He was commissioned into the South Wales Borderers in 1940 and served in Burma during the war. After a distinguished army career spanning the Malayan Campaign (1955-57) and the Cyprus Campaign (1958-59) he became defence correspondent for The Times in 1961. In 1964 he was appointed Minister of State for Foreign Affairs by Harold Wilson to deal mainly with disarmament. He held this post until 1970 when he became deputy chairman of the IBA.
Since 1980 he has chaired the House of Lords All Party Defence Group and, since 1990, the Radio Authority. He is author of several books including Montgomery of Alamein (1976), Defence of the Realm (1987), By God’s Will (1987), A Portrait of the Sultan of Brunei (1989) and The Shadow of my Hand (2000).
I found Lord Chalfont very interesting to talk to. He never avoided an honest reply to a question I put to him. Not easily provoked, he remained cool and collected throughout our interview. A rather amiable character despite his litany of old-fashioned, rather rigid views on a number of subjects; a man one can hardly ignore.
Here is the full text of our encounter, which took place in 1993.
Most people describe you as a military man first and foremost. Is that a description you bear with pride?
Yes, it is. I’ve always regarded my principal profession as being that of a soldier. I joined the army when I was 19 years old and I didn’t leave it again for nearly 25 years. I’m the kind of animal who like to live in a structured environment; I don’t like untidiness and lack of self-discipline. There was also an immense sense of common purpose which I’ve never found anywhere else outside the army.
You had a very distinguished army career … was it very difficult to make the transition to civilian life?
I thought it was going to be, but I had the advantage of having a transitional period. I was invited by the editor of the Times to join the newspaper as military correspondent, a post which came to be known as defence correspondent. For the next three years I spent a lot of time with the armed forces, so I was able to make the change very gradually.
In what way do you think your military career equipped you for life in the ‘real’ world, so to speak?
As part of my military career I had to pass through a series of educational establishments and staff colleges, and there one learned the art of organizing one’s thoughts. I was under the supervision of soldiers of great distinction, carefully chosen for this job, and they would not allow second rate thinking. They demand first rate answers to the problems, be they military, political or human, and this gave me the ability to approach every problem in a considered, organized way. I also served in five different military campaigns, mainly anti-terrorist campaigns, which helped condition my thinking, so all in all it was a very interesting and worthwhile training for the real world.
You spent a great deal of your life with men. Were you more at ease generally with men rather than women?
No. I’ve never found it difficult to communicate with women. If it’s not politically incorrect these days to say it, I find women much more interesting intellectually than men. They have lively, flexible minds, and I prefer their company.
In 1961 when you became defence correspondent on the Times you were widely considered to be the most influential journalist in that area. Were you conscious of the influence you had, and the responsibility it carried?
Yes, largely because my editor at the time, Sir William Haley, had a very strong sense of the moral responsibility of a great newspaper, and he instilled a great deal of that into me. It was he who impressed upon me the importance of the job; he used to say that what I wrote in the Times would be noted by everybody in the government, especially the Ministry of Defence. I was the very first Times correspondent to be named. The editor broke the longstanding rule because he felt that what I was saying about the analysis of our defence policy and military strategy was important enough to broaden it out, and he also thought that some of the credit would rub off on the Times. So, yes, I was aware that I was having a good deal of influence.
You became Labour’s disarmament minister under Harold Wilson. Were you surprised to be offered this post?
I was astonished. I knew that Harold Wilson was looking for someone to fill this post, but it never occurred to me that I would be offered it. I was sitting quietly having a drink one Friday when I got a message saying that the Prime Minister would like to see me in Downing Street. I thought that he wanted to discuss some article that I had written, but to my surprise I was conducted into the Cabinet Room where Harold was sitting, puffing his pipe. He simply said: ‘I’d like to offer you the post of Minister of State for Foreign Affairs to deal mainly with questions of arms control and disarmament. Because of the nature of our majority I shall have to ask you to go into the House of Lords, and because of the nature of the information and intelligence with which you will be dealing I will have to ask you to be appointed to the Privy Council.’ I said I would require a little time to think about it, that I would have to consult my wife and the editor of the Times. He said, ‘Fine, there’s a room next door with a telephone, why don’t you go and do your consulting now and let me know your answer.’ The whole thing had to be decided there and then. I rang my wife who offered her support, and William Haley said that although he would be sorry to lose me it was a challenge I shouldn’t refuse. With that encouragement, I went back and told Harold Wilson that I would be delighted to do it. We had a few words which I have never really revealed to anybody before regarding the fact that I had never belonged to a political party, and that there were many things about Labour Party policy with which I disagreed. But he fully understood and said that I would not be required to support all the party policies.
