Having been at the sharp end of the economic turmoil of the Thatcher decade we industrial reporters knew all about the power and influence being exercised behind the scenes by the Prime Minister’s press secretary

Bernard Ingham.

Our abiding regret is that we never had the chance at the time to interrogate him at first hand over his contempt for the leadership of the trade union movement and his astute manipulation of the news media on Mrs Thatcher’s behalf.

Ingham was without doubt the most successful head of government information of his era, and the last beneficiary of the cover that he and his predecessors enjoyed thanks to the loyalty of political correspondents at Westminster.

Rarely was he identified as the begetter of infamous briefings in Downing Street. Lobby journalists stuck to the rules and attributed information and guidance to unidentified “government sources”.

Ingham’s death at the age of 90 has coincided with a level of strike action unseen for over 30 years.

His obituaries are a reminder of how single-minded Mrs Thatcher was in her drive to tame trade union power and how, by comparison, Rishi Sunak has struggled to replicate her consistency and determination in facing up to the unrelenting industrial unrest of the 2022-23 “winter of discontent”.

All too often in the 1980s, when out on the industrial beat, we realised that during epic struggles such as the 1984-5 miners’ strike, or the introduction of latest round of employment laws, there was every likelihood that our news reports would be upstaged from Westminster by our colleagues in the lobby.

Whenever he could, Ingham seized the agenda and his orchestration of government announcements rendered our story lines out of date, leaving us struggling to keep up while union leaders readjusted to the reality of the latest edict from Whitehall.

In the final months of the miners’ strike we spent countless hours waiting in the street for the conclusion of management and union meetings only to find that Ingham was giving political journalists a faster and far fuller account of the latest developments.

For instance, in January 1985 lobby correspondents were told about the failure of the National Coal Board’s final initiative to get a negotiated settlement some hours before the management had intended to give their response to the National Union of Mineworkers or make a public statement.

The NCB spokesman, Michael Eaton, asked me personally to discover the precise time of Ingham’s lobby briefing because he blamed Mrs Thatcher for blocking progress in the talks.

In her autobiography, The Downing Street Years, Mrs Thatcher said she was “enormously relieved” when the negotiations collapsed (because she visibly wanted to deny Scargill a victory).

When writing Strikes and the Media I enquired about Ingham’s role, but he told me he had no intention of breaking the silence which he maintained about the nature of his work.  

Ingham, with family roots in Yorkshire and left-wing sympathies in his youth, had a deep understanding -- and later loathing – of both the union movement and labour and industrial journalism.

After a decade reporting first for the Hebden Bridge Times and later the Yorkshire Post, he joined The Guardian as an industrial correspondent in Leeds and moved to the London office in 1965.

Within a couple of years, he had become disenchanted both by the hierarchical pecking order among labour journalists and the gulf between trade union leaders and their members, so he took a job as press adviser with the National Board for Prices and Incomes – a change of career that would take him to the top of the government information service.

On departing the industrial beat in 1988, after a decade as a BBC labour affairs correspondent, and returning to Westminster as a BBC political correspondent, I had the chance at last to attend Ingham’s morning briefings in Downing Street and the afternoon session in the  lobby room in the House of Commons.

I knew I had my tail between my legs.

Having invested so much of my time and effort during the miners’ strike in sticking hot on the heels of the NUM President Arthur Scargill, his defeat at the hands of Mrs Thatcher, and the wider retreat of the union movement, had given Ingham the upper hand over former labour hacks, especially one attempting to reinvent himself as a political correspondent.

He relished the chance to put me in my place and remind journalists of the news media’s responsibilities.

In March 1988, following the seizure of BBC film of two soldiers being dragged from their car at an IRA funeral, I asked him if he could remind the lobby of the full extent of government legal action against journalists.

He paused for effect and then said coldly it was time that BBC reporters like myself decided whether we were “part of society or apart from society”.

When at a subsequence briefing I tried repeatedly to ask about the government’s classification procedure for secret documents he displayed his aptitude for isolating maverick questioners.

As I patiently rephrased my inquiry Ingham put on a show of mock surprise. At an appropriate moment he looked solemnly at the assembled journalists, saying: “This laddie thinks he’s got an exclusive.”

There were cackles all round. Having diverted attention, he moved swiftly to the next question.

In full flood, lambasting journalists, the press secretary was a sight to behold. As Mrs Thatcher became increasingly beset by the Conservatives’ split over Europe, and her disagreements with her then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, Ingham was easily riled and an innocent request of mine in the summer of 1989 about how best to interpret Lawson’s latest comments on the European monetary system produced a vintage performance.

“People like you will play games until the cows come home. I get fed up with it, bloody fed up. The trouble is there is too much media, too much interpretation and not enough reporting.

“You may continue with your seductive tones, but they will get you nowhere. The trouble is you can’t manipulate me and that’s a problem for you.”