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Spin Doctors, Media and the Left: the Hackney Example

Tony Whelan

THE LONDON Borough of Hackney is a byword for incompetence, corruption and authoritarianism: when I mentioned to a (black) newsagent in neighbouring Islington that I used to work there, he offered "sincerest sympathy". We were talking about racism, since Hackney has recently admitted to serious discrimination in the long years of Labour Party control, but we could have been discussing abysmal services, cover-ups and frame-ups, scapegoats, or any of the other horrors documented by left activists (for example, in my articles [42] and [43]). The conversation was so interesting because of who I was speaking to: even a black newsagent, with potential interests both personal and professional, and properly contemptuous of Hackney Council, was unaware of the borough’s recent admissions on race. For Hackney is a fascinating case study in the spin doctors’ wiles and the ways that mainstream media news values facilitate wholesale cover-ups. It sheds light also on the internal life and behaviour of the elite social base on which New Labour’s evolution rests. The grim reality of Hackney – long-standing, ongoing, endorsed from the very top – gives the lie to those who purvey a "caring" image for New Labour, or for whom the May election was a source of hope (even including, in a curious fashion, Workers’ Liberty magazine [50]). The real problems for revolutionary socialists are complex and difficult to tackle.

Fleet Street has latterly been making a fuss regarding Labour spin doctors: the team who supposedly co-ordinate news presentation so successfully in the Labour interest. According to Fleet Street, concern has mounted over sudden replacements of senior civil service press officers – eight to ten department-level heads having rolled at the latest count – and over allegations of blackmail and threats against journalists and editors. The civil service press machine ruthlessly facilitated the Tories’ agenda for so many years, and Fleet Street is patently motivated by self-interest, yet the critics have a serious point. We shall see, however, that they gravely fail to live up to the standards they proclaim.

London’s Evening Standard [34] and the New Statesman [26] recently devoted a full page each to the topic. Scarlet MccGuire’s excellent NS piece observed that journalists’ own wish to be "in" could be highly corrupting. She also noted that, presumably if not "in", "reporters complain ... about the ruthlessness of Labour’s Millbank machine. Journalists are harangued, bullied, isolated, even reported to their editors with a suggestion that they should be sacked". The Standard’s health correspondent recounted a tale of harassment by the Health Secretary’s key sidekick, as "a symptom of what news management is now about – weaving a glossy web of kind and caring images over the realities of life" [34].

But whether "in" or "out", journalists and editors across the board have largely bought one major spin which could hardly be further from the truth: that New Labour is routinely squeaky clean in local government, and so cracks down nationally at the slightest hint of local impropriety. Last summer Roy Hattersley wrote in the Guardian [21] that "Labour ... suspends and enquires at the drop of a council expenses claim. And quite right too"; Michael White (Guardian political editor) said virtually the same recently on BBC Radio 4’s prestigious Week at Westminster programme [48].

Labour’s real record in Hackney shows exactly the opposite: not only do they fail to act over serious allegations against local councillors (and Labour hangers-on among council officers), they actively intervene to assist the cover-ups, while the Fleet Street pack shows mostly negligible interest. Child abuse, racism, and the sheer brutality of how Labour ran (and would like again to run) its Hackney fiefdom: locally notorious, of potential national import, these three issues are badly or under reported nationwide, and illustrate both points.

Hackney’s child abuse scandal is locally known as "Trottergate". Mark Trotter, a social services employee dealing with children, was reported to the Council at least three times during the 1980s for alleged child abuse, and also for "suspicious behaviour" involving "young visitors" to his flat and for beating up his lover and illegally evicting him from their council flat [14]. Hackney also knew that police raided his flat in 1989 in an unsuccessful search for child pornography [ibid]. Trotter died from an Aids-related illness in 1995, shortly before Liverpool police intended to arrest him for alleged child abuse there around the start of the 1980s. During the summer of 1997, an NSPCC inquiry amongst former residents of Hackney homes has confirmed that child abuse did happen, more than once [30]. A Labour Party member, formerly in a top management post in Hackney’s Social Services, admits advising a Labour councillor not to let Trotter take care of her young children, yet Trotter’s employment at Hackney continued for years longer.

