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Before Spin

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by Keith McDowall, published by Melrose Books, 385pp, £16.99

When I joined the Government Information Service (GIS in 1964, Keith McDowall was the Daily Mail’s Industrial Editor.  I first came across him when I was working in the Press Office of the newly formed Ministry of Technology the following year.  But  Keith was to have a second career in the GIS.  As an influential figure in press and politics, he joined it as Chief Information Officer of the short-lived Department of Economic Affairs.  His eight years in Whitehall included spells at the Home Office, in Northern Ireland, Trade and Industry, Housing, Environment and Employment.  Not a bad portfolio, and Keith’s account of his GIS years forms the centre of this autobiography.

The earlier pages cover Keith’s years at South London Press  and entry to Fleet Street via the Daily Mail.  It’s a racy and entertaining read, involving many of the big names of the time in politics and the unions  As Peter Hennessy points out in his Foreword, this includes the rise to Opposition Leader of Harold Wilson, soon to become Prime Minister.  Keith’s move to the GIS followed a brief flirtation with promoting a business venture that failed – plastic bricks, no less.  Among the Ministers he looked after,  Jim Callaghan and Willie Whitelaw at the Northern Ireland Office and Peter Walker and Michael Foot in Whitehall stand out – very different characters with very different politics.  But then you had to be adaptable in the GIS.

In something of a third career, Keith moved into information work with first British Shipbuilders and then CBI, before setting up KMA, a successful and lucrative public relations business.  Old friends helped him build it up until he was ready to sell out and retire.  Always a keen trade unionist and a life member of the NUJ he had married Brenda Dean, now Baroness Dean, and now found his own public service work rewarded with a CBE.  The concluding chapter of Before Spin registers his dismay at the slipping of standards in press and public ethics, the rise of ‘spin’ and the disappearance of a professional Government Information Service.

Roger Bush (in GIS 1964-94)

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