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The importance of meeting politicians personally


Being supported by John Freeman
Anthony Howard Writer
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I think I owe John Freeman quite a lot, who took me on at the New Statesman, too. John was a very cold fish. He wasn’t at all… warmth, no warmth in that personality. He was rather… anyone who watches Face to Face can probably see for themselves because he used to have people like Gilbert Harding reduced to tears and that kind of thing. But he could be very funny and he had a gift of self-mockery and above all, he was very loyal. And if you got into trouble, he really stood up for you.

I remember once, and I think it must have been about quite early on when I was on the [New] Statesman, probably '62, I’d written a column. There were some nuclear tests going on in Nevada, I think, which were to test the… I think the American bomb, don’t think it was the British bomb, but I’d written that the left-wing Labour backbenchers had not been at all reassured to learn that these past few days, Mr Harold Wilson, who wasn’t then leader, has been entirely preoccupied with the affairs of the Public Accounts committee, of which he was Chairman. And I can remember... hear it now because I think I was in the room, in the editor’s office, and the phone rang, it was probably Monday, and I gathered from John’s side of the conversation this was Harold Wilson and he said, ‘Look, it’s a very serious matter. It’s bound to be a breach of privilege. I’ll do my best, but I think I must insist that you print in the next issue a full retraction and apology for what Tony Howard so irresponsibly said. The Public Accounts Committee doesn’t exist. You know, people aren’t… no one has been meeting and this an absolute clear-cut case of breach of privilege.’ And I remember John saying, ‘Howard, am I to believe what I think I’m hearing?’ And this kind of thing. Anyway, he sent him away with a flea in his ear and we never heard another word about it, so he was quite tough in that way, John. Of course, it was a help to him that he’d been a politician himself, he’d been a Labour MP from 1945 to 1955. He’d been a junior minister. He even resigned with Harold Wilson and with Nye Bevan in 1951 over the cost of the Rearmament Programme, so he knew how to look after himself. And he was a very successful editor. I mean, he took the paper… well, he didn’t actually take it because his successor got the benefit of it, Paul Johnson, but he took the paper from a circulation when he took over of about, I don’t know 72,000 to 94,000 or thereabouts and everyone in those days who cared about politics, sort of, or was involved in politics, really did, I think, read the New Statesman. Not only that, it also had a great appeal abroad, that all the emerging African leaders, people like Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, even I think Hastings Banda of Nyasaland, they all were, sort of, New Statesman subscribers. And that was a great help to me, when I became political columnist on it because I, you know, very again… like when I went to lobby for Reynold's, I knew no one and very, very little about anything.

I remember in the first week I was there, I wrote to… then, I think, he was the Tory, probably, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Iain Macleod. And I wrote, ‘Dear Mr Macleod, I wonder if sometime I could come and see you. I am just starting out writing this column in the New Statesman and I know nothing about the Conservative Party and I’d be most grateful if you would give me some instruction'. Typical Macleod, he wrote back, ‘Dear Howard, no one who wrote the column you did last week can possibly claim to know nothing about the Conservative Party.’ Anyway, he was very kind and he asked me to tea and had me round and all that kind of thing. And I got to know him very well and I think he saw me as much as he saw any other journalist. And it took years for the penny to drop with me but I finally realised that what Ian Macleod, who was a very clever politician, bridge player, saw, was that one sure means he had of communicating to the emerging African leaders that he was on the side of light and that he was a good chap, was to get a good write-up in the New Statesman because he knew that people like Kenneth Kaunda and Julius Nyerere, he knew they read it and it was their Bible. And I’m sure and it didn’t occur to me at the time, that one of the reasons why he was so free with his time with me and so ready to help was that here was he trying to bring forward the decolonisation of these countries in southern Africa and the one thing he had to make sure was that the African leaders, the emerging African leaders, believed in what he was doing and believed that he was somebody they could trust. So I think that was why but he was very generous to me, as indeed was Reggie Maudling, who took over from him when Macleod was made Chairman of the Party and leader of the House of Commons, and I saw a lot of Reggie in those days.

I never, to my regret, saw Harold Macmillan, who was Prime Minister. Years later, Harold Evans... not the Harold Evans who edited The Sunday Times but a civil servant in Number 10, who was actually Harold Macmillan’s press secretary, said to me, ‘Why didn’t you, when you were writing that column in the New Statesman, why didn’t you ever ask to see the Prime Minister?’ I said, ‘Well, I didn’t think he’d ever see me'. He said, ‘You couldn’t have been more wrong. He’d have loved to have seen you'. And I think I ought to have spotted that, that here was a man who was a publisher, after all, and therefore knew about papers like the New Statesman, and I think he also, because he was a bit of a snob, he thought it was nice to sort of see some journalists who were graduates and this kind of thing. And so he would… I think he probably would have seen me but I never even asked and I always regretted that.

A distinguished British political observer, Anthony Howard (1934-2010) wrote for 'The Guardian', 'The Sunday Times' and 'The Observer' for over 40 years, during which time he has commented on the historical significance of global political issues. He was also editor of 'The Listener' and 'The New Statesman', and a reporter on both 'Newsnight' and 'Panorama'. He was awarded the CBE in 1997.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: New Statesman, Face to Face Reynold's News The Sunday Times, John Horace Freeman, Gilbert Charles Harding, James Harold Wilson, Nye Bevan, Aneurin Bevan, Paul Bede Johnson, Julius Kambarage Nyerere, Kenneth David Buchizya Kaunda, Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Iain Norman Macleod, Reginald Maudling, Maurice Harold Macmillan, Harold Evans

Duration: 5 minutes, 38 seconds

Date story recorded: November - December 2008

Date story went live: 24 November 2009