Hackney’s dreadful record of dealing with the case, from the 1980s to date, is detailed above and below. It may not be a complete coincidence that throughout his time in Hackney Trotter was a Labour Party activist, serving as a Labour-nominated governor at a nursery school and as a party election agent: he was also an official of NALGO. The Council knew by mid-1995 that the police had wanted to arrest Trotter on child abuse charges, and of his HIV status, but despite the risks of psychological harm and infection, for a whole year Hackney did almost nothing to follow the matter up, or to contact the youngsters who encountered Trotter while in the Council’s "care".

The Evening Standard broke the scandal in July 1996, and, although its generally excellent coverage (including [13, 14, 31, 32, 37, 38]) was marred by sensational emphasis on the risk of Aids rather than of psychological damage, it did bring to the boil a long-simmering crisis inside the local Labour group of councillors (Hackney LBLG). It matters a lot just who is mayor of a local authority, not because of the ceremonial role but because the mayor has certain key powers, including whether or not to convene emergency council meetings. The "old guard" of the Hackney LBLG ran (and should answer for) the borough from 1989 to 1995, but temporarily lost power during 1995-96, and there was a major row in the LBLG in April-May 1996 over whether an old guard or a dissident nominee would become mayor: the old guard, reduced to a minority on the Council, lost out. As a result the National and Regional Labour Parties intervened, and around the end of July they suspended from the party just enough councillors to change an anti-old guard majority to a minority in a reduced LBLG. So by early September 1996 the old guard was dominant again, and over Trottergate they were trying to avoid a genuinely independent investigation of what and why things had gone wrong for such a very long time. The still-large minority issued an ultimatum that "an appropriately constituted independent inquiry ... [must] be set up immediately" into the Trotter affair [19], and received two brusque responses.

Locally, the old guard responded by calling for a nominally independent inquiry ... but one to be established by a sub-committee controlled by themselves, not by the whole Council [15, 16, 17]. And Labour’s National Constitutional Officer wrote "on behalf of the General Secretary of the Labour Party" to threaten the dissidents with suspension and expulsion on the grounds of "conduct prejudicial to the party as a whole", and to demand that minority members provide "a written dis-association ... from the contents of" their letter of ultimatum [33]. South London could sleep safely knowing that demands for recantations, and all-powerful general secretaries, were alive and well in Walworth Road long after departing Clapham High Street ...

A split inevitably followed, and a proper inquiry did ensue [38]. But the splitters’ heterogeneity, and their poor choices on many vital issues, are demonstrated by their tactics (premature resignation), by the adoption of the "Hackney New Labour" (HNL) label, and by their support for far-reaching cuts-and-marketisation restructuring under the auspices of the new Chief Executive (ex of Tory Brent). HNL is now in the advanced throes of disintegration, losing members to the Tories and particularly to the Liberal Democrats. Despite a valuable role in the Trotter affair, its destiny is only to be an important footnote to the local government history of the 1990s.

But the national Labour Party’s role is far from a footnote. The Hackney Labour old guard had, indeed have, a great deal to fear from honest investigation of the Trotter affair, as the independent Barratt report can be expected to reveal in early January 1998, but the party nationally came down unambiguously on the wrong side, against those seeking a proper inquiry. Even as the culmination of well-established partisanship in Hackney matters, or if one "excuses" them for a putative wish to keep Trottergate off the political agenda in the run-up to May’s general election, their role was simultaneously ineffectual and vile. But it has still to be brought home to them: for Labour spin doctors at national level, the wheels have recently come off the F1 racing car, but in local government matters the wagon still rolls on. That even the Evening Standard carried an article about Labour acting "to clean up Hackney" illustrates just how perverse Fleet Street can be [36].

