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Philip Bassett, journalist, 1954-2018

8 June 2018

John Lloyd

Philip Alan Bassett was among the outstanding reporters on UK labour and industry in the turbulent 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

His longest attachment in journalism was to the Financial Times from 1978 to 1988: but he also worked on the short-lived Sunday Correspondent (1989-90), the BBC (1989-91) and The Times (1990-97).

Labour journalism in the seventies remained largely one of coverage of the strategies and practices of trade unions on the one side and employers’ industrial relations on the other, with strikes as the main drama.

Labour staffs were important departments: in the FT, as many as five reporters were deployed; the coverage seeking to eschew political bias in favour of informed neutrality.

The fullness of the coverage and the space given to analysis suited Bassett’s energetic and inquiring style: he passed rapidly from labour reporter to correspondent to editor, concentrating on the consequences of the reforms and constraints introduced by the Thatcher governments.

His 1986 book Strike Free was an early insight into the sharp diminution of decades of trade union power and influence. In 1983 he was named Reporter of the Year in the British Press Awards for a typically robust and critical piece of analysis on the printers’ strike which had put the FT off the streets for months the previous year.

His shorter periods at the Sunday Correspondent and the BBC were less happy. At the latter, the much snappier style of television reporting did not suit him. At The Times, the range of his responsibilities widened from labour to industry as a whole.

The second part of his working life was overtly political in the service of New Labour. From a working-class family in Birkenhead — his father a painter working for Unilever, his mother a homemaker, with an older and a younger brother — Bassett won a scholarship to Oxford; and in his period in journalism, he was a sceptic of politics.

New Labour, however, captured both his imagination and loyalty: he joined the Number 10 team under director of communications Alastair Campbell soon after the 1997 election, and was assigned to develop strategic communications — outreach to the news media, speech writing and advice to ministers on presentation.

Not one of the very few intimates of the prime minister Tony Blair, he was part of the slightly wider circle of advisers on whom they relied, with a reputation, like that of Mr Campbell, as someone who drove not just communication but policy.

He moved to be a senior adviser to Charles Falconer, secretary of state for constitutional affairs; then became head of the office of Catherine Ashton, and then Janet Royall, leader of the Lords. He resigned in 2014.

Bassett met in 1983 his long-term partner, Elizabeth Symons, who had been general secretary of the First Division Association, the trade union for senior civil servants, and, as Baroness Symons, served as a Labour government minister in the Foreign Office, then defence, followed by trade.

They had a son, James, in 1985, and married in 2001. The couple were a rare example in both being prominent and fully engaged political figures. The union was often stormy, but always close and never, as she said, boring. Asked for his greatest achievement as he was dying, Bassett said it was “his relationship with Lizzie”. She helped him recover from leukaemia in 1992, and was, with James, constantly at his side through his final days with cancer.

This obituary first  appeared in the Financial Times

Tags: , Philip Bassett, FT, financial times, obituary, labour correspondent