BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 16.06.02

Interview: JOHN REID MP, Northern Ireland Secretary.

Has the Government mishandled the row over the Queen Mother's funeral.

JOHN HUMPHRYS: Good afternoon, Dr Reid. JOHN REID MP: Hi John. HUMPHRYS: Now, let's deal with what's possibly the most serious new detail to emerge this morning and that is that Black Rod told the Press Complaints Commission that Number Ten had put him under sustained and constant pressure. Now that has been denied right from the beginning by Number Ten and now we have it from Black Rod himself. REID: John, can I first of all say through you, to your viewers, that if they are bemused that we are leading the programme, not on the problems of Northern Ireland or the other big issues, but on this sort of playground gossip, we have just had to listen to, then it's not by my choice. I want to make that absolutely plain. I'd rather be talking about Northern Ireland... HUMPHRYS: And indeed, we shall be talking about Northern Ireland very soon, yeah. REID: Yes we will but we're leading the programme on this sort of, as I said, schoolboy tittle-tattle. HUMPHRYS: Sorry, before you leave that...hang on, if I may, accept that I'd just like to point out that if it is only schoolboy tittle-tattle, why did the Prime Minister himself choose to make a statement about it on Friday and then issue a twenty-nine page document. Odd thing to do if it's only schoolboy tittle-tattle. REID: John, I think you should let your viewers decide whether the last ten minutes has benefited either them or politics. As far as the facts are concerned of this issue, if we have to deal with it. The first fact is this, that there is now no suggestion, contrary to all the headlines in this story, that the Prime Minister muscled in on the Queen Mother's funeral. That was offensive and untrue when it was said and I'm glad that it's now accepted that that isn't true. Secondly, as regards the civil servants and the so-called inundating with pressure, I understand this was a series of about twelve phone calls. I asked my civil servants this morning to give me an estimate of how many phone calls were made in connection with a half day visit I made to Jersey three days ago. They've estimated that with the protection team, with the private authors and with the press, about fifty to sixty phone calls were made. So the civil servants acted with complete integrity and Tim Collins shows that he has no, absolutely no idea of how government works, where the logistics of an operation like this have to be dealt with. And the third thing is this, Sir Michael has made it absolutely clear... HUMPHRYS: Black Rod. REID: ..that he was not asked to..he was not asked to change any arrangements and any arrangements that were made, whatever they were to be, would have included Iain Duncan Smith, the leader of the Conservative Party as well as the Prime Minister himself. So this whole story, which originally started in a right wing journal, edited by a Conservative MP, not just a Conservative supporter, has now been thrown into the agenda because there are elements of the press who quite frankly want to regard themselves as the opposition because every time you have a Conservative spokesman on television, they studiously avoid talking about any of the issues which are really important to people in this country and have one agenda which is to involve themselves in either character assassination to get at the Prime Minister, either through his wife, or through his advisors and now through his civil servants. HUMPHRYS: Well, just dealing with the number of phone calls, just a comment on that. The...Black Rod's deputy, Yeoman Usher Brigadier Hedley Duncan, himself says that they were inundated with phone calls. So clearly their office were very seriously taken aback by the amount of pressure from Number Ten. And the other point is, that if you are... REID: Can I just answer that. I mean I don't...can I just answer that, it's a very good point. I mean I don't know Brigadier Hedley Duncan I have to say, I know Mike Willcocks, worked with him when I was a minister and had a very good working relationship. I don't know how often they deal with Downing Street. I understand from press reports that they hardly ever deal with Downing Street. If he understands, if he feels that getting a dozen phone calls over six days is the height of pressure that can be brought on logistic operations on a major state occasion, then I think that's a misunderstanding. I can tell you, as I said, that I carried out, a rough I admit, a rough estimate... HUMPHRYS: ..yes you said. REID: ..a rough estimate of the number of phone calls made for me, and I'm not the Prime Minister, for a half day visit to Jersey and it is many times this number of phone calls. The suggestion that this was inordinate pressure by civil servants is ludicrous, they acted with complete integrity and asked all the right questions. HUMPRYS: Yeah, but you see Black Rod's memo itself says sustained and constant pressure, Downing Street have told us half a dozen phone calls at most. Then we learn from Black Rod that it was sustained and constant pressure, we hear what the Brigadier had to say, we hear that Simon Virley somebody from Mr Blair's office, himself went to see Black Rod's office. And the point is this isn't it, that if you were so confident, that if Number Ten were so confident that there was no case to answer here, why was the complaint effectively withdrawn from the PCC. Isn't the reality, that when you knew what was going to come out of the memo, that Black Rod himself had written, you knew that you didn't have a case and that it would be too embarrassing and too damaging. I say you, I mean collectively Number Ten. REID: Alright, let me answer your questions in sequence. If somebody feels that that number of phone calls is undue pressure, they were inundated because there was six or twelve phone calls. I mean that's someone's feeling, I can't speak for that, if..all I can say is give you the reality of government. That it is not unusual when you are even the Northern Ireland Secretary and you have a