The question of racism is another example of news management. An internal Hackney inquiry, headed by black barrister Lincoln Crawford, reported on 7 November 1997 that visible minority staff had been victims of "the worst manifestations of race discrimination" by senior managers during 1993-1996 [8]. For all but four months of this period, Hackney was Labour-controlled. Such "revelations" (reported in [27, 28, 39]) came as no surprise to local activists (see [23, 41]), but were barely mentioned in the national press.

For several interests combine to oppose such coverage. At the council debate on the report (13 November 1997), with one honourable exception, the august representatives of the people of Hackney vied to pass the buck to their political opponents: Labour’s line amounted to "Nobody told us, Guv", while the rest concentrated on asserting their own hands were clean. But the spin doctors’ ranks in this case comprised the current, effectively anti-Labour top tier of Hackney officialdom, and the Labour Party (locally and nationally), while the other groups essentially dropped out of the game. With no overall control of the Council, the top officers have a tremendous degree of autonomy, which they are using to push through their "Transforming Hackney" restructure project.

Their internal announcement to staff has the megalomaniac heading "new management to root out racism" (all by themselves, in present-day Britain?), and speaks of Crawford’s inquiry as "the first stage in a listening process which will create a culture where all staff feel valued"[6]. In reality, their contempt for staff is revealed – a little detail telling a big story – by the fact that several top tier officers routinely defy Hackney’s ban on in-office smoking ... but unlike with junior staff, it goes unsanctioned [7, 40]. Their overall ambition is to present the future of Hackney in their hands as entering a "different world" [11]. So they claim exclusive credit for initiating Crawford’s investigation, writing out of history the Commission for Racial Equality’s involvement at its start [5]. And comparing the old Chief Executive’s protestations in [46, 47] with the new one’s in [6] reveals that the new management – just like the old gang – solemnly assure staff that they are, really, a bunch of regular guys and gals who deplore racism ... and in whose hands the problems can safely be left. Such people would no more risk serious publicity on Hackney racism than would the Labour Party, and even if they did the national press simply wouldn’t want to know.

So the council Press Release went out after 2.00pm on Friday 7 November 1997 to selected journalists, but no Press Conference was held. As the Evening Standard noted apropos of London rail fare increases [4, 29], and as any competent press officer knows, Fridays are notoriously used by the powerful to release unfavourable information with minimal response. The London TV channels did pick up the issue, but national coverage was negligible: I spotted exactly one piece in a Fleet Street title [39]. To date even the ethnic minority press – the Voice, New Nation, etc – has carried only three items, of which two are by me bemoaning the lack of media coverage and inadequate Hackney proposals for corrective action [27, 44, 45].

Despite their brazen claims at the Council debate, the real record shows that Labour locally knew all about the charges of racism: even the Leader of Hackney Council cannot have been unaware of the borough-wide strike we organised against it on 13 December 1990. Confidential reports, by Ian MacDonald QC [25, pp.335ff.] and Chief Executive Tony Elliston [10, p.23], reveal that an outside QC (and close friend of a senior local Labour politician) raised the issue on Labour’s behalf with a top-tier council officer in about the autumn of 1993 (the date, though not the event, is disputed). This was probably influenced by then-current complaints from UNISON and the local Race Equality Council to the C.R.E. [23], though an unsavoury letter to all councillors from a local sympathiser of Louis Farrakhan [24] had raised related concerns earlier. There is a great deal that the Labour Party has to answer for over racism in Hackney, and it knows it.

But racism has never been the media’s flavour of the month. Over Trottergate, the general coverage was broad (if inaccurate); in the case of racism – which devastated the lives of far more (identifiable) people – the Louise Woodward case drove Hackney’s belated admissions off both front and inside pages. Even the Evening Standard, which seriously campaigned over Hackney child abuse, published just one short, belated item. Presumably it could sell papers in London on a similar anti-racist campaign, but that would run the risk of offending the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ element of its readers (and writers). The "liberal" Guardian and Independent could find no space at all for Crawford’s damning judgments.

