clearly
had a view that you were going to publish.
Mr Price: I hope I made that clear
in my last answer. I kept a diary because it was a record of what
was going on in government and in my life at the time but, yes,
I always had in the back of my mind the thought that I might publish
a book of some sort. I certainly did not expect it to be the book
that is now in your hands, which is the actual diary I wrote when
I went home. If I had done, I think I might have crafted my words
a bit more carefully and I might have thought how they might appear
in print and I might have used fewer exclamation marks.
Q229 Chairman: You heard Andrew Turnbull
say this morning it was kind of office gossip and he thought that
was something that was completely off-limits in terms of the kind
of role that you were doing. I was struck by the bit where it
says that people are getting very twitchy about Geoffrey Robinson
producing his book: "Prescott fired a warning shot in his
end of conference speech on Thursday saying, `Everybody from top
to bottom', which he repeated twice, `should not fuel the froth
in books and the media'" and you say, "Quite right too".
Mr Price: I think the principal
point that I would come back to on that is the one of the passage
of time. Had I left Downing Street and immediately published a
book of this kind people would have had very legitimate criticisms
about that. I think there comes a time, as previous witnesses
to this Committee have acknowledged, when what is day-to-day gossip,
or tittle-tattle if you like, the day-to-day events of politics
become part of contemporary history. The question is at what point
do you accept that it becomes acceptable to publish. My overall
view on that is that within the initial period after leaving government,
although I speak in this case as a special adviser, I am not sure
whether you can apply the same rules to ministers or to career
civil servants, during which there is a presumption that things
should remain private and confidential unless there is a very
good reason why they should be made public. That does not apply
to everything and it certainly does not apply to material that
was already in the public domain. I think there does come a point
at which the argument almost flips over at which point it is fair
to say that there is a presumption that there is no reason why
stuff should not be published unless it can be demonstrated that
it will do harm. I do not believe, as I said earlier, that anyone
has yet been able to demonstrate that the book that I have published
has done harm.
Q230 Chairman: But you were working
in Number 10 for the Prime Minister, the Prime Minister is still
in office, and obviously people will say that is a betrayal of
trust. You were sharing in office confidences all the time and
you have written them down and you have published them. Is it
not the truth that in order to reap any reward from this you had
to publish them before Alastair Campbell published his?
Mr Price: I would not deny that
was a consideration that I bore in mind. People have repeatedly
said it will be impossible for meetings to be conducted in Downing
Street, or anywhere else for that matter, if people are aware
that somebody around the table is keeping a diary. Throughout
my time in Number 10 people were aware that Alastair Campbellmy
bosswas keeping a diary; the Prime Minister was aware of
that. At many of the meetings that I have recounted and events
that I have described in the book, Alastair was present at the
same meetings. It would not have been possible for me to have
included them in my book if people had been intimidated from behaving
and expressing themselves because of Alastair's presence; they
were not. I think it is a fact of life in government these days
that everyone is aware of, that people may wish to write something
after they leave government at some point, and it has gone on
for a very, very long time. There has been a good and fine tradition
of political memoirs and diaries. Anthony Seldon said to me: "The
best of those books are the ones written by advisers because those
are the most illuminating, they are not written by politicians
who have an agenda or who wish to restore their credibility or
set the record straight or enhance their own role in things".
I do not think my book tries to do that on my part at all. I was
also conscious, in the absence of advice from the Cabinet Secretary,
of the precedent, if you like, of books that had previously been
published. There were books published by special advisers, there
was one published by Jonathan Hill and Sarah Hogg, who worked
for John Major, which was published while John Major was still
Prime Minister. That book was broadly supportive of John Major
and what had been going on in government, but it did reveal what
was going on behind closed doors. I was aware of that precedent
and I was aware of other books that had been written. I was aware
of Bernard Ingham and I was aware, as your question implies, that
my boss, Alastair Campbell, might be writing a book as well.
Q231 Chairman: Your job was about
managing news and managing events, including events like this.
Just give us a flavour of what it would be like in Downing Street
when your book was published?
Mr Price: What I think it was
like when my book was published?
Q232 Chairman: Yes. There were incidents
all the way along and your business was to manage the incidents.
How would Number 10 have been managing the appearance of your
Mr Price: I think they managed
the appearance of my book with the utmost skill. They did exactly
what I would have done in the circumstances, which was they said
virtually nothing and they were not spoiling for a fight. They
were conscious of the fact that the more they reacted against
it, the more publicity there would be for it, and I am sure my
publishers would have been delighted if I had been condemned from
on high for doing so. They did not do that. I hope that wiser
heads in Downing Street would have recognised, although I am sure
they regretted the publication of the book and did not think that
books like this were always appropriate, that what it contained
did not do any harm. There was not any big new scandal, no politicians
were chased down the road by the television cameras demanding
their resignation, and nobody had to make statements in the House
explaining anything. It is a very frank and very honest book about
how life in Number 10 goes on. It shows politicians not just as
politicians but also as human beings capable of making mistakes
and capable of learning from those mistakes. I think that the
British people are adult enough to be able to see their politicians
in that light without it doing any harm to their reputations.
