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21 May 2017

Thatcher daintily manoeuvred over my sprawled form. “All right there?” she said

In those days it was thought exciting to send out Today presenters to hang around at EU summits.

By Libby Purves

Winter 1980: a bland conference centre in Luxembourg. I was a Today presenter then, though you wouldn’t have known it from my youth and innocently scruffy demeanour. On one mortifying occasion we were all invited to a reception with the new PM, Thatcher, and I got shooed away down another corridor as an official barked, “Jobless youth delegation, second door on the left!” The duffel coat would have to go.

In those days it was thought exciting to send out any one of the three regular Today presenters to hang around at EU summits, getting in the way of the real Europe and economics correspondents, delivering live bulletins and recording snatched interviews with thwarted Eurocrats for the following morning’s show.

I’d already done Dublin, and scored, without enthusiasm, the second of the Luxembourg summits (as outings go, these were not popular, even with Brian Redhead). My chief memory from Dublin was that I churlishly refused to join the keener UK cadre, whose wont was to spend half the night drinking in a smoke-filled hotel room while Bernard Ingham, the PM’s press secretary, told them absolutely nothing. My producer did go to the midnight conclave with the economics correspondent, Dominick Harrod, whose hobby was explaining the Common Agricultural Policy to the Today presenters, to little avail.

Meeting the bleary pair on the hotel stairs at 5am the next day, I asked, “What news?” They spoke simultaneously: the producer grunted, “Nothing!” and Dom squeaked, “Crisis!” That was pretty much the nature of all news from EU summits: Mrs T agreeing to nothing, and everyone calling it a crisis.

A few months later, there I was, the long Luxembourg day passing in the usual way. The British reporters all knew that Ingham and co would tell us nothing about the tense and irritable talks until the final despairing communiqué, so we had to find another way to get titbits for our masters. The favoured tactic was to dredge up any French, Italian or German we could remember from O-level years and roam around, eavesdropping on the other nations’ more frank and furious spokesmen. I had been bilingual in French at school, so for me the excitable Belgians were a good bet: “Madame T’atchaire, she say non, toujours non! S’en fiche de nous!

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After gleaning what I could over the lunch break, I hurried back towards our phones but tripped over a cable. At which moment the posse of leaders crossed the floor to get in to the next session. Thatcher herself, without breaking step, daintily manoeuvred over my sprawled form with a kindly yet scornful: “All right there?”

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As a dutiful newshound I rang in and related this, because it was the only interesting thing to happen all day. A weary duty editor, recently recruited from Fleet Street, said: “Did she actually tread on you?”

“No.”

“Well, did you see up her skirt?”

“Certainly not!”

“No story, then, is there?”

True enough. 

This article appears in the 17 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies