Friday, August 06, 2004

The Friday Column

This is the first of our Friday guest columns. James Norris, an experienced journalist, who has worked in Italy as well as in Britain, warns against complacency in the referendum campaign.

Referendums - a double-edged sword

James Norris

The news that even the Germans are now calling for a referendum on the EU constitution does make one think. They normally avoid referendums, and for good historical reasons. The Swiss demonstrate that referendums can be a force for good, grass-roots democracy. They have them all the time, and on all imaginable subjects.

Too often, however, referendums are no more than a tool used by a government to achieve its political objectives. The people of the accession countries of Eastern Europe were all asked whether they wanted to join the EU. All said yes, which is good, but there’s no doubt in the minds of some the elections observers that a few of the governments had to make sure of getting the “right” result.

Manipulating referendums isn’t just something for benighted foreigners. I recently came across a transcript of a radio BBC Radio 4 programme aired in February 2000 that discussed the (now disbanded) Information Research Department, a counter-subversion unit of the Foreign Office, and its role in the run-up to the UK’s referendum on the accession to the European Economic Community. By a strange coincidence, I have just found a reference to the programme in the excellent book I am now reading by Christopher Booker and Richard North, The Great Deception.

In the early 1970s, public opinion was even more hostile to joining Europe than it is today. As Booker and North say in their book, “in April 1970 a Gallup poll showed only 15% of the British electorate were in favour of a further bid to join the Common Market. Nearly three voters in five were opposed.” Yet, as the introduction of the programme says, “Between June 1970 and October 1971, there was an extraordinary turnabout in public opinion in favour of Britain entering the European Economic Community.”

Leaving aside the tragedy of this event, it would be useful to know how this turnaround was achieved, in preparation for an all-important vote in the House of Commons in October 1971. We all know Heath lied to the public, reassuring them with a promise that membership was purely economic. But it required more than just public statements to turn the public mood. The stakes were high, and Heath was not going to leave anything to chance, so the IRD was put onto the case.

In charge of the IRD at the time was Norman Reddaway, described by the cold war warrior Brian Crozier as “a skilful practitioner in the art of unattributable information”. Reddaway, who in 1965 masterminded the propaganda campaign that eventually led to the removal of the president Sukarno of Indonesia, told the programme’s presenter Christopher Cook that, “we were trying to support Ted Heath’s ambition to get us into Europe. We averaged a letter to the press, or an article, every day for a couple of years.”

Geoffrey Tucker was an advertising guru who helped sell the Conservative Party for the 1970 elections. The programme’s presenter describes how “Tucker told Heath that he knew how to swing the great British public behind the government’s great European adventure.”

Tucker then told the programme, “I went to the European Movement and talked to them, and they helped to put the funding together for a breakfast which we held at the Connaught Hotel.” These were weekly meetings over breakfast for influential people, such as captains of industry, civil servants, television executives and, crucially, journalists.

Tucker said, “We decided to pinpoint the Today programme on radio, picked up by the press and followed right through the news programmes during the day, culminating with the news programme on ITN at night, which was the big one. So round the table came people like Marshall Stewart, who was the brilliant editor of the Today programme, which was a key programme, and they sat down with people who were actually negotiating in Brussels. During that time we got an extra five minutes on the ITN news in the evening added on, which was purely informative, what it meant to the ordinary person.”

Tucker even claimed that they were able to remove Jack De Manio as editor of the Today programme because he was hostile to the EEC. “De Manio was a presenter who was terribly anti-European. We protested privately about this and he was moved.” Tucker said Di Manio was “giving a totally unbalanced view. It would appear that there is nothing good about Europe at all. And Ian Trethowan [Managing Director of BBC Radio and a known friend of Edward Heath] listened and De Manio was replaced.”

This claim is backed up by Lord Hattersley, who said, “the one breakfast I went to was a very chummy affair. We were all European propagandists. We were all fighting the European cause to the extent that some of the protagonists actually drew Ian Trethowan’s attention to broadcasters who they thought had been anti-European, and asked him to do something about it. Now I was so shocked that I decided I couldn’t go again.”

A crucial point is that the European Movement was only involved on approval from Reddaway and his superiors. Ernest Wistrich, then director of the European Movement, told the programme, “I remember one day Norman Reddaway after some weeks coming to [me] and saying, ‘We’re satisfied. You go ahead and run it’. I was being vetted for security reasons and other purposes as well.” Therefore, through these meetings the IRD was able to influence the BBC and ITN in their coverage of the European issue.

Tucker describes Reddaway as “the person given to us by the government as our liaison man,” but it was the European Movement that paid for the breakfast meetings. However, political historian Dr Richard Aldrich tells the programme that documents in George Town University in Washington prove that part of the funding for the European Movement came from the CIA. At the time, the US was pushing for a United States of Europe. No wonder Wistrich had to be vetted for security.

This all happened more than 30 years ago, but it is spookily reminiscent of the dark arts of spinning that has destroyed New Labour’s reputation. It is good to be reminded how Edward Heath won his referendum. And Tony Blair will surely have had many a long meeting with his civil servants going over this achievement, to see how he can pull a similar trick.

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