Did having to join the Labour Party not go against the grain?
Yes. I have to confess that I’m not at home in ordinary political life; I’m only interested in foreign and defence policy, not domestic policy. In fact to some extent I am repelled by the internal workings of party politics. So it was a bit of a wretch at the time, but it did mean that I could carry out an exciting assignment which would involve negotiating with the Russians on nuclear weapons, and that was very worthwhile.
Your conversion to socialism was seen as your Road to Damascus, and this has perhaps made you slightly suspect in political terms, certainly inconsistent. Do you think that in those terms the appointment did you some harm?
No. It’s had nothing but good consequences. I know some people feel there has been political inconsistency, but it wasn’t a Road to Damascus because I didn’t become a socialist; I joined the Labour Party purely for politically expedient reasons. What led a lot of people to be embittered and to accuse me of political expediency of the worst kind was not when I joined the Labour government, but when I left the Labour Party in the 1970s. But all I was doing then was reverting to my old political beliefs.
After Labour lost office you gradually lost faith before resigning the Labour Whip. How did this disillusionment come about?
There were two principal areas. The trade unions were having much too much influence on the policy of the Labour Party and I felt that this was dangerous but what was really decisive was their attitude towards Europe in the 1970s. They refuse to take part in the European parliament, and I was then a very strong pro-European. I believed in the Common Market and in the good sense of our attempt to get into the Common Market. I found the Labour Party’s anti-European stance unacceptable and it was really on that issue that I resigned the Labour whip and went back on to the cross benches.
Have you changed your views about Europe since?
No, but I do think that Europe is going too far at the moment towards federalism, towards political union. I never believed strongly in political union; I believed rather in an economic community, the building up of an economic block of 300 million people who would have the same influence in the world as the United States. But I was never in favour of some kind of supranational European government with its own foreign policy, its own bank, its own monetary system. That I think is going too far.
Looking back on your time with Harold Wilson, how would you assess the man?
I have a very considerable affectation and admiration for Harold Wilson. I think he was a very clever politician. To say he was knowledgeable sounds rather patronizing, but what I mean is that he did know what was going on all the time, both in foreign and domestic policy. He was not, as some of our political leaders tend to be, orientated towards one at the expense of the other; he saw the task of a government in the broadest terms. He has a number of intellectual characteristics which were fairly unique, an incredible photographic memory, for example, which enabled him to quote speeches which he and other people had made years before almost verbatim. Leaving aside his political abilities which were very considerable, he had an immense quality of loyalty. Once he had given you his trust, put you in a position of responsibility, he would leave you to get on with it, and if something went wrong that was not your fault, you could be sure that Harold Wilson would not let you down. The obverse side of that coin is that he was not a good butcher, something which is generally thought to be a desirable characteristic of a prime minister. He hated getting rid of people, and in the brutal world of party politics, that was, I suppose, a bad thing. But I didn’t hold it against him; I thought his sense of loyalty outweighed that.
People talk a lot about Marcia Falkender and her influence over Harold Wilson. Was she very influential or is this exaggerated?
I think her influence has been greatly exaggerated. She had scarcely any influence in the truly political sense. Harold’s political views were far too well honed and thought out to be affected by kitchen cabinets. Where she did have influence was in the sense of controlling his diary, and that meant that the people who got to see Harold were the people that Marcia wanted Harold to see. That was what gave her most of her power.
When you lost faith and resigned your Labour Whip, didn’t you urge the then Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, to break away and lead a new party? This was before the Gang of Four…
How do you know that? I didn’t think anybody knew that…
Would you have been tempted to join them?
