March 19, 2001
How do you put a positive gloss on Freemasons?
This transcript has been typed at speed, and therefore may contain mistakes. Newsnight accepts no responsibility for these. However, we will be happy to correct serious errors.
JEREMY VINE: If there were no Freemasons, we'd probably want to invent them. What they're accused of, is by turns, utterly sinister, and a bit silly. It's no surprise that they are the undisputed number one target of conspiracy theorists the world over. You can see why you would want to keep quiet about this! But are they keeping quiet about the more sinister bits, too?
UNNAMED MAN: I promise and swear that I will always hail, conceal...
VINE: It's difficult to keep an organisation with a head office as big as this secret. The Masons have avoided seriously bad publicity for a number of years now, but they've obviously just decided they can do better. Why do you need a PR company, given that you're secret?
JIM DANIEL: We're not secret. We are private, but we do want our members to talk more openly about what they enjoy about Freemasonry. We think that needs a professional focus, which is why we have got a professional PR company to help with that.
VINE: What's the difference between secret and private?
DANIEL: Secret is something you wouldn't know about, and private is something we will tell you as much as we want to.
VINE: But not very much?
DANIEL: We will tell you most of it. What we won't tell you much about, is what happens to an initiate when he comes in. Otherwise, everything is open.
VINE: Is this a part of the building we can see?
DANIEL: Yes. This is our main hall, what we call our grand temple. It is regularly opened to the public, we have conducted tours here every day, and we have public performances of opera and concerts, and so on. We also have our main meetings here.
VINE: Can you tell us who your members are? Can you tell us all their names?
DANIEL: No. I see no reason at all, why should give you a list of our members. Remember, last time that happened was in occupied France and occupied Germany. We know what happened to the Masons there.
VINE: Freemasonry of legend dates back to the medieval Knights Templars, or even to ancient Egypt, but more likely from the formation of the Grand Lodge of England in 1717. Its aim, to form a trade association of master craftsmen. After 1776, their influence on the American Revolution was so clear, that their symbol got on the dollar bill, and is still there today. More recently, since the mid-'80s, there have been at least 20 investigations into Freemasonry in local government here, from Cornwall to Derby. Since then, some MPs have fought to force compulsory declaration of membership on public figures. Even Lord Chancellors have had to explain away the hidden presence of the funny handshake brigade in the judicial ranks.
LORD MACKAY of CLASHFERN: Even if every High Court judge was a Mason, that wouldn't of itself prove that Masonry did any harm whatever to the administration of justice.
VINE: Masonic corruption was under the brightest spotlight in 1981, when a member of the infamous Italian P2 lodge, Roberto Calvi, who acted as financial adviser to the Vatican, was found hanged under the allegedly symbolically-named Blackfriars Bridge in London. His pockets weighted down with, yes, masonry. One inquiry rather implausibly decided he had committed suicide. Quite a history for any PR company taking on the Freemason Hall account.
JEANNIE WYNESS: I think we would like to reverse their image. They have had an enormous amount of bad press, and at the end of the day, they are an organisation which just do good works, and raise an enormous amount of money for charity. We would like people to know about that.
VINE: Those who think the Freemasons are little more than an establishment conspiracy with a PR agency aren't hard to find. Their once simple message is, if you're so open, you must reveal your membership list.
GERRY COULTER: I am very concerned about the fact that, because membership is not open to all and sundry, and that it's only a restricted number of people within our society, that key members within our society could give favours to their family and other Masons, could gain an advantage, that would otherwise not be open to ordinary people, and possibly to the detriment of non-members.
VINE: If this is paranoia, it is shared at the highest levels of political life, and has led to consistent parliamentary inquiries over the years. The Masons have fought a strong rearguard action against revealing something everyone already knows, that there are an awful lot of Freemasons, and lots of them are very important. The question is, other than a penchant for odd uniforms, do they really have something to hide?
JEREMY VINE: We are joined by Martin Short, who wrote a book on the Freemasons, and by Mike Dewar, who is running that account for them. You like a challenge?