Q233 Chairman: You do not think any
damage is being done to the conduct of government at all if it
is known that people working at the centre, sharing confidences,
five minutes later will be publishing these to make some money
out of it?
Mr Price: I have to take issue
with five minutes later. Had I walked out of Number 10 every night
and given my diary under a false name and published it in the
Evening Standard or something, of course that would be
outrageous, that would be five minutes later. Had I published
the book a year later or 18 months later when a lot of the issues
that were being discussed in my book, or issues that were going
on when the actual diary entries were written, were still live
and had not been resolveddevolution, the London Mayor,
whatever it might have beenthere would have been serious
questions to be asked. As I said in one of my earlier answers,
I think there comes a point at which it shifts from a sense that
absolutely everything must remain confidential, to "show
me what harm this would do if it was put into the public domain
and we can talk about it". The problem that I had in the
process was that nobody was willing to engage in that process
and show me what harm was likely to be done, so I had to make
the judgment myself.
Q234 Chairman: Because they thought
the project itself was unacceptable?
Mr Price: They did, and I disagreed
with them, and I think I had the support of the legal advice that
we then sought. If they thought it was unacceptable, we should
have had a mature and sensible discussion about it, there should
have been some explanation as to why, and we should have had some
mechanism by which we could explore whether it would be possible
to produce a book, whether now or at a time in the future, that
Q235 Kelvin Hopkins: Do you know
who leaked the outtakes that appeared?
Mr Price: I have my views on that.
One of my jobs when I worked at Number 10not my favourite
jobevery Saturday was to ring round all the Sunday papers
and ask them what was going to be on their front pages the following
day, the critical stories they were covering. It astonished me
that any respectable journalist ever told me an answer to that
question, but most of them did. The one paper that never would
was the Mail on Sunday. The Saturday before the first serialisation
of my book, I smiled to myself and thought "For the first
time in my life I am going to ring the Mail on Sunday and
ask them what is in their paper tomorrow and they are going to
tell me the truth", and they did not. They obfuscated and
hummed and hawed and the right people to talk to were not there,
someone was on holiday or playing golf. The first I knew that
what you describe as the "outtakes" from the book, which
is to say the parts I had agreed with the Cabinet Office to remove
or to change, were to appear in print was when the Mail on
Sunday sent by dispatch rider photocopied proofs of the newspaper
on that Saturday evening.
Q236 Kelvin Hopkins: There is a suggestion
in our papers that the outtakes were circulating in 10 Downing
Street. Is it possible that somebody from Downing Street leaked
Mr Price: There are two possibilities
in my view. The newspapers were invited to read the text that
was being submitted to the Cabinet Office before that process
of negotiation was complete, but they were invited to do so under
a strict confidentiality agreement which made it clear that in
the event of them becoming the serialising newspaper, the only
material to which they had rights was the final agreed text. At
the same time as this process was going on, the revised text that
I had submitted to Downing Street, that is to say after the changes
I had made on legal advice, was circulated very widely. It is
not for me to say what rights the Cabinet Office have to circulate
material. They sent it to people who were mentioned in the book
but I had calls from people who were outside of government, and
had been outside of government for some time, who clearly had
been shown parts of the book. I was aware of the fact that a lot
of people in Downing Street were reading it. There was a very
short paragraph, which I think I mentioned in the memorandum that
I sent to you before appearing, in the Mail on Sunday's
coverage which sort of implied that there were lots of copies
around and they might have got it that way. I cannot prove one
way or the other how the Mail on Sunday got that material.
All I can tell you is they did not get it from us. When Lord Turnbull
said this morning that the Cabinet Office had been double-crossed,
I hope that was not a reference either to me or to my publishers
because it would be a very unfair reference.
Q237 Kelvin Hopkins: It suggests
the whole thing is rather porous and, in fact, one might say poisonous,
the fact that there are clearly people up to mischief at the highest
level using these things for their own purposes.
Mr Price: The highest level of
Q238 Kelvin Hopkins: Is that not
symptomatic of the kind of politics we live with nowadays?
Mr Price: I would take a judgment
that what appeared in the Mail on Sunday on that first
day of serialisation tells you more about the media and their
ethics than it does about what you describe as people in high
Q239 Kelvin Hopkins: If people do
not speak to the media they do not know.
Mr Price: I have given you two
examples of how the Mail on Sunday might have got hold
of that material. I am not persuaded that it was given to them
by anybody who would have been shown the text from government.
I cannot see what their motivation would have been.