Thatcher’s legacy to political journalism: the power of image and simplicity

is director of OffspinMedia and a former Today editor

It is a statement of the obvious: just as Margaret Thatcher changed Britain and British politics for ever, she changed our political journalism for ever, too.

Not in the way New Labour did by ‘creating the truth’, putting the word ‘spin’ into everyone’s vocabulary and creating the expectation that a political statement was a deception until proved otherwise.

Mrs Thatcher transformed our political journalism by learning the power of the image and the power of the simple. It was a transformation that inadvertently - and paradoxically - created the vacuous political journalism of the past two decades.

More than any previous British prime minister, with the exception of Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher learnt that image was everything. And that at times image wasn’t just a way of presenting the politics: it was the politics.

She understood, too, that image came by default or by choice - so best make it by choice.

Image came from what you said and how you said it: how you sounded; how you looked; how you made sure you were seen where and how you wanted to be, with the props you chose.

Holding that calf. ‘Driving’ that tank. Scuttling, handbag primed, to lay down the law in Europe. Nothing was allowed to happen by chance. ‘Brand Thatcher’.

None of it came instinctively to her. She had to learn it. Learn how a small number of simple, consistent images defined all that she was - politically, at least.

Much the same was true of her knack of reducing the fantastically complex - the money supply, the Cold War, Europe, the notions of sovereignty, society and state - to the fanatically simple. She created big, bold shapes in big, bold primary colours and, like the image, never out of control.

Where her intellectual lieutenant in chief, Sir Keith Joseph, would tie ideas in knots that even he couldn’t always undo, Mrs Thatcher would find the thread that everyone could grasp. And once she found that thread she would lash interviewers with it mercilessly.

I met her a few times in the early years of her first term, producing set-piece interviews. In spite of her sincere, kitchen-table courtesy and fussing efforts to put us at our ease, I’ve never felt more intimidated.

Even the great (Sir) Robin Day fidgeted like a schoolboy beforehand. He was her intellectual equal and more. But like most interviewers and most journalists he found her certainties almost impossible to deal with. And he never really forgave her for calling him ‘Mr Day’ throughout one interview soon after he’d been knighted.

For Mrs Thatcher the upside of her big-button politics was that she captured the aspirations of all those working-class families who began to see themselves as middle-class. Three thumping general election victories were proof of that.

The downside was a Manichaean division of politics into light and dark; ‘one of us’ versus ‘the enemy within’; ‘wet’ versus ‘dry’ - a division that persists to this day and goes some way to explaining the visceral reaction to her name, often from those too young to have any memory of the 1980s.

Behind all this were some of the sharpest media operators of the age - not all of whom were natural political soulmates. Chris Patten, for example, wrote some of her best lines, certainly early on. Not all of which she ‘got’ but delivered nonetheless with the certainty of one who’d written the jokes herself.

Gordon Reece and Harvey Thomas were coach, producer and director to the ‘big events’. And then there was Sir Bernard - bluff, blunt Sir Bernard Ingham, her spokesman. He was a man of muscular loyalty but a civil servant to the end - unlike the political apparatchiks of New Labour - who served Labour ministers before Mrs Thatcher and always insisted he was the voice of the office of prime minister; not his boss’s partisan mouthpiece.

There was some truth in that. And while he would lean heavily from time to time on the Chinese wall that separated state from party, he never brought it down - a respect for the integrity of government that his New Labour successors could never quite understand.

Mrs Thatcher’s was the last generation of great political oratory. True, politics was beginning its migration into the TV and radio studio in the 1980s. But words delivered on the floor of the House or from a podium still mattered - more than those hosed on to the studio floor or dropped from the corner of the mouth into the ear of one of that secret brotherhood, the Parliamentary Lobby.

During the first weeks of the Falklands War there were no daily reports from the front-line. The debates in the House were all we had. And those speeches mattered.

On Europe, too, whether it was that “No! No! No!” speech (was there really only the one?) or at Bruges, or her valedictory “I’m enjoying this” as she gave Europe another thumping, speeches mattered.

And it wasn’t only Mrs Thatcher’s. Chancellor Nigel Lawson’s resignation statement - sunk, he believed by a “singularly ill-concealed iceberg” - had us gathered round the TV.

Speeches mattered, as did her foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe’s departing description of life negotiating in Europe as being “rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain”.

Her legacy to her successor, (Sir) John Major, was brutal - knife-wielding politics in the open. Unsurprisingly, we journalists had a field day as ministers eschewed stabbing one another in the back, preferring a stiletto in the sternum.  

That legacy established the new rules of political journalism, rules that defined New Labour and the current generation.

Suffocating control of image and messages became a given. Ersatz unity a sine qua non - ditto today’s hollowed out political parties, devoid of ideology, debate or anything resembling political oratory. Why make speeches when a carefully controlled sound bite - repeated over and over in an interview if necessary - controlled the message by rendering it as minimal as possible?

It’s a paradox. Britain has rarely seen a conviction politician like Baroness Thatcher. She was both ideological and pragmatic, believed polarisation was the purpose of political debate and that winning the argument was all.

And yet her legacy was neutered politics and vapid political journalism. Labour’s divisions had made it unelectable for a generation. Tory divisions over Europe, ditto for 13 years. Unity trumped ideology - ‘what we mustn’t say’ more important than ‘what we must say’.

Where there was no ideology, no genuine debate and wafer thin differences between the major parties, political journalism became as relevant to the lives of most voters as medieval theology, and as arcane. Some paradox.