Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

Guest lecture by Nicholas Jones at Loughborough University, 7.11.2007

Tony Blair finished his decade in power as badly damaged by the word "spin" as John Major was by "sleaze". How, after a mere one hundred days in office, could Gordon Brown have ended up with the same dreaded label "spin" hanging just as firmly around his own neck? What the new Prime Minister has become a victim of is the uncontrolled spinning which is not only eroding the credibility of the government but is also destabilising his party and eating away at trust and friendship within the wider Labour and trade union movement.

From its inception New Labour encouraged a culture of spin which is now more deeply embedded within Britain than other comparable countries. The relationship between our politicians and the news media is much closer, more manipulative and poses a far greater threat to the democratic process. But in place of the control freakery of the early Blair years, what we are witnessing is a new phenomenon. By uncontrolled spin I mean the unstoppable trade in anonymous quotes, leaks and tip-offs which, for example, did so much damage within the party during the final years of the Blair-Brown feud and which is still causing just as much mischief.

It is the same runaway spin which fuelled so much speculation about a snap general election that the hype developed a momentum of its own, with the result that Brown found he had boxed himself in.

How, you might ask, could I possibly sustain this criticism when in a recent speech on strengthening individual rights, Brown committed himself to protecting the individual and establishing the "freest possible flow of information between government and the people"?

What Brown was talking about was strengthening the Freedom of Information Act to ensure wider access to information and also perhaps a reduction from thirty to twenty years in the period which has to elapse before cabinet records and government papers are available for public access. What Brown did not do in that speech was turn the spotlight on himself or the various covert methods by which the government supplies information to the news media, much of it being done on an exclusive and anonymous basis.

While most seasoned political observers take with a pinch of salt a lot of what is attributed to "friends", "insiders" and various other anonymous sources, this has increasingly become the way information is traded with the media and journalists aren’t entirely to blame.

Believe me there are a host of Labour Party insiders, not least the burgeoning band of political advisers, who do have a licence to brief the media and whose very existence and loose talk gives political journalists every opportunity to choose their own storylines -- dare I say even to manufacture them -- and to put on them whatever spin they like. We do have a generation of journalists prepared to make up quotes and a system of public administration which is facilitating rather than discouraging the exchange of information on an off the record basis.

The publication last month of Dr Anthony Seldon’s new book, Blair Unbound, makes my point. Among its most sensational claims is the assertion that Tony Blair said he felt like an "an abused and bullied wife" after being savaged by Ed Balls, now the Schools Secretary, who is also alleged to have accused Gordon Brown of having "bottled it" in 2006 for not having moved in for the kill against Blair. Seldon lists the ministers, largely Blairites, who were interviewed for the book. But the most venomous disclosures are from the massed ranks of the anonymous: "a Downing Street aide", "a No 10 insider", "a well-placed insider", "a long standing Brownite", "a close aide", "a close colleague" and so it goes on, a total of three hundred "private interviewees", any source you like except the real source of the quote.

Here we get a glimpse of the cancer which is eating away at the body politic, a terrible legacy of the New Labour years. As the new Prime Minister found to his cost over the run-away speculation about a possible snap election, he was no longer in control. The spin was running ahead of him. His coterie of acolytes and spin doctors, egged on by journalists, had become like pacemakers in a marathon, urging on party members to ever greater effort. Brown cannot blame anyone but himself. This way of doing business with the news media has become endemic within the government, among ministers and their advisers, and when it comes to spin the new Prime Minister has form. Indeed if ever there was a serial offender on probation it has to be Brown himself.

Previously as Chancellor and now as Prime Minister, he has shown no hesitation in going right over the head of political correspondents and speaking directly to editors themselves.

When the front pages of newspapers like The Times and the Daily Telegraph said they had "learned" or could "disclose" that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are to make a major concession on capital gains tax (31.10.2007) then you can be sure this was code for Brown himself. No anonymous source needed to be quoted in the entire length of their stories: The Times and the Daily Telegraph required no further re-assurance, they had heard it direct from Downing Street. All journalists love nothing more than to have off-the-record conversations.

Politicians down the years have always availed themselves of such opportunities. But in my view what we have now is a step change: spinning and leaking have become institutionalised within the Labour government. The danger of colluding with journalists is that it can rebound big time, as Blair and now Brown have learned the hard way. Un-attributed quotes are a gift for journalists and such is the demand for exclusives stories, politicians can hardly blame the reporter who uses his imagination. Last month, just before he set off for a public relations congress in Dubai, Alastair Campbell said those around Brown, who had spent their time speculating about an election, should "get back in their box".