Oh yes. It was in 1973. I made a special appointment with Roy and told him that the party was going in the wrong direction, it was becoming anti-European, it was becoming collectivist and moving to the left, to use that rather crude expression. I told him that he was the clear standard bearer of what you might call a social democratic government – I think that was the phrase we were using then. And had he broken away at that time I would have been one of the first people at his side.
Do you think Roy Jenkins would have made a good prime minister?
He would have made an excellent prime minister. He is a man of considerable intellectual distinction. He was a very good speaker, and an intelligent and sophisticated politician. I know that this is the ‘What if?’ school of history, but if Roy Jenkins had taken his lead earlier he would have been successful. As it happened, it was too late. He didn’t seize the historical moment, and by the time the Gang of Four made their demarche, history had moved on.
By 1979 you were supporting Mrs Thatcher. What had prompted such a fundamental change – or were you really returning to your basic political instincts?
I wouldn’t say I was returning to my instincts; my instincts are much more centrist. If we approach things in the classic – and sometimes misleading – context of the right and left, I could be described as very right-wing on a number of things but quite left-wing on others. The reason why I became a strong support of Mrs Thatcher, and remain so to this day, is that she did something which Roy Jenkins failed to do: Margaret Thatcher grabbed the historical moment. Here we were, a nation that was getting very cynical about itself, we had lost our self-respect, our pride in our country, our influence in the world, and morale was very low. Along came Mrs Thatcher, who appealed immediately to my military instincts as a leader. She knew where she was going and she could explain to other people where she wanted them to go. In almost everything she did, certainly I’m the early days of her prime ministership, she gave this country back its self-respect, its image in the world. I wasn’t so much concerned with her political philosophy – I’m not an unreconstructed free marketer, so in that sense I’m not a Thatcherite – but I reacted very strongly to her leadership qualities, particularly during the Falklands campaign, which sent the message far beyond the Falkland Islands and Argentina that as far as this country was concerned aggression would not be allowed to go unpunished. It was a lesson that needed to be learned by our European allies, as well as the Soviet Union; indeed I’ve always regarded the Falklands as being a far bigger symbolic incident than just simply the recovery of those islands. I had my own views about the Falklands ever since I went there in the 1960s when Harold Wilson was in power, and I wasn’t mad about recovering them for their own sake; but what she did in authorizing the military to put together that task force and recover those islands was a message of extraordinary importance to the rest of the world.
I can understand your backing Mrs Thatcher in the first place, but don’t you think that in the last few years of her premiership, she went a bit too far and stopped listening to people?
It’s true to say that towards the end there was a sense almost of infallibility, but a great deal of blame for that should be attached to the people around her. There were not many people who were prepared to say to her, ‘Margaret, you’ve got this wrong and I will tell you you’ve got it wrong’. She was not receptive to polemic, but she was receptive to ideas, and had there been stronger people around her she would not have been allowed to become so arrogant as she appeared to become. The second thing I would say is that these were only the weaknesses that were the obverse of some immense strengths, and I always believe, whether you’re dealing with prime ministers or with people in your own business organization, that you must recognize that people are going to have both; you simply have to play to their strengths and try to reconcile yourself to their weaknesses. What happened with Mrs Thatcher was that people started to concentrate on her weaknesses and to ignore the fact that the strengths were still there. Perhaps the sense of infallibility had been allowed to grow too much, but I would never regard that as a reason for performing upon her the kind of political assassination executed by her rivals.
But isn’t the Tory party notorious for that kind of behaviour?
Any political party is prone to this kind of palace revolution style of politics. I just happen to think that on this occasion it was an especially unpleasant political act, the most unpleasant political act in my time in politics. Mrs Thatcher had great leadership qualities and clarity of vision, something we lack at the top at the moment.
Would you say that in general politicians today lack the intellectual ability of their predecessors?
Yes, but there is perhaps a basic reason for it. The extraordinarily intrusive nature of the media has meant a lot of people simply will not go into politics because they can’t stand the sense of nakedness and vulnerability involved. People of integrity and distinction are finding it much more difficult now to subject themselves to this kind of treatment.
When you became deputy chairman of the IBA in 1989, Lord Bonham-Carter, a former BBC vice chairman, said it was ‘the most flagrant example yet of politicization of government appointments’. Presumably you saw things rather differently?
