Support 100 years of independent journalism.

The morning all hell broke loose: when Gordon Brown found out I was going on the radio

What's in a name?

By Alan Johnson

We don’t hear too much about “spin” these days. The word seems to have returned to its natural association with cricket and washing machines. But there was a time when its pejorative use was associated with political parties in general and Labour in particular.

In a way, I suppose it was a compliment. Alastair Campbell built on the work already done by Peter Mandelson to usher Labour into an era in which its motto would no longer be “No Compromise With the Electorate”. Our message and our messengers entered the public consciousness.

After 1 May 1997, a Labour prime minister was at last able to wake up every morning wondering what he would do that day rather than what he would say.

As a junior minister, I soon found out that Tony Blair’s famed definition of the difference between opposition and government was only half true: though we were able to do things rather than just talking about doing them, what we said about what we were doing retained a supreme importance. It all had to be closely managed.

The problem was that so many lobby correspondents were keen to treat us lowly under-secretaries to lunch, and they were so chatty, and there were no civil servants present, and we could just chew the cud, and – “Yes please, I’d love another glass” – relax.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

When I became a cabinet minister I got my very own media special adviser.

Chris Norton was the best in the business – calm in a crisis, astute in his analysis. Journos and civil servants alike trusted him completely.

Throughout the Blair years and into the Brown transition, Chris kept our media relations virtually free from criticism by Fleet Command in Downing Street. Until the morning all hell broke loose.

We already wondered if Gordon ever slept. Missives would emanate from him at all hours of the night, and so far had we moved from the relaxed days of sofa government that even the sofa had been symbolically removed.

Anyway, on this morning the prime minister was, as usual, up with the crack of sparrows and half listening to the Today programme when he heard that I would be interviewed in the coveted 8.10am slot.

Chris Norton was immediately summonsed to explain himself.

By now I was health secretary. There were no announcements on health to be made, no emergencies to respond to. What was I playing at, Gordon demanded to know. Was this insubordination? Spontaneity? A leadership bid?

After frantic phone calls between No 10 and Chris and the BBC, the truth emerged.

The 8.10 interview would indeed be with Alan Johnson but the one with the silent T. Alan Johnston was the BBC correspondent who’d been released unharmed after being kidnapped in Gaza and held in captivity for 114 days.

I pointed out to Chris that this was a far worse ordeal than he had suffered at the hands of No 10. He didn’t seem entirely convinced. 

Topics in this article :

This article appears in the 03 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution