By Suzannah Brecknell

19 Jul 2019

Suzannah Brecknell breaks bread with acclaimed documentary maker and Whitehall watcher Michael Cockerell

Who? Michael Cockerell began his career in the BBC’s Africa Service before becoming a reporter for Panorama and then a political documentary maker. His began making profiles of politicians, with subjects including Margaret Thatcher, Ted Heath, Barbara Castle, Tony Blair and David Cameron – indeed, he has interviewed more prime ministers than any other broadcast journalist. He also makes behind the scenes explorations of how government works, such as Inside 10 Downing Street and Life in the Whips Office, and his How to be...  trilogy looking at the roles of home secretary, foreign secretary and chancellor. In recent years he has focused more on portraits of institutions, with his Great Offices of State series and his 2015 Inside the Commons series, to which it took five years for the Commons to agree. He has also made documentaries looking exclusively at the civil service: The Secret World of Whitehall, and Man of Secrets.

The restaurant Kitchen W8: Sophisticated food in a relaxed environment near London’s Notting Hill

We discussed

Why he moved from making documentaries about politicians to those about government institutions and the civil service

You’ve traced a pattern which I haven’t myself been directly aware of. It’s partly there aren’t many people around anymore of the type I made portraits about. They needed to be at or near the top of British politics. They needed to know where the bodies are buried, and they need to be able to speak with some candour. They need to be interesting enough people to fill an hour of television, to have what Denis Healey called a hinterland, not just one or two-dimensional figures. Can you name me someone in politics who would fit that description today?

But really, I have been fascinated by the civil service and diplomatic service all my life. Often in my profiles of politicians the civil servants were shadowy figures in the background – but they would never give you an interview. This was in the 60s and 70s, and they felt they should not be seen. Indeed sometimes in those early days press secretaries in the departments used to have bets each week and the person who lost was the person who was seen on camera even just in the background. They wanted to be invisible.

Once, when I was making a film about the then-environment secretary Anthony Crosland and had been filming him at a ceremony in Nottingham, I got into the same carriage as two senior civil servants on the way back to London. I started talking to them, because you didn’t often get a chance to talk to senior officials. I assured them the conversation would be entirely off-record and so we talked for a few hours. It was the most anodyne and banal conversation I’ve ever had in my life. At the end, I said: “It was lovely to talk to you, how did you find our conversation?” and this guy, who had said absolutely nothing for two hours, said: “I found the whole business distinctly hazardous.”

Whether it was as tortuous to get civil servants to agree to go on camera as it was with the House of Commons

It was a case-by-case basis, really. In my documentary about Tony Blair, Richard Wilson spoke to me as serving cabinet secretary, which was pretty unusual. When I was making How to be Home Secretary Jack Straw said: “It’s always a gamble if you let the cameras in but you haven’t let me down.” We got quite a lot of filming with him – quite a lot about his own learning process and his relationship with civil servants.

It was 2009 and I was working on this series about the Home Office, Foreign Office and Treasury. It was clear in the summer there was going to be a reshuffle because Jacqui Smith resigned as home secretary and as it happened I knew Alan Johnson quite well. I phoned him and said: “There’s soon to be a reshuffle, the chancellor may be moved, the home secretary is moving and it may even be there will be a new prime minister, and I gather that you may be in the frame for any of those three jobs. If you get one of them, could we film you when you first meet your permanent secretary?” He said: “Well Michael, you know more details of my life than I do: I’ve heard nothing, but if any of those scenarios happen I’ll be happy to co-operate.”

Then we heard that he was to be home secretary, and I’d already been to see the Home Office and talked to [perm sec] David Normington who had agreed to take part in the series. He was keen to show that after a series of scandals and setbacks the Home Office was getting its mojo back. It also happened that Normington had worked for Johnson as education secretary, and I said: “When Alan comes down to meet you for the first time, can we put a microphone on you?” He agreed, so in that film you can see the first 10 or so minutes of his time as home secretary, meeting his perm sec and getting a briefing from a spin doctor before he goes in front of the press.

The character of different departments

When I make the profiles of politicians I call them portraits because I’m trying to get a true likeness and capture the essence of people. And in the films I’ve made about institutions I’ve used some of the same techniques, the biographical techniques, and explored the ethos, character, culture and nature. So I’m often looking for the illustrative stories [to show that].

I can give you one slightly oblique example showing how each department has its own ethos. I was talking to [former Treasury perm sec] Nick Macpherson and I said to him: “When you choose people to come into the Treasury what are you looking for?” He said “I suppose really what we’re looking for is that special quality of…Treasuryishness.” He never explained what “Treasuryishness” was but I’m sure you’ll find the equivalent in all the ministries.

“So many politicians just don’t answer questions. They say the same thing twice, have a formula that they repeat and repeat... Politicians ought to be braver”

What makes a good minister?