The sheer brutality of Labour in Hackney is hard to credit: despite warnings (by friends then in the party) when I started there, I didn’t recognise the full horror for quite some time. (Which is why, doubtless to the editor’s despair, I give detailed documentation.) One recent highlight was the sacking of two senior trade unionists on frame-up charges of fiddling transfers between unions, and the subsequent branding (later denied) of one of them as a thief [1, 22]; this seems to be a spin-off of the earlier victimisation of the black auditor Colin Cornelius (see [43]). There was an attempt, in 1995 when the Trotter issue at last became live, to frame Cllr Hettie Peters, the disabled Chair of Social Services, for housing benefit fraud: she was arrested, taken to court, but acquitted on the judge’s direction on the grounds the case should never have been brought [3]. Although Ms Peters is no saint, she was innocent also of a simultaneous smear that had her running a brothel, [2] and of a later effort to blame her for aspects of "Trottergate" [17]. The old guard also fabricated "the briefing that never was". According to this fanciful tale, told to Labour councillors, the Chief Executive had briefed a top old guard figure that a key dissident Labour (now HNL) councillor was at risk of police investigation [9, 49], though neither briefing nor risk ever existed outside certain vivid imaginations. The Labour Party national inquiry during May-June 1996 merely mentioned ("nudge nudge, wink wink") that politics in Hackney were "traditionally turbulent" [12, p.4], but the NEC took no action whatever to address such patterns of behaviour. Tony Blair, a self-proclaimed "regular guy", has received at least three personal letters from local figures and groups about such problems [18, 20, 35], and I understand that one has recently been acknowledged.

A particularly interesting case concerns claims of attempted buying of votes. Serious allegations have been made that, on two separate occasions in 1994 and 1995, leading Hackney Labour figures offered extra grants of £100,000 to the local (non-state) Orthodox Jewish nurseries provided that Labour Orthodox Jewish councillors voted the right way on key disputes. On one occasion, it is claimed, a very senior council officer was present, and sworn affidavits have reportedly been submitted to Labour Party headquarters: at least one Fleet Street paper (definitely) has copies too. I do not know whether all these claims are true, but unquestionably they are serious ... and nothing has been done to check them by Labour’s NEC, while nothing has appeared in either local or national press. (At the time of writing, the Council awaits the report of yet another commissioned inquiry by an outsider. Watch out for the Key Report on relations amongst members and officers ... but don’t hold your breath till you get comprehensive findings.)

For revolutionary socialists, such an ongoing pattern of horror raises complex and difficult problems. Faced with NEC complicity in the sordid goings-on in Hackney, any illusions in Labour’s intent must bite the dust at once. But a look at the social milieu from which key Labour activists are drawn helps explain what’s been happening, and what might be done about it. It also, alas, raises serious worries for the long-term future of the labour movement.

There are still many working class members inside the Labour Party, particularly through "successful" cut-price membership campaigns amongst trade unionists in the last few years. But the key activists – councillors, agents, CLP secretaries – are largely drawn, even in working class (and partly lumpen) Hackney, from a select professional milieu. Often ex-NUS activists, they have jobs as researchers for unions or firms or parliamentarians, as paid parliamentary agents, as lawyers in firms specialising in industrial relations, as senior local government officers, and in the ubiquitous public relations sector. The NUPE full-timer responsible for Hackney in the early 1990s was leading Watford Council in forcing through Tory cuts while "representing" members resisting the very same agenda in East London (and unsuccessfully aspiring to parliament in his spare time). Before the "Widdecombe" restrictions came in in 1990, preventing senior local government workers in one borough being councillors in another, they often played both roles. Privatisations and the rise of the housing association sector in the 1990s have created new types of "quasi-public" jobs, not subject to Widdecombe’s rules, that allow household incomes to stay high despite such inconveniences. In short, they are exactly the type of people who staff the US Democratic Party: a social group whose members already run large sections of society, who gain substantial power by so doing, and for whom professional and political preferment virtually coincide. They typically think that the world would be far better a place if only they were even higher paid to run some more of it.

