In January 1956, R A Butler, Leader of the Commons under Anthony Eden's premiership, was intercepted by journalists as he was leaving London Airport, as Heathrow was then known, on holiday. Was Eden "the best prime minister we have got", he was asked. Butler hurriedly replied "Yes" and the journalists naturally put the full proposition into the minister's mouth, thus creating the most famous of Butler's many sly indiscretions.
Attributing to people things they didn't say, but merely assented to, is an old journalistic trick. Put a leading question and you get a story either way. If Butler had demurred, he would have been caused to say "Eden is not the best prime minister we have got".
That is why politicians instinctively prefer not to give a straight answer to a straight question. But confronted by that wily old operator, David Frost, on the newly launched al-Jazeera English, Tony Blair's guard momentarily dropped. When Frost proposed, during a discussion on Iraq, that "so far, it's been, you know, pretty much of a disaster", Blair said "it has", before passing on to his usual claims that it's all the fault of Saddamites, Iranians and al-Qaeda.
Downing Street dismissed it as a slip of the tongue.
The damage was done, however. Every morning paper thought it worth at least a page lead, and the Daily Telegraph splashed on it. The more Blairite papers did their best to help the PM. Blair admitted the "Iraq violence" had been a disaster, headlined the Sun, thus giving a subtly different slant to the story. It added, showing the care and precision we expect of that paper, that "he did not say he regretted the 2003 invasion". The Financial Times offered: "Invasion of Iraq was disaster, PM signals", the verb "to signal" being much beloved of political correspondents, though to me it conjures up images of men in funny hats waving their arms around on racecourses.
I have always admired how the Westminster press lobby can take just a few words and interpret them with complete confidence.
Thus, during Commons exchanges with David Cameron, Blair referred to the Tory leader being floored at the next election by "a big clunking fist", and this was unanimously taken as an endorsement of Gordon Brown's prospective leadership. But it seemed to me that the description could equally apply, and perhaps better apply, to John Reid.
A few days later, in the Independent on Sunday, John Rentoul spun most of his column out of the single word "lightweight". Blair had apparently used it of Alan Johnson, at one stage a possible leadership candidate. But had he "used" it, as he had "used" the word "disaster", by assenting to what someone else said, or had he volunteered it? Since only Brown and Blair were in the room at the time, and since Rentoul hadn't spoken to either, we cannot know. We cannot even know that "lightweight" was used at all, though I suppose somebody important must want us to think of Johnson in that way. Political writers' copy would tax all the great linguistic philosophers.
Sometimes I wonder if the writers should examine more closely what people actually said. In the al-Jazeera interview, the "it" in Frost's "it's been pretty much of a disaster" refers to the subject of Blair's previous sentence. And that, according to the al-Jazeera website, was "a non-sectarian government, a government that is elected by the people".
So strictly speaking, Blair agreed that the elected Iraqi government - not the invasion, not the violence - had been a disaster. From which it might follow that Iraq needs (as many people have suggested) another non-democratic strong man - "a big clunking fist", perhaps. That seems a better story to me. Can I be a political correspondent, please?
Congratulations to the Times for its coverage of Rupert Murdoch's purchase of 17.9 per cent of ITV shares. Not only did it assure us on Tuesday morning that the Office of Fair Trading wouldn't investigate - which was beside the point since the media regulator, Ofcom, was always more likely to launch an inquiry, as it did that very afternoon - but it also ran three news stories in consecutive issues without mentioning the dreaded name, Rupert Murdoch. It did mention Rupert's son, James Murdoch, chief executive of BSkyB, which was indeed the actual purchaser of the shares, though it is inconceivable that his father, who is also his boss, didn't play the leading role. On Tuesday, however, it ran most of a tabloid business page on the story without mentioning any Murdochs at all.
I feel a bit petty pointing this out, particularly since the Times always acknowledges that its parent company, News Corporation, owns 39.1 per cent of BSkyB. But I can't see the Times, which has been edging towards middle-market news values for years, depersonalising any other story in this way.