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Category: Spin by Government

While grave mistakes were undoubtedly made and many questions remain unanswered, the security service MI5 deserves to be commended on the manner in which it published a detailed account of one of the largest anti-terrorist surveillance operations in its history. On the completion of the Old Bailey trial at which five men were jailed for life, MI5 immediately released a dossier of data on its website. All sections of the news media -- and the rest of the world -- had simultaneous access to the same information.

One of the country’s most secretive organisations -- which over the years has leaked like a sieve to selected journalists -- was demonstrating that it is possible to ensure equal access and a level playing field for the media. Whatever the shortcomings in its account as to how the July 7 London bombers slipped through the net, MI5 reminded the government, on the day before Tony Blair celebrated the competition of a decade in power, that there are alternative communication strategies to the squalid and politically corrupt spin routines which have so besmirched the Labour administration.

Thanks to email and websites government departments and public authorities can now communicate instantly not just with the media but also with pressure groups, campaigners, bloggers and the like. All these disparate interests can have access to the same information at the same time.

Ensuring equal access would bring immediate gains if it became the accepted practice in Downing Street and Whitehall: all sections of the news media would be on an equal footing and activists would be able to verify the accuracy of information immediately rather than have to rely on second-hand or perhaps misleading news reports.

What has been so noticeable about the Blair years has been the government’s failure to embrace the dominance of the internet and use the instant communication which it offers to transform the way information is shared with the public, a step that would help to drive up editorial standards.

By depriving the news media of the deliberate and often calculated leaks and tip-offs which have become such standard practice for this administration, there would be no hiding place either for journalists who take advantage of the anonymity of their sources to embellish their reports or for those who have been left out of the loop and who seek to sabotage their colleagues’ exclusives with malicious or bogus stories.

Hence credit where credit is due. Once the Old Bailey trial had finished and the five men had been jailed for life (30.4.2007), media organisations were directed to the MI5 website which offered statements and extensive background information on the "conviction of the fertiliser plotters" and a separate dossier on "Rumours and reality: facts behind the myths". Within a matter of minutes television and radio programmes were quoting from the website; the information was instantly available to all potential recipients.

Believe me the occasions on which such sensitive information has been released simultaneously are few and far between. When the Queen celebrated her Golden Jubilee in 2002, Buckingham Palace provided "equality of access" for royal correspondents by publishing on its website a daily bulletin of events; accredited correspondents gained access by a password.

The first time I experienced that all-important equal access was during the 2003 Hutton Inquiry when at stipulated times on successive days documents, emails and correspondence were released on the Inquiry’s website. Several times I went live on BBC News 24 reading live from the website what was being revealed.

For all its faults, the Hutton Inquiry into the death of the weapons inspector Dr David Kelly did more than any other recent investigation to expose the covert exchange of information between the state and the news media. During cross examination Blair’s director of communications, Alastair Campbell, was forced to admit his hidden dealings with journalists.

He acknowledged that he had continued to "talk to editors and senior correspondents" despite the Prime Minister’s appointment of two official spokesmen whose duty it was to brief political correspondents at lobby briefings.

At no point during the days that led up to five newspapers identifying Dr Kelly as the source of the BBC’s story, did Campbell, in his determination to reveal that Andrew Gilligan’s contact had "broken cover", suggest making an announcement in a controlled manner through a lobby briefing, by a notice on the No. 10 website or a statement to the Press Association news agency.

His unseen and unwritten responsibility was the control he exercised over the flow of confidential data to trusted media outlets and I believe he did journalism a grave disservice by so often avoiding official channels of communication and by encouraging his fellow political advisers and government press officers to continue briefing journalists selectively and usually on condition of anonymity.

Needless to say there was no apology from Campbell in his eulogy for the Blair decade in the Daily Mirror (1.5.2007) and merely commiseration for Blair for having had the "bad fortune to be in power as the media age became a reality".

Perhaps he would have done better to have listened to Peter Mandelson’s mea culpa on Radio 4’s Today programme (1.5.2007): "We were perhaps too ready to place emphasis on our management of the media in those early years in government…"

(First published by Spinwatch 2.5.2007)