Not entirely. Let me explain. Mark Bonham-Carter is of course a Liberal, and he has an especially jaundice view of anything that he regards as a quango, as a politicized public body. The reason why Mrs Thatcher asked me to go to the IBA was indeed political; she believed that the whole world of television was getting out of hand – programmes like Death on the Rock and so on – so to that extent it was political, but not party political. I think Mark Bonham-Carter took the view that a Conservative was being appointed by the IBA by a Conservative government – not true, of course, because I was and still am a cross bencher. The idea behind my appointment was to ensure that the regulatory body was tough enough to stand up to the television companies.
Bonham-Carter also said: ‘He is an openly right-wing ideologist. His views on broadcasting are unacceptable.’ This was a view quite widely shared at the time. Did you at least understand the basis of their concern?
Yes, because I’m ideologically opposed to people like Bonham-Carter on the subject of broadcasting. I’m not being rude about him, because I like him, and I hope I’m not being rude about Liberals, but I don’t believe in the kind of liberal attitude to broadcasting which is part of contemporary culture. I think there is far too much freedom in broadcasting, far too much violence in television; I don’t think that the sensitivities of older people and much younger people are given enough consideration by broadcasters. Television producers and reporters have begun to believe that they control the political agenda, and I believe this to be dangerous. So I fully understand why people like Mark Bonham-Carter and Paddy Ashdown were horrified when I was appointed to this post. Not only did I understand it; I was extremely pleased by it.
You had of course written the foreword for the Media Monitoring Report in 1987 which attacked programmes like Panorama and World in Action for so called left-wing bias…
I think if you look at my actual words, my criticism of the media then, and it remains so now, was that it is not bias of the left or right, it is a bias against the established order, against the police, against the army, against the church, indeed against everything that’s established. It’s iconoclastic, it’s nihilist and anarchist – that’s my objection to it.
But isn’t it good to keep the establishment on its toes?
To keep it on its toes, yes, but not try to take its place. There are far too many people in television now who regard themselves as alternative ministers. I’ve criticized one of them recently for thinking he’s the Foreign Minister, because in Bosnia, for example, I think that television is setting the political agenda. They’ve only got to show some heartrending pictures of a child with its leg blown off with the comment ‘Something must be done about this’, and the Foreign Office immediately starts to talk about sending in bombers and troops. This is a dangerous phenomenon in our public life. Journalists have become incapable of distinguishing fact from opinion; they have begun to usurp the functions of the elected government in a democratic country. I am a great believer in a degree of regulation of the media, if only to ensure that the aim of journalists should be to pursue the truth and not their own political agenda.
You said at the time that TV was essentially an entertainment medium that should not cover serious issues. Was that designed to be a deliberately controversial remark or was it a belief sincerely held?
Both. It was said on a programme with a man called Michael Ignatieff who is a somewhat opinionated young man. I wanted t provoke him, but it had more than a grain of truth in it. I really do think that a medium which deals in images is much more suited to entertainment than to information. I’ve always been a believer in the written and spoken word as methods of communicating ideas to people. If you want to communicate images or impressions, then use pictures.
You have always been very critical of Radio 4, particularly the Today programme where you thought there was ‘too much editorialization by the presenters’. Why do you regard this as such a bad thing?
To use those now rather jaded words of C P Scott: ‘Opinion is free but facts are sacred’. The most important thing about journalism is to separate presentation of facts from opinion, and my reason for criticizing Radio 4 and the Today programme especially was that they confuse fact and opinion. There are people who, by the very tone of their voice or by a comment at the end of an item, will slant the whole news story in a way obviously designed to condition people’s perception of the news; and I think that’s dangerous.
You singled out Brian Redhead as being one of the worst offenders for letting his opinions intrude in what was essentially a news programme. But as the obituaries showed, this was precisely what he was admired and respected for…
Well, he was admired and respected by people who are of the same view. It’s rather embarrassing that Brian has recently died – de mortuis nil nisi bonum – but I still believe that he was guilty of peddling his own political ideology in his programme. When people are writing obituaries they go over the top in terms of eulogy and don’t always present their real views, so I don’t take too much notice, but those who believe in the liberal culture in broadcasting would certainly say that Brian Redhead failed to uphold it. His own political ideology shone out of everything he said and did, even in the news programmes.
