‘There’s been a missile attack at Heathrow you’ll have to do the Today Programme!’ – The Press Officer’s Guide Lesson 11 – Be Prepared for anything!

With the IRA attacking Heathrow Paddy's plane was delayed and so I had to do the Today Programme...

Leader’s visits are the highlight of any election campaign. The 1997 General Election was no exception.  Paddy Ashdown was due to fly into Plymouth airport, twenty minutes from his first visit of the day at Saltash Community School in South East Cornwall, where I was the agent.

Colin Breed was to meet the leader at the airport and arrive, by battle bus at the school, to be followed by a 45 minute walkabout of the classes talking to staff and students.

It was an excellent visit designed to engage with the party’s top policy of the time to raise income tax by 1p in the pound to pay for education.

With an early morning press conference in London the leader’s entourage would board a plane from London to Plymouth, arriving at the school in time for the first lesson of the day.

The arrival time was anticipated between 8.30am and 9am.  As such a gaggle of local and national journalists began to assemble outside the school in anticipation.

A gentleman in a nice suit, from Special Branch, took a call and after a few moments of concerned conversation he sidled across to me to tell me some bad news. ‘There’s been a rocket attack by the IRA at Heathrow airport and all flights have been grounded until further notice, he’s going to be late, very late!’

Although this was manageable with the school a number of the journalists, especially those who were hoping for a live comment from Paddy at the gate were about to be disappointed.

One of them, from Radio 4’s Today Programme, had only turned up to make sure he had something for the programme before 9am, when it ended, and with 9am fast approaching guess who was press-ganged into action.

Thankfully I was not expected to comment on the party’s policies nor the reason for Paddy’s visit to the school, he just wanted the much better story of why Paddy was late and whether this was something we normally have to deal with. I told him it was not!

Paddy arrived about three hours later.

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