Margaret Thatcher: the Political Communicator

16/04/2013  -  10.31

By Paul Brighton, Head of Department of Media and Film

Among the many assessments of the Thatcher legacy, relatively little has been said about her role as a political communicator. In the understandable focus on her role in the Falklands War, the Miners’ Strike, the Poll Tax, the economy, Europe, and a host of other policy areas, there hasn’t been a huge amount on how she went about securing the three election victories without which none of it would have been possible.

It is fair to say that Mrs Thatcher was not a natural or instinctive political communicator. She was no Reagan, Clinton or Blair. Like some of her immediate predecessors, she had to learn how to master the media of the day. Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, and (most successfully) Harold Wilson had started the process of accommodation to the television age. Others, such as Douglas-Home, Heath and Callaghan, barely tried, and suffered the electoral consequences.

Mrs Thatcher, with little instinctive interest in or knowledge of the area, allowed herself to be instructed in the latest thinking on the subject. She was the first top UK politician to understand the emerging research on the relative importance of visual as against verbal communication on television. Researchers were discovering that voters were much more likely to be influenced by what they saw than by what they heard.

This is why the abiding memories of Mrs Thatcher’s campaigning are early versions of the photo opportunity. The baby calf in 1979, with Denis murmuring quietly: “Be careful, dear, or you’ll have a dead calf on your hands”. The tank photo opportunities after the Falklands and during the propaganda campaigns against the Soviets and the Greenham Common women and CND. The solo photos on brownfield sites in areas like ours, designed to mark her new concern for the inner cities in 1987. All this against a backdrop of middle-aged males in grey suits orating from a rather dull-looking podium.

She was also the first Prime Minister whose spin doctor (although the phrase only started to be used in the USA towards the end of her time in office) became a political personality and celebrity in his own right. (A faint pre-echo had been Joe Haines, with Harold Wilson: the apotheosis, of course, came in the ages of Blair and Campbell, and Cameron and Coulson). Such was the power and notoriety of Bernard Ingham that, when John Biffen visited the Midlands during the 1987 election (shortly after being spun against by Ingham), and I was sent to interview him for what was expected to be a fairly routine radio interview, his reply became the lead story on that night’s national TV news bulletins: all because of an off-the-record briefing by the already all-powerful spin machine. (Biffen was, said Ingham, a “semi-detached” member of the Cabinet, and a marked man. He was duly dropped after the election).

Add to all of this a slick poster campaign in 1979 (remember “Labour Isn’t Working”?), and the makeovers of hair, clothes, teeth, and even pitch and tone of voice, and you have a very determined and professional attempt to transform a negative into a positive media image. She was the first Prime Minister to venture onto the softer sofa programmes, sharing intimacies with the chat show hosts of the day. She was the first Prime Minister to think about using regional papers and even local radio in a way that her predecessors hadn’t. And she was without peer when it came to winning and keeping the personal allegiances of the Rupert Murdochs, Conrad Blacks, Kelvin Mackenzies and Lord Rothermeres of the popular press.

And, unlike more recent practitioners of Prime Ministerial spin, she managed to do it all without ever really having to talk about her tactics. Somehow, like Gladstone, she contrived to convince commentators that she was too busy governing even to notice that sort of thing! Paul Brighton is currently writing

Paul Brighton

Paul is the author of Original Spin: Prime Ministers and the Press in Nineteenth Century Britain, which is due to be published by IB Tauris this autumn.