I thought that was a bit rich coming from the arch exponent of the off-the record briefing and anonymous tip-off. But the real worry for Labour is that I do not think Brown can put the spinners "back in their box". Before I try to justify my assertions perhaps I should give you this health warning. In July 1993, I attracted a great deal of notoriety for being the first journalist to report that Peter Mandelson was shifting his attention from Brown to Blair. In his early years as the Labour Party’s director of communications, Mandelson had been particularly close to Brown but what I had detected in the spring and summer of 1993 was that Mandelson was beginning to spend more time advising Tony Blair, who was then the shadow Home Secretary, than he was promoting Brown, the shadow Chancellor.

Blair, guided by Mandelson, was beginning to select the higher profile interviews. Mandelson told me -- and I do have a nasty habit of squirreling away my quotes and attributing them -- that he thought Blair, who was doing fewer but more targeted interviews, was "wise to adopt a thoughtful approach" in contrast to the frenetic, scatter-gun behaviour of Brown who rarely if ever turned down an opportunity to comment or be interviewed. My article on the Guardian’s media page obviously touched a raw nerve. Although I had no idea at the time, my observations fourteen years ago about the differing media strategies of Blair and Brown -- and Mandelson’s pivotal role -- were a pointer to the drama and intrigue that was to come.

My commentary prompted a torrent of abuse and recrimination of a kind which will be recognised by anyone who has had the misfortune to endure a Mandelson dressing down:

"I feel such hurt…What an incredibly clever, tendentious and distorted piece of writing…I now realise that every time I speak to you, you write down our conversations…You have abused trust and friendship, all because you want to make yourself a media star…You have done a hatchet job…You have woven one or two facts and embroidered them into a rich tapestry…It’s pathetic…I hope I never have any contact with you ever again".

If Alastair Campbell was asked to give his two penny worth about my critique on New Labour and its addiction to spin, his response would be equally forceful but perhaps a little fruitier. To set the scene I have to take you back to the late 1980s when several powerful forces combined to accelerate and entrench the culture of spin. It was New Labour, under the guidance of spin doctors like Mandelson and Campbell, who proved most adept at exploiting the expansion in broadcasting and the change in the way in which political and parliamentary affairs were covered by the press. Instead of straight reporting of who said what, newspaper journalists were required to concentrate on the background to political dramas, to speculate about the next crisis and to find out more about the personalities involved.

Although radio and television were usually first with news of the day’s events, the national press found new ways to command attention and the headlines came to be dominated by exclusive, agenda-setting stories. No radio or television newsroom could afford to ignore what the newspapers were saying, and that is still the case. All too often the press has the advantage, thanks to anonymous briefings and leaked documents. Peter Mandelson realised that information could be traded un-attributably with journalists, like a currency, in return for favourable publicity. What made it so easy for him and the rest of Labour’s spin doctors was that they were pushing at an open door.

Because of cuts in editorial staff, ever tighter deadlines and new technology, journalists found they had less and less time to make inquiries or check facts, let alone do proper investigative work. What made New Labour’s manipulation of the media so successful was that Mandelson and other key personnel were well ahead of the Conservatives in understanding and satisfying the needs of radio and television. Once a story had been floated in a newspaper, Mandelson’s inside contacts at the BBC and ITV, coupled with his expertise in controlling the deployment of the front bench team, gave Labour a head start when it came to encouraging broadcasters to swallow the spin and follow the story-line which best suited the party.

Labour’s spin doctors knew full that while newspapers remained entirely free to support whichever political persuasion they preferred, the BBC and ITV were required under the terms of their licences to be fair, balanced and politically impartially. Again Labour were more sure footed than the Conservatives in exploiting these safeguards to the party’s advantage. Once in power the New Labour hierarchy could not give up their addiction to spin. Instead they became spin junkies. Blair doubled and then nearly trebled the number of ministerial special advisers -- or should I say spin doctors -- whose job it was under Alastair Campbell to grab the agenda. We all remember their names, Charlie Whelan, Jo Moore and so on.

It was their job to brief journalists and, just like Campbell, they did so on an anonymous, non-attributable basis. Such was their fixation with the need to keep feeding the news media with exclusives, they had no inhibitions about leaking decisions by their own government or passing on other confidential data. No wonder Parliament has been so by-passed and its authority so undermined. Is it any surprise that the neutrality of the civil service is now in question or that there is such distrust of official statistics? And the trouble has been -- and still is -- that Labour’s spin doctors do not stick just to the party line. Remember we are talking about party activists who are given the status of temporary civil servants, their salaries paid by the taxpayer.

In a flagrant abuse of civil service codes of conduct, they were quite prepared -- and are still quite prepared -- to use anonymous briefings to spread poison about party members or public figures who previously fell foul of the Blair regime or who now incur the wrath of Brown’s inner circle. Names from the Blair years come readily to mind: Ken Livingstone, Clare Short and numerous trade union leaders. What must not be forgotten is that Brown himself was always an avid student of media manipulation and helped create the culture of spin which became so deeply ingrained in the very fabric of New Labour. For example, as an up-and-coming frontbencher in the late 1980s, he quickly established himself as a forthright parliamentary performer, able to attack the Conservatives where it hurt.