If I can press you a bit on this business of distinguishing between fact and opinion, which you regard as one of the principles of journalism … if you are able to tell the difference without difficulty, is it not reasonable to assume that other listeners can do the same?
I’m going to say something now that is disastrously unwise, but you see, everybody is not as sophisticated as I am. The vast majority of listeners to radio and watchers of television are not sophisticated; they are not political animals, and they do not necessarily recognize nuances and opinion, or distortion of facts. I know as I say this that it will sound very patronizing if it ever appears in print, and I shall be accused of insulting the intelligence of the public. But I’m not talking about intelligence; I’m talking about political sophistication, and it is possible for a large number of people to be fooled and deceived by clever purveyors, by clever communicators. All I am concerned to do is to alert people to the fact that everything they read in the newspapers or hear on the radio is not necessarily true, and what I want from the professional journalist is the presentation of two sides of a question, equally balanced, so that people may make up their own minds.
I know you don’t favour censorship but doesn’t any interference in the editorial independence of programmes inevitably introduce a degree of paternalism which is inappropriate in the late 20th century?
I don’t want any kind of interference with editorial freedom or with editorial discretion; I would be the very last person to suggest that, provided the normal conventions are observed. But if editorial freedom means blasphemy, obscenity, explicit sex, then I think somebody has to – if not interfere – at least try to educate.
But do you think it will ever be possible to have a truly independent broadcasting authority?
I don’t see any reason why the present regulatory authorities in this country should not be independent, provided they are properly appointed so that they cover a broad range of political opinion, a broad age spectrum, and a broad culture and ethnic spectrum. It is then perfectly possible through a process of discussion to arrive at decisions which are objective and balanced.
Would it be a cynical view to say that independence will exist only to the extent that the government of the day wishes it to be preserved?
That’s absolutely true. If the government of the day wants to control the media, it will control them, and can control them, if only by patronage, or by ensuring that the right people are in the right places. I can only say, however, that I have now been chairman of the Radio Authority for four years and there’s never been one single occasion when anybody from the government has tried to press any idea upon me. I have carried out the affairs of the Radio Authority totally independent, and there’s never been a hint of any government interference.
Would you say that there is still a left-wing bias in the media today?
I must insist that I’ve never said there is left-wing bias. Let’s deal with newspapers first. It doesn’t really matter if a newspaper is biased one way or another, because there is a broad range of newspapers and you know what you’re getting when you make a purchase. In local radio, there’s no place for bias, but in national radio – I’ve already cited the Today programme – there is sometimes a bias against the established order, a kind of radicalism, an iconoclasm, a wish to knock down everything that smacks of the establishment. The worst danger, however, is in television where there is a great deal of extreme radicalism, the desire to attack everything that is regarded as being traditional and established.
Does it make any sense to talk about establishment and anti-establishment nowadays, when what was regarded as the establishment does seem to be crumbling, or at least in disarray … the royal family, standards of behaviour in government, and so on?
The term ‘establishment’ is a piece of journalistic shorthand which has passed into the language and is of no importance. The establishment in that sense is undergoing a considerable battering at the moment, but I don’t care about that. I am interested in the established order rather than the establishment; that is to say, a society in which there are certain values like honesty, civility and courtesy, the rule of law and all the things that traditionally go to make up a compassionate and civilized society. When I say people are anti-establishment I don’t mean that they are against judges or the Garrick Club – because that doesn’t interest me; what worries me is when they start to question traditional and established values. We’re moving now into a terribly debilitated society, in which an unarmed policeman is stabbed when investigating a perfectly commonplace crime; in which private lives are spread across newspapers – whether they belong to the royal family or not is beside the point. I’m not necessarily concerned to keep the judiciary in its present form, or democracy in its present form; there are many ways in which democracy can be preserved without necessarily following the Westminster pattern, but I think we have all been extraordinarily fortunate to have been brought up in a society in which the feelings of other people are a matter of great importance, in which the freedom of the individual is paramount, unless he begins to impinge upon the freedom of others. It’s the whole Juadeo-Christian civilization which has come down to us over the centuries; and I don’t think that the next generation is going to live in a world nearly as civilized and as courteous and as at ease with itself as the one in which I have been able to live.