This stratum hasn’t changed a lot since the 1980s fiascos over "fighting" rate-capping and other Tory attacks on local government. But the years of smoke-filled rooms, of isolation from those they purport to represent, of professional promotions to ever more remunerative posts, plus Labour’s recent "modernisation", mean the leftist rhetoric is long since binned. It’s a truism of far-left critiques of the "municipal" left that they sought to defeat the Tories with effectively no mass support for their real policies; less remarked is that the very power and responsibility of running local government not only turned key "leaders" – Livingstone, Knight, Hatton – into largely impotent media performers, it also transformed less publicised, initially more serious socialists. Several 1980s associates of the ex-Trotskyist magazine Chartist wound up as stalwarts of Hackney’s Labour old guard, while the magazine became a running apologia for the Labour front bench: not only journalists aspire to the "in" group.

For local government, in the day-to-day lives of working people in inner cities, is simply omnipresent. Largest employer, largest landlord, responsible for schools, environment, social services, biggest advertisers by far in the local paper: a place like Hackney is like the traditional US "company town" – except you can vote for the company, and call it "your" council. Without persistent grass roots activism – in ethnic communities, trade unions, anti-racist campaigns, women’s groups, tenants’ organisations, and many other locations – to coerce not persuade the councils, the lives of working people in places like Hackney will remain appalling. Despite a temporary hiatus, the result of its own abject inadequacy, the Labour old guard that misruled Hackney for years is probably on its way back at the very next council elections. But they are exactly the type of people, and often the very same people, who hope to turn Labour into a copy of Clinton’s Democratic Party. If that project succeeds, as well it may, then long-established left views of Labour Party-labour movement relations will need thorough reassessment. For years I have argued, against people such as comrades in the now-defunct Big Flame group, that revolutionaries should advocate a Labour vote at most British elections. In Hackney, next May, I’d as soon vote for the Mafia.


1. Anon, "Sacked Union Men Fight On", Hackney Gazette, 10 December 1993.

2. Anon, "Eye Told You So", Private Eye, 24 January 1997.

3. Anon, "One Councillor’s Story (record of a Hackney Council debate)", 29 January 1997.

4. Anon, "Keep to the Facts" (editorial), Evening Standard, 3 November 1997.

5. Anon, "Crawford Report Published" (Press Release), London Borough of Hackney, 7 November 1997.

6. Anon, "New management to Root Out Racism", Inside Track, L.B. of Hackney, November 1997.

7. Nicolas Barnard, "Interview with Hackney Chief Executive", Times Educational Supplement, 14 November 1997.

8. Lincoln Crawford, "Inquiry into Employment Practice and Procedures", L.B. of Hackney, 7 November 1997.

9. Tony Elliston, "Letter to Cllr N.Tallentire", L.B. of Hackney, 29 May 1996.

10. Tony Elliston, "Investigation into Allegations against the Director of Housing", L.B. of Hackney, 21 January 1997.

11. Tony Elliston, "A Different World from 5 January", Leading Hackney (under new management), November 1997.

12. Brenda Etchells and Vernon Hince, "The Hackney Inquiry: Report for Labour Party NEC", Labour Party, 31 July 1996.

13. Eileen Fairweather and Stewart Payne, "Labour Rebels Demand Aids Man Inquiry", Evening Standard, 3 September 1996.

14. Eileen Fairweather and Stewart Payne, "The Hackney Scandal", Evening Standard, 4 September 1996.

15. Julie Grimble (Labour Group Secretary), "Letter to All Members of Labour Group", Hackney Labour Group, 4 September 1996.

16. Julie Grimble (Labour Group Secretary), "Letter to All Ward Secretaries: Mark Trotter", Hackney Labour Group, 4 September 1996.

17. Julie Grimble (Labour Group Secretary), "Mark Trotter" (Press Release), Hackney Labour Group, 4 September 1996.

18. Hackney Action Group, "Letter and Petition to Tony Blair", Summer 1997.

19. Ken Hanson, Jacob Grosskopf, Ian Sharer et al, "Letter to Julie Grimble (Labour Group Secretary)", Hackney Labour Group, 3 September 1996.