private office, a press office, you have protection teams, you have Detective Sergeants, right up to you know senior civil servants, you know twelve phone calls, you know if somebody feels that, that is being inundated, fair enough. The second thing you said, is that there was a visit, there was a visit by a civil servant, not a political, they didn't make the phone calls, not special advisors, there was a visit to inform, as I understand it, Black Rod, of the Press Complaints Commission move that had been made. And the third question you asked is, why was that taken, why was that dropped, it was dropped because the substantial reason for taking it in the first place was the innuendo, and it was no more than that but it was branded in huge headlines that the Prime Minister had intervened in order to muscle in on the Queen Mother's funeral when it made plain that there was no a shred of evidence for that and there's not. I mean I listened to Peter Oborne and his pathetic justification that someone had phoned on the day of the funeral. I understand that this was a member of the protection team, a policeman who had phoned. So presumably, they are now part of this great Downing Street machine. I'm sorry this...there's actually a much more important question here John and that's about the relationship between the press and government. We now live in an era of twenty-four hour a day media. There is constant pressure and I understand this on journalists, lobby journalists in particular, to have stories, particularly in the press because they are trying to anticipate what's coming up because by the time they print their newspapers it's been on television programmes and constant news. So therefore, there is a lot of pressure on government to provide stories. We do our best to put that information out, but we are now in a position where having been demanded that we supply the information and stories, the press, or certain elements of the press are trying to run an agenda which says that this is in itself wrong. We need to rebuild that relationship because you know at the end of the day, both government and the press are absolutely essential for a good functioning democracy and if that isn't working well, the people who lose out are actually the electorate, the ordinary members of the public, who are interested in their health, in their education and the peace process in Northern Ireland and must be utterly bemused about the minutia into which we are now descending. HUMPHRYS: Yes, but you'd have to accept that this thing has been handled staggeringly badly from Number Ten's point of view. If the story was as trivial and as unimportant as you've said in the first place, then why was it taken to the Press Complaints Commission, that's a nuclear option. Why didn't they simply, why didn't Number Ten simply issue all the documents relating to it, a list right at the very, very beginning and say look, here's what happened, let people judge for themselves and then, why after it was all over, did they try, after the complaint had gone in to the Press Complaints Commission, why did they try to bully Black Rod into supporting their version of events. That's what makes people's eyebrows raise a little bit. REID: John, that's an entirely fair question, why does something as small as this require to go to the Press Complaints Commission and the answer is quite simple, that although this is a non-story, it was raised to the level of a grievous and offensive charge, that on a great state occasion, involving the Queen Mother's funeral, that the Prime Minister or the politicals around him, had muscled in to try and use this, presumably for party political advantage, although as we all now know, whatever the arrangements would have been Iain Duncan Smith would have been standing shoulder to shoulder in all of them with the Prime Minister. So although it is a minor thing, it was offensive as well as untrue. That is why it was taken to the Press Complaints Commission. When it was discovered at the Press Complaints Commission that no evidence to substantiate that innuendo and allegation had been submitted, then it was withdrawn. Having withdrawn it of course, some of the elements of the press then decide to make that a huge issue and that's why we've spent, instead of talking about life and death in Northern Ireland, we've spent twenty minutes on the lead item, on the flagship programme of the BBC, discussing an issue which quite frankly is of utter irrelevance to the vast majority. HUMPHRYS: I repeat what I said at the very beginning, it wouldn't possibly have happened this way if we....if Tony Blair hadn't reacted the way he did on Friday. But shouldn't he now do what the Tories are saying, release all the documents involved in this, make a statement if necessary, in the House himself and shouldn't Alastair Campbell perhaps, as they say, consider his position. REID: Well John, you don't even see the irony of what you are saying to me, your last question implied, in fact made explicit, that we were quite wrong to raise this to the level of taking it to the Press Complaints Commission. Now you are saying shouldn't we be taking it to the floor of the House and have the Prime Minister make a statement. I mean we are trying to cope with a Health Service that needs improved, a war against terrorism, putting the...When I put to Jersey with the Prime Minister the other day, I can assure you that Afghanistan, the war against terrorism and Northern Ireland were foremost in his mind. But the idea that on the basis of no allegation now that he intervened in any way, no evidence to that effect, that he should suddenly go to Parliament and make a statement, thus raising and continuing this issue again, is to me completely to get the priorities of the people of this country and Parliament wrong. It doesn't surprise me, however, that the Conservatives want to do that because they have nothing whatsoever to say on the major issues. HUMPHRYS: John Reid, thanks very much indeed. We'll be returning to you to talk about Northern Ireland indeed very soon, many thanks.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.