It’s always diverting when a respectable looking stone is lifted and a writhing heap of worms is revealed beneath. This is what has happened during the past week, when the blogosphere scored its first major hit and the shameful Downing Street spin operation was exposed in all its squalor. Not that the dodgy characters involved went to any trouble to conceal their nefarious activities, many of which appear to have been blatantly trumpeted around various Whitehall hostelries.
The true significance of Guido Fawkes’s coup, however, has not been to show up the vacuity of Gordon Brown’s vaunted ‘moral compass’, but to nail the vapid sycophancy and hypocrisy of the mainstream print and broadcasting media’s ‘lobby system’. One of the funniest spin-offs of last week’s pantomime has been the procession of broadsheet lobby correspondents fulminating about the vileness of the disgraced Damian McBride who for years had been their main conduit to the Prime Minister. Now that he is no longer their feeding hand they tumble over one another to bite and maul him.
Governments have always sought to muzzle the press – it is natural and inevitable for them to do so – and the lobby, supposedly a discreet mechanism for privileged access to ministers by trustworthy fearless fact-finders of the proudly independent Fourth Estate, has since at least the 1930s devoted itself all too willingly to the role of pliant poodle, as James Margach chronicles in his book Abuse of Power: the war between Downing Street and the media (1978).
I was nearly twelve when Britain declared war on Germany in 1939. I can still remember the tired, flat voice of our Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, announcing the failure of all his efforts to appease the unappeasable:
“It is the evil things that we shall be fighting against – brute force, bad faith, injustice, oppression and persecution.”
What most of us didn’t know then, or until long afterwards, was that Chamberlain himself was not above using bad faith and dirty tricks in pursuing what he sincerely believed to be a virtuous path. In crafting his personally conceived and executed appeasement policy, Chamberlain took great pains to lean on the press far more heavily than any of his predecessors had done. From the time he took over the premiership from Baldwin in May 1937, determined to avert war by placating Hitler to the utmost in the vain – and vainglorious - belief that he single-handedly could tame the Nazis, Chamberlain concentrated great efforts to ensure that the bulk of the British press went along with him.
He did this partly by frequent personal contacts at ministerial level with newspaper proprietors, and even more assiduously through the Downing Street Press Office run on his behalf by a civil servant who was also a Chamberlain loyalist, George Steward, whose job was not only to ensure that the press was constantly fed the Prime Minister’s views and his opponents inside and beyond the Conservative Party briefed against, but also to leak to a contact at the German Embassy Chamberlain’s private thoughts and views about the utterances of the British press.
As Richard Cockett chronicles in Twilight of Truth: Chamberlain, Appeasement and the Manipulation of the Press  the reason why Chamberlain laid such great emphasis on press manipulation was because he had been informed by Lord Halifax after his meetings with Hitler and Goebbels in Berlin in November 1937 that the Führer was extremely sensitive to criticism of the Nazi regime in the British press, and particularly to personal attacks upon himself - notably in the cartoons of David Low; and that any improvement in Anglo-German relations depended upon such criticisms being muted. Steward was therefore deputed to assure the Germans that the premier was doing all in his power to damp down such criticisms, even to the extent of “ignoring the provisions of the British Constitution and customary Cabinet usage”.
But besides Steward, Chamberlain had an even more shadowy and sinister helper in this enterprise in the shape of Sir Joseph Ball (1885-1961), who is described in the Dictionary of National Biography as “a quintessential eminence grise” whose influence cannot be measured by the brevity of the printed references to him. “Moving for most if his life in the shadow of events and deeply averse to publicity of any sort he gave very little away and accounts of his career …are curt and uninformative.“
Ball was in fact one of Chamberlain’s few personal intimates, and they used to spend fly-fishing holidays together. The scanty available facts make him sound like a character out of a novel by John Buchan or ‘Sapper’. After working at Scotland Yard, he joined MI5 at the outbreak of war in 1914 and rose to be head of its investigation branch, remaining in the secret service until 1927, when he joined the Conservative Party as Director of Publicity, later becoming the first Director of the Conservative Research Department. The party chairman who recruited him, Lord Davidson, said that Ball was “steeped in the Service tradition, and has had as much experience as anyone I know in the seamy side of life and the handling of crooks.” An experienced ‘spook’ as well as extremely right wing, Ball did not scruple to use dirty tricks and espionage, successfully planting agents in Labour Party headquarters and Odhams Press, which did most of Labour’s printing, so that he obtained advance intelligence of Labour’s plans.
An ardent supporter of Chamberlain’s appeasement policies, Ball not only sometimes briefed the Lobby on Chamberlain’s behalf; he also engaged in dirty tricks against Chamberlain’s critics inside the Conservative Party – the anti-appeasers grouped round the recently resigned Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, and Winston Churchill. As Ball later admitted to one of them, their telephones were tapped, and their reputations were smeared in Truth, the formerly radical weekly paper which had been founded by Henry Labouchere but which Ball had clandestinely purchased. Eden was derided in its pages as “emotionally unstable” [we’ve heard that before somewhere!] and his group were sneeringly dubbed “the glamour boys”. One of them, Harold Nicolson, drily noted in his Diary that ‘the rude article about me in Truth saying that I have “the mincing manner of a French salon”, that I lack virility and should retire from public life and bury myself in books…was all rather true, I suppose”.
Truth - and Ball – were also virulently anti-Semitic. They blamed opposition to Chamberlain’s policies on ‘Jewish-Communist influences’. Leslie Hore-Belisha – he of the beacons – who resigned as Chamberlain’s Minister of War, was fiercely attacked by Truth for alleged dodgy financial dealings and as a ‘war monger’ (which, as there was a war on, he should have been).
It would be enlightening to know what Ball’s true role was in the politics of the 1920s and ‘30s; but he was careful to cover his tracks and destroyed almost all his personal and business papers. He remained unshakeably pro-Chamberlain and anti-Churchill even after the latter had become Prime Minister in the crisis of May 1940. Just before Chamberlain died, later that year, Ball wrote to him exulting over their close association “in your great search for peace”. He was, he said, determined that come what may the full great truth about Chamberlain’s sustained effort to save the peace of the world should be told. History, however, has pronounced a different verdict.
There is nothing new under the sun. Spin is as old as the hills. Chamberlain had his Ball. Brown has his Balls. For how much longer?