He was assiduous in courting journalists, ever anxious to satisfy their demands for exclusive information and access. He understood the kind of stories which the media craved for and he soon became a highly-effective conduit for leaked data which he distributed to political correspondents with pin-point precision in order to embarrass Tory ministers. Such was his skill in exploiting any ammunition which was slipped to him by disenchanted civil servants, that he attracted a constant flow of confidential documents throughout the Thatcher and Major administrations. Brown’s erstwhile spin doctor Charlie Whelan operated a clearing house for leaks dispensing the shadow Chancellor’s booty with deadly accuracy.

He was aided and abetted by Brown’s economic adviser Ed Balls who was ready and waiting to give a briefing on whatever the leaked document revealed. There were many willing supplicants for Brown’s largesse among Westminster’s political correspondents but they were never allowed to forget the precondition that when it came to the placing and timing of any story it was Whelan and Balls who pulled the strings. When Labour won in 1997, Brown transferred to the Treasury his well-honed techniques for feeding journalists’ appetite for leaks and in my estimation, after nine years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Brown remained his party’s most prolific and longest serving trader in confidential data.

Brown’s great skill, both in opposition and in government, has been an ability to keep himself at arms length from the circulation of leaked information. For example, shortly before the 1997 general election, Brown’s aides and Labour Party publicists took great delight in briefing journalists on the contents of a leaked copy of Kenneth Clarke’s final Budget for the Conservatives.

However, when challenged on the Today programme, he denounced those responsible and said "nobody can condone the leak of sensitive Budget matters". Brown was similarly upstanding when he got caught up in the 1999 scandal over the way Labour Mps were found to have leaked to ministers copies of unpublished House of Commons select committee reports.

Don Touhig, the Chancellor’s parliamentary private secretary, resigned after it was discovered he had accepted a leaked report on child benefit just before Brown delivered Labour’s 1999 Budget. On finding himself embroiled in what was seen as a government-inspired attempt to undermine the independence of select committees, Brown insisted that neither he nor any other Treasury minister had actually been given or read the leaked document. Notwithstanding his embarrassment, once installed in the Treasury, Brown succeeded in turning into an art form the task of trailing -- or should I say spinning -- his own announcements.

But in his determination to manipulate the flow of information from the Treasury, and by eroding the long-standing tradition -- known as pre-Budget purdah -- of keeping secret even the most insignificant monetary changes, Brown reinforced the government’s reputation for being more concerned with spin than substance. On the numerous occasions he made financial statements to the House of Commons, there were often hardly any surprises left as most of the decisions had been pre-announced through leaks to favoured journalists. Therefore, when in the run-up to Blair’s departure, Brown gave a promise that in future, under his Premiership, cabinet decisions would be announced first to Parliament, it signalled what looked like a real change of heart; perhaps a previous sinner was repenting after all.

His undertaking to do whatever he could to restore the authority of the House of Commons was widely welcomed and was greeted with the warmest applause at Labour’s special conference in June when the party’s new deputy leader Harriet Harman gave her support to the new style of politics which Brown had proclaimed. Putting less emphasis on presentation was considered to be an essential first step because at the root of the loss of trust in Blair’s administration was an over dependence on spin and what increasingly the public judged was the false presentation of government information, whether it was the misleading dossier on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or the every-day publication of what were subsequently seen to have been questionable official statistics.

To his great credit, in his first few days in 10 Downing Street, Brown went some way to honour his commitment to make announcements to Parliament rather than leak them beforehand. Some of the key changes in the appointment of his first cabinet were not spun in advance. His choice of Jacqui Smith as Home Secretary, the first woman to hold the post, was a genuine surprise. And the same went for his statement on constitutional reform: a possible reduction in the voting age to sixteen and the option of holding general elections over a weekend instead of on Thursdays had not been trailed ahead of the statement.

Brown promised so much in preparing for office. He gave repeated undertakings that a Labour government which he led would end its reliance on spin and turn away from the dark arts of media manipulation. Yet, four months into his Premiership, Brown has still to show any real sign of delivering on a badly-needed programme of reform to restore public trust in what the government says; to reinforce the independence of the civil service; and to help Parliament rebuild its authority by being the first to hear the decisions which ministers have taken.