20. Ken Hanson, Jacob Grosskopf, Ian Sharer et al, "Letter to Tony Blair", Hackney Labour Group, 8 September 1996.

21. Roy Hattersley, "The Tartan Tories’ Smears Just Won’t Wash", Guardian, 25 August 1997.

22. Peter Kenyon (LBLG Chief Whip), "Letter to ’X’’’, Hackney Labour Group, 2 July 1997.

23. Patrick Kodikara and Ivan Beavis, "Letter to Herman Ouseley, Chair, C.R.E.", Hackney R.E.C., 22 September 1993.

24. Lester Lewis, "Letter to All Councillors: Hackney Borough Council and African (Black) People", Hackney Black Peoples Association, 11 August 1992.

25. Ian Macdonald, "Inquiry into Recruitment Fraud and Corruption: Report", L.B. of Hackney, 1996.

26. Scarlet MccGuire, "A Dance to the Music of Spin", New Statesman, 17 October 1997.

27. Maurice Mcleod, "Report Damns Council Racism", Voice, 17 November 1997.

28. Fiona Mitchell, "Race Bias Report Accuses Council", Hackney Gazette, 13 November 1997.

29. Dick Murray, "Huge Increase in Bus and Tube Fares", Evening Standard, 31 January 1997.

30. NSPCC, "NSPCC Investigations into Mark Trotter" (Press Release), 25 July 1997.

31. Stewart Payne and Eileen Fairweather, "Why Did it Take Hackney So Long to Act?", Evening Standard, 24 July 1996.

32. Stewart Payne and Eileen Fairweather, "How Hackney Bungled Vital Child Aids Inquiry", Evening Standard, 19 August 1996.

33. Mike Penn (National Constitutional Officer), Letter "To Certain Members of the Hackney LBLG", Labour Party, 4 September 1996.

34. Jo Revill, "The Labour Spin Doctor Who Left Me Reeling", Evening Standard, 3 November 1997.

35. Cllr Gerry Ross, "Corruption and Malpractice in Hackney Council: Letter to Tony Blair", Hackney New Labour Group, 10 April 1997.

36. Nigel Rosser, "Labour Steps in to Clean Up Hackney", Evening Standard, 1 August 1996.

37. Patrick Sawyer, "Hackney Acts on Crisis over Child Abuse Split", Evening Standard, 20 September 1996.

38. David Taylor and Sally Pook, "Hackney U-Turn Brings Inquiry into Abuse Case Exposed by Standard", Evening Standard, 12 September 1996.

39. Paul Waugh, "Hackney Accused of ’Racism and Cruelty’", Evening Standard, 11 July 1997.

40. Tony Whelan, "Letter of Complaint to Hackney Council re Smoking by the Chief Executive", 5 December 1997.

41. Tony Whelan, "Council Criticised for ’Racial Discrimination’ Against Staff" (Press Release), Hackney UNISON, 28 September 1993.

42. Tony Whelan, "Hackney: A Suitable Case for Treatment", New Interventions, Summer 1997.

43. Tony Whelan, "Hackney Mire", Tribune, 7 November 1997.

44. Tony Whelan, "Guest Columnist: Racial Injustice is NOT Decreasing", New Nation, 24 November 1997.

45. Tony Whelan, "Straight Talking: Racial Injustice is NOT Decreasing", Caribbean Times, 24 November 1997.

46. Jerry White (Hackney Chief Executive), "Hackney Does Not have a Hidden Agenda on Race" (letter), Local Government Chronicle, 12 August 1994.

47. Jerry White (Hackney Chief Executive), "Council Values All its Workforce" (letter), Hackney Gazette, 26 August 1994.

48. Michael White (presenter), Week at Westminster, Radio 4, 25 October 1997.

49. Patrick Wintour, "Hackney Official Alleges Labour Row Intimidation", Guardian, 30 May 1996.

50. Workers’ Liberty, Commentary: "The Return of Hope", May 1997.