I’ll give you a civil service answer, a quote from someone I know in the Cabinet Office. I asked him what he was looking for in a minister, and he used three wonderful Whitehall words. He said: “We are looking for three things: grip, clout and bottom.”

Bottom means that you’re a person of some stature and that you’re a significant figure; clout means that you have influence in your ministry and across Whitehall; grip means you have a grip on the agenda.

Personally, I think to be a successful prime minister or a minister you need to have two contradictory things. One is you need to be very thick skinned because, especially if you’re in one of the high profile ministries and especially now with social media, barbs will be coming at you thick and fast. But you also need – there is a wonderful German compound noun for it: Fingerspitzengefühl. It literally means “fingertips feeling”, namely an instinct or sensitivity for what’s going on. I think it’s similar to the way that a senior civil servant has to be political – understand politics and how it works – while being completely apolitical.

Ministers have also got to learn, certainly as prime minister and in busy ministries, to do two or three things at the same time. You can’t just focus on one thing and have tunnel vision. Things come out of a clear blue sky. You have to be able to multitask and prioritise because what is on the horizon now may come up and whack you the next day.

Interviewing former cabinet secretary Robin Butler

I went to interview Robin in his flat near Westminster Cathedral. I asked him why he lived there and he said “it’s amazingly convenient, a short walk to Westminster, and when we bought it there were a lot of IRA bombs. I thought the one place the IRA won’t bomb is the cathedral.”

It was meant to be an interview that lasted 45 minutes and we were still talking about five hours later. It almost became a kind of confessional: no one had actually talked about his whole life before. When I had asked him for an interview on a previous occasion he said: “The problem is, Michael, that I know so much about what went on in these various governments, I was at the centre, and I regard it rather like being a priest in the confessional: I only know it because of the status I had as a civil servant and that’s why prime ministers would confide me in me. I felt it my duty to guard the secrets of the confessional.” I took that as a no.

One day, when I tried him yet again, he said: “So many of Blair’s ministers have broken the secrets of the confessional that I regard my vow of secrecy absolved, so I will talk as cabinet secretary.”

Theresa May’s broadcast in March, in which she said the public was “tired of infighting and political games” and that “MPs have done everything possible to avoid making a choice”

Regardless of what she said, it was one of the most bizarre prime ministerial broadcasts I have ever seen in more than 50 years. She walks up to a podium in an empty room with a camera there and addresses…who? Very, very strange.

At the time of Suez crisis, Anthony Eden did prime ministerial broadcasts straight to camera, though  he was very unhappy because he was a very vain man and he wore glasses, but didn’t like to wear them on television in case there were “intimations of mortality”. In this case he put his glasses on, and glasses are often quite difficult to light, and he afterwards came away from the BBC studio and said: “Those communists at the BBC were shining the lights in my eyes.”

Red boxes

A civil servant once told me that he would always put a KitKat in [Conservative minister] Ken Clarke’s red box to goad him into doing more than just a few of his papers. Clarke tried to deny it, but the civil servant says it was definitely true.

Jonathan Powell was fantastically powerful in terms of the red box; he used to be very careful. He would see what was going in the red box before Tony [Blair] would see it and rearrange it. Often around the deadline – 4.30pm on Friday or something like that – the civil service liked to put something in just at the last moment, and he would always see that and move it down so that his document would always be the top.

Robert Armstrong [former cabinet secretary] said, about the papers that go to the prime minister: “She [Thatcher] has the red box, but she also has the black box”. In that box were the highly secret security things, as well as the dangerous pieces of gossip. I asked: “Which box would the prime minister tend to go to?” He said the black box – it was rather juicy stuff.

“[Butler] said, ‘The problem is that I know so much about what went on in these governments... I regard it rather like being a priest in the confessional’”

How government could be better

I do think that many of the parliamentary class have very limited experience now. So many people work in Conservative central office, or the Labour party headquarters and then become a special adviser, and then become an MP, and then become a minister. And much, if not all, of that preoccupation has been about presentation, and how a thing looks. They haven’t had real experience in the world. That would be one of the ways I would want to change it. MPs in the 60s, when I was first looking at politics, came from all walks of life – they were much older, and had much more experience running businesses and that kind of thing. Many of them had been in the war – Roy Jenkins was a code breaker at Bletchley Park.

I also think that the government could be – should be – more open. Much of the time, I feel that the secrecy around government information is more to do with preventing embarrassment than real commercial or security concerns.

So many politicians just don’t answer questions. They say the same thing twice, have a formula that they repeat and repeat. It increases distrust and dismissal of our politicians, so I just think politicians ought to be braver, to trust the people. A lot of them take people for fools. I think if they were more open about different policy problems, they would get more sympathy. Instead, they tend to simplify and deny the complexities.

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