What happened initially was that Brown became the master of events. The government’s priorities -- and also those of the news media -- kept changing so frequently that they drew the focus of attention away from abuses which needed correcting. As we all remember, within days of entering Downing Street, a succession of potential disasters -- a failed terrorist attack, unprecedented summer floods, an outbreak of foot and mouth and then a run on the Northern Rock bank -- gave the new Prime Minister an opportunity to project himself in a way which no one had quite predicted. His hands-on-approach to the threatening nature of these successive crises suited his sombre, matter-of-fact appearances on radio and television.

Almost effortlessly, over the space of a few weeks, he assumed a commanding position and immediately began to dominate the political agenda, giving the impression that he had succeeded in discarding the political baggage of the past. In an age of almost limitless news coverage, no Prime Minister needs a spin doctor when unexpected events speak for themselves, not least when the political leader in question is adept at meeting the news media’s deadlines and has an innate understanding of how to influence and help shape the day’s headlines. From the start there was no doubting who was in control and this assisted Brown in the presentation of numerous initiatives aimed at providing a fresh face for his administration.

His use of the media, helped as it was by the scale of the unexpected challenges which the government faced, was masterful when compared with the disarray which then existed in the Conservative Party. Indeed he deserved to be praised for what seemed to resemble the delivery of reverse spin, the very opposite of the Blair years. Nonetheless when it came to the all-important question of implementing the many pledges which he gave, there was precious little evidence of the substantive changes which were promised. Indeed, the reverse happened and the Prime Minister gradually slipped back into the bad habits of the past. Once Labour’s standing in the opinion polls began to improve last summer, he could not resist exploiting a sympathetic media environment.

It was at this point we saw the re-emergence of the Gordon Brown of old, addicted to the practice of managing his media image through the offer of exclusive access and interviews. We did not have long to wait: Brown the action man co-ordinating help for the flood victims in Gloucestershire was the theme of a report by the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson who was billed by the Ten O’Clock News (24.7.2007) as having been given "exclusive access to the Prime Minister". The day after the BBC’s "exclusive" it emerged the Sun had been given the same preferential treatment gaining the "first newspaper interview" with Britain’s new "workaholic" Premier.

Keeping the Sun onside, supporting Labour, has continued to be one of Brown’s top priorities and a subsequent pronouncement by Les Hinton, executive chairman of News International -- and Rupert Murdoch’s right hand man in London -- explained why it would be to the new Prime Minister’s advantage to go on supplying exclusives to Britain’s biggest selling newspaper. Hinton was effusive in his praise: "I think the next year will show Brown has been underestimated and my guess is he will turn out to be formidable". Indeed, not long after that accolade The Sun (25.7.2007) got not one but two exclusives. Brown understands the psychology of journalists and uses leaks and exclusives as a way of trying to discipline the media.

If he can get political correspondents into the mindset that they too might get an offer of preferential treatment, that they too might be in line for similar favours in the future, there is every chance they might be less hostile and prepared to go along with the spin which the government if offering. No wonder Brown gave the BBC’s Andrew Marr (Sunday AM, 7.10.2007) the biggest scoop so far of his Premiership -- the exclusive interview announcing there would be no snap election after all. But it was the new Prime Minister’s ill-fated visit to Iraq and his advanced trailing of a partial withdrawal of British troops from Iraq (2.10.2007) which showed that being on probation is nowhere near sufficient as a sanction.

When it comes to his failure to curb spin, Brown now warrants an Asbo or whatever the equivalent is of an anti-democratic behaviour order. Choosing the middle of the Conservatives’ annual conference to crudely pre-empt his own long-promised Parliamentary statement on future troop deployments in Iraq was a blatant example of spinning and it broke the spell, exposed the real Gordon Brown and signalled the start of the sudden slump in his political fortunes. Again, from what I have observed, Brown and his closest aides remain addicted to the black arts. They are continuing to collude with media proprietors, editors and executives.

The trade in exclusive stories, which can be so corrosive of political trust -- as I hope I have demonstrated -- is as strong as ever it was in the Blair years. Likewise there has been no meaningful reduction in the covert influence of the spin doctors or any attempt to curb the number of anonymous quotes from well-placed insiders. The two cabinet ministers who got the most blame for promoting the possibility of a snap election -- and for talking about it both on and off the record -- were Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander. Needless to say they are both well versed in the covert techniques used by special advisers and party researchers and are certainly no strangers to world of uncontrolled spinning.

The same goes for the new generation of spin doctors who have taken the place of Campbell, Whelan & Co. What they utterly disregard is the damage they are inflicting on their own government, let alone the way their behaviour reinforces the creeping politicisation of the civil service. Now that the government faces a much tougher political climate with the Conservatives in the ascendancy -- and a far more searching media spotlight -- what are the chances of Brown delivering on his much trumpeted promise to turn his back on spin? The omens are not encouraging in view of his continued failure to establish procedures which would guarantee a more open approach and less political interference in the immediate, day-to-day flow