Infamous British Political Scandals: ‘Spingate’

Jo Moore, advisor to then Transport Secretary Stephen Byers, in a September 2001 photo. (Fiona Hanson/AP Images)

 

Sometimes it seems as if Americans take a curious sort of pride in the shame of our government’s chicanery, like the Watergate, Iran-Contra or Teapot Dome scandals – perhaps that pride is in the exposure of the complicated depths of wrongdoing, even if we often fail to learn our lessons, or even, sometimes, to understand the implications of our politicians’ transgressions.

But we shouldn’t forget that our British cousins have been engaging in political shenanigans since way before our country even came into existence. Such political scandals are a main staple of books, plays, films and television dramas, like the British series State of Play, which is currently running on BBC America, Wednesdays at 10p/9c. So we thought now would be an opportune time to take a look at some of the most shocking real life political scandals from Britain – which is just what we’ll be doing over the coming weeks.

We start with a scandal that is, at its heart, about a major, indeed essential, ingredient of modern politics – “spin.”

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In 2001, Jo Moore, an aide to the UK’s Transport Secretary, sent a now infamous e-mail during the early hours immediately after the 9/11 attacks.  “It is now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury,” Moore suggested to her colleagues. The following month, the e-mail was leaked to the press, and Moore issued an apology. She received the support of her boss, then Transport Secretary Stephen Byers, and his boss, Prime Minister Tony Blair, though Blair called the e-mail “horrible, stupid and wrong.” Moore, however kept her job.

In mid-February 2002 new reports surfaced that Moore had again suggested using a news event, this time Princess Margaret’s funeral, as another good occasion to release bad news. Moore vigorously denied she ever proposed the Princess Margaret scheme, blaming others in the ministry, specifically her boss, the ministry’s communications director Martin Sixsmith, for fabricating the story. In her resignation letter, quoted by the BBC, Moore wrote: “Clearly there are some individuals in the department who are not prepared to work with me and are even prepared to invent stories about me as they have done this week.”

As a result of the outrage over the incident, Sixsmith also left his job, but even the circumstances of his exit —  Sixsmith insisting he had never agreed to resign — were followed by an elaborate series of charges and counter-charges (yes, even more “spin”) that involved figures at all levels of the ministry and even the Prime Minister’s office. Transport Secretary Byers clung to his job, but only for a few months – he resigned at the end of May 2002.