In 1991 there were calls for your resignation as chairman of the Radio Authority because you were also a director of a PR firm which was appointed to handle a commercial radio station. Before that you had to leave the Independent Television Commission because the same PR firm was advising two TV companies. You also had to resign from Hamilton Ingram, a private security firm, when you were chairman of the IBA. It does seem as if your career has been dogged by a number of conflicts of interest…
Conflicts of interest arise for anybody who is active across a broad spectrum of life as I am; the main thing is to resolve them at once, and in each of those cases I took immediate steps to deal with the situation. In the case of the Radio Authority I ensured that the company with which I was involved resigned from its contract. I chose to resign from the IBA, because the company with which I was concerned had important contracts, which I didn’t want them to lose. I also immediately resigned from Hamilton Security, where there was a similar conflict. I’m involved in industry, in business, in quasi-government affairs, I’m also involved in the House of Lords – surely anybody who lives a full life of the kind I live must expect conflicts of interest. What is important is your own personal integrity which will ensure that if a conflict arises you will resolve it in an honest and straightforward way; I have always moved very quickly, within hours, to take appropriate steps, and I think that’s all that anybody can do.
Were you upset when Paddy Ashdown tabled a Commons motion saying that your business interests were incompatible with the independence required of your appointment? Did you understand the basis of his disquiet?
No, I didn’t. What he seemed to be assuming was that if a conflict of interest were to arise I would in some way attempt to conceal it or to benefit by it; and I find that very offensive, not to say simple-minded.
You were very critical of Thames TV’s Death on the Rock. Was this chiefly because of what you saw as a lack of balance in the programme, or did your criticisms go deeper than that?
I thought it was a totally irresponsible and seriously damaging programme, because it gave only one view of the SAS operation on Gibraltar. It might have been excusable if they had made another programme concentrating on the violence of the IRA and the fact that if they had been allowed to complete their operation hundreds of innocent people might have been killed. None of that came out in Death on the Rock, and that’s why I crossed swords with them.
But wasn’t what took place on Gibraltar murder, and as such morally repellent?
Well, here I think you have to make some allowances for my military background. If I explain to you that I regard the situation with the IRA as a war, perhaps you will understand my point of view. We should not speak in terms o murder – I think ‘shoot to kill’ is a totally irrelevant concept. If you have an armed enemy, and that armed enemy is determined to kill you or the citizens of your country, you are totally entitled to use the same measure against him or her. It’s a war, and people get killed in wars, and unless terrorists are made to understand that they risk being killed in pursuit of their terrorism, we’re going to lose the war.
But aren’t you afraid that an innocent man might be murdered?
There is a danger that innocent people will get killed. But I take the view, which perhaps you would regard as too simplistic, that the terrorists are killing innocent people all the time. I am perhaps less worried than you about the possibility of one innocent person being killed in a counter-terrorist operation than the certainty of a hundred innocent people being killed if that operation doesn’t take place.
You are regarded as the most controversial of peers. Do you rather relish this public image?
I used to. I used to love controversy, public debate and argument, and I would often make provocative remarks simply for the fun of it. The joy of that has gone to some extent, and I would prefer now to be regarded as a wise father figure in politics. I feel less agitated now, less excited when someone disagrees, more serene. As you get older you come closer to one of the great mysteries, which seems altogether more interesting and important than some of the sideshows here.
How important has your private family life been in supporting you through public life?
Enormously. My wife is a paediatrician by profession, highly intelligent, and she has been extremely supportive throughout the whole of my life. We had a tragedy early on in our marriage when we lost a child, and for various reasons we didn’t have more children. So my family really consists of my wife, who has been totally and utterly dependable all the way and especially strong when there have been difficulties.
You must have developed a thick skin over the years in politics … have you ever longed for a quieter life, out of the public eye?
I’m beginning to feel that way now. I’m not going to go on forever running large industrial companies, the Radio Authority and the various other interests. As that happens I hope that there won’t be so much of the public eye, but I can’t pretend that I haven’t enjoyed it.