MIKE DEWAR: Yes I do. It's one I am looking forward to taking on. I obviously have looked into this particular account, and I wouldn't take it on if I didn't think I could make a good fist of it.
VINE: What is the theme, what is the slogan or motto?
DEWAR: We are talking about a two-year, 18- month programme. We are not going to turn around the image that has accumulated over many years overnight, clearly. We are working towards something in June 2002. We are calling "Freemasonry in the community" week. We will start up a new glossy magazine. We will make the most of news hooks. We have made the most of the news hook of our appointment, and got publicity. It's not a bad start. I want to turn round a bad press. I acknowledge they have had one, and I don't think they deserve it.
VINE: Do they deserve it, Martin Short?
MARTIN SHORT: I think they do. This has happened before, in 1985, the Freemasons appointed a public relations firm. And since then, they have lost 100,000 members. The problem about public relations and Freemasonry, is you can't be a little bit pregnant. You can't expose your good works without exposing also some of your rituals, which of course they have admitted they are not going to do.
VINE: This initiation ritual, Mike Dewar, and all the various handshakes, will that be publicised?
DEWAR: No, it won't. I don't see why we're getting hung up on this. We should concentrate on the important issues, the fact they gave £17 million to various charities last year, the fact that they are good citizens, the fact that the organisation is public spirited. We ought to concentrate on that. It doesn't matter that they roll up trousers. I don't know what they do. Evidently, they roll up a trouser leg. Does it matter if they put a pink ribbon in their hair?
VINE: If you invite publicity, and you are rolling up a trouser leg, it's hard to disguise it. Saying "We want publicity for this, but not this".
DEWAR: I don't think so. You can have selective publicity. I will focus on what I believe is important. I am happy to talk about and answer questions. I don't know the precise answer about various rituals. I will emphasise I don't believe that is important.
VINE: You are not a member yourself?
DEWAR: I am not a Mason myself. I don't think it would be a good idea if I were. I can remain objective.
VINE: What would your slogan be?
SHORT: I would it's very positive for Mr Dewar not to be a Freemason. If he were, he might have his tongue torn out and his throat cut across, or his heart fed to the birds, according to these rituals.
VINE: It hasn't happened lately?
SHORT: Not as far as we know.
DEWAR: I'm very happy you are creating this absurd mythology, giving me a job to do. Those sort of statements are easily demolished. I don't reckon people believe that.
SHORT: I think people ought to know that their husbands or fathers or brothers are going through a ritual which involves having a hood put over their neck, a dagger pointed to their heart, and a rope around their neck. This might cause them to re-evaluate their marriage or their relationships.
DEWAR: I personally don't know. I have read in various books, not yours, what these are alleged to be. I don't think it matters. If they get a kick out of that, does that worry you?
DEWAR: There are all sorts of rituals in various organisations. I was a soldier. Many military uniforms are pretty funny or laughable.
SHORT: You didn't have a hood put over your head, did you?
SHORT: Over other people's heads.
DEWAR: That is not important. Really we ought to concentrate on the fact, that in my experience, most Masons are "good" men, public spirited men, from the Duke of Kent downwards, have been, or are Masons. Solemnly telling me that all these people have sinister intent, that is absurd.
SHORT: Quite a lot of famous Freemasons have gone to prison in the last 25 years.
DEWAR: Every group has its rotten apples.
SHORT: Entire units of the Metropolitan Police and the Flying Squad and the drug squad were Freemasons. They all, in the end, were sent to prison. When you are bonded by an oath of mutual defence and loyalty, you may well find that it is extremely difficult to squeal on your corrupt brethren.
VINE: Isn't that the most damaging charge, that people are doing themselves secret favours?
DEWAR: I don't think there's any proof. There may be rotten apples that do that. It's human nature.
VINE: Isn't it the culture?
It is not the culture. I am utterly sure. I have seen the constitution. That is not part of being a Freemason. It may be, like in any organisation, whether it be the Catholic Church, the military, the Civil Service, whatever, that you tend to prefer your mates. I don't know, but it is not the intent of the organisation.