Government Information Service
- Keith McDowall of the Daily Mail was media minder for Willie Whitelaw, Michael Foot and a range of other Labour Ministers.
Internment and 'bloody Friday'
Keith McDowall writes:
- When I knew Marston Tickell (obituary, Sept 17) in Belfast in the early 1970s, he was a rarity among army officers. He grasped that press and communications work meant much more than getting a regiment’s name in print and trying to tell journalists what to think.
- As director of information for the Northern Ireland Secretary, William Whitelaw, upon direct rule I worked together closely with Marston Tickell, particularly on Operation Motorman, which was to end the no-go areas of Belfast and Londonderry. The Army warned Whitelaw that there could be as many as 500 civilian casualties.
- Tickell came to me to argue that there had to be briefings down to the level of corporal. We agreed that no squaddie was going to wade through the mass of paperwork already produced. So Tickell and I sat in my office reducing it to crisp, tabloid style, one-liners that were simple to grasp.
- We also agreed that broad hints that Motorman was coming were justified despite army insistence on total secrecy and Whitelaw agreed to give an interview to RTÉ, the South’s radio service, which was more likely to be heard by people in Derry.
- "It worked and the people stayed off the streets. When Whitelaw was woken at dawn his sign of relief echoed round the Stormont Castle. The success in briefing right down to platoon level was the genesis of the TV training later set up to ensure that soldiers on the ground could quickly speak up and counter IRA propaganda.
- Later, when the IRA set off a series of bombs in Belfast designed to generate many casualties and mass panic, Tickell rang and suggested naming the outrage Bloody Friday.
- I instructed the press office to issue just the one line: “It looks like Bloody Friday.” That was the headline that went round the world. Tickell and I felt somewhat we had avenged the anti-British propaganda coup the IRA had achieved with the naming of Bloody Sunday.
As was standard practice at Stormont Castle in the 1960s to 1980s McDowall was more focused on British than Irish journalists. In an early example of this practice, Secretary of State William Whitelaw's PR officer, Keith McDowall, attempted to exclude all but the correspondents of London papers from a briefing in April 1972.
- For several days towards the end of last week, Mr McDowall gave confidential "lobby" briefings about what the Secretary of State had been doing during the day. But these were confined to English reporters only. No Belfast based papers were invited to send reporters, never mind Dublin based Irish dailies or evenings.
Government Information Service role
According to former government information officer Stephen Reardon:
- From there, I moved to what was then called the Department of Employment and Productivity, where I cut some more teeth under Bernard Ingham, later Mrs Thatcher's Press Secretary, and then Keith McDowall. Ingham and McDowall were robust in their defence of Government policies, but there remained a strict divide between political figures who worked for the party in power and Civil Service information officers, who were required to remain unbiased, non-political and incorruptible. We were expected to do our job to the best of our ability, for whoever was in power and however the policies might change. But that strict convention was undermined within days of New Labour's arrival in Whitehall.
CBI Press Chief
- Brenda Dean, partner
- Paul Routledge 'It may pay — but journalism it ain't' British Journalism Review, Vol. 12, No. 4, 2001, pages 31-35
- Keith McDowall Lives remembered: Major-General Marston Tickell and The Right Rev Noël Jones, The Times, 21 September 2009.
- Irish Times 6 April 1972
- 'If the media is feral, Tony Blair only has his craven manipulation of the Civil Service to blame' By STEPHEN REARDON, Mail on Sunday, Last updated at 22:38 16 June 2007