Many British journalists are so keen to have a good story to run, they are easily bought off and distracted by government spin doctors who can get them to ditch an unwanted story as long as the spin doctor has a better story to offer up as journalistic payment. That is the basic story of Damian McBride’s book Power Trip: A decade of policy, plots and spin.
Even allowing for the usual pattern of people talking up their own achievements in their memoirs, and even allowing for the fact that people on all sides – in Labour and out of Labour, in the press and in parties, have labelled him as a one-off talent (frequently with accompanying derogatory adjective) – it is still a far less flattering portrait of the state of British journalism than you would guess from the reviews of his book written by political journalists. Those reviews neither attack the book for unfairly smearing their profession nor admit embarrassment at the state of their profession, but rather have pretty much all just ignored what he has to say about them.
Whether or not you find the critical picture painted in McBride’s book an accurate account of the state of British political journalism, the fact that the profession has reacted with a collective ‘meh, nothing to see here’, suggests he does raise issues that some would rather not face up to.
In amongst his frequent accounts of how he saved the day for Labour politicians, McBride ironically offers up a defence of those journalists he has just told us he so frequently manipulated. They were all under great pressure to run stories, so if he had a ready supply of good stories for them, is it any wonder they were often willing to go along with his suggestions about what stories to ditch in order to get a good story handed out by him all neatly packaged and in good time for their deadlines?
Some of the culture he describes is distinctly unflattering, especially the heavy drinking both on his side of the fence: “I was practically encouraged to take thirsty journos for the boozy lunches, long afternoons in the pub and late-night karaoke sessions that led to strong relationships and the open sharing of intelligence … The occasions when I couldn’t remember the previous night’s events became more frequent and more worrying … Even when – as a special adviser – I had a one-sided physical altercation with a civil servant … and Gordon [Brown] was told to speak to me about it, he addressed it bashfully in terms of me having a bad temper, not being a bad drunk”.
If you think that someone shouldn’t regularly be drunk on the job, then Ed Balls comes out of the book very poorly for frequently knowing that McBride was heavily inebriated during working hours but seemingly never doing anything about it other than at times finding it amusing. McBride does not criticise Balls on this score, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that a better colleague and a better advisor to his boss would have taken McBride’s drinking rather more seriously.
There are legitimate grounds for sympathy with the difficulties of working culture in which McBride found himself. Not just the normality of heavy drinking but also the always-on intensive pressure which meant even heading to a funeral did not stop the phone calls. (The personal pressures involved reminded me of similar accounts in former Labour general secretary Peter Watt’s memoirs, with him taking phone calls on his wedding day.)
The book pulls its punches in a few places. Essentially if a journalist is praised, they get named, but where they might come out poorly from an account (such as an undue willingness to take the McBride spin on a story), they do not get named. As a result, even within the same paragraph, Damian McBride switches from naming to not naming the people he is talking about. Yet even a pulled punch from McBride leaves an awful lot in the account, making it one of those few books which really does deserve the label of being an essential account of what goes on inside politics.
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Note: a review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.