Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220 - 239)



  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 else—that responsibility is entirely mine—but 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 learned.

  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 it—this book does not have an agenda—a 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 10—exclamation 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 Campbell—my boss—was 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 book?

  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 resolved—devolution, the London Mayor, whatever it might have been—there 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 was acceptable.

  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 10—not my favourite job—every 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 them?

  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 what?

  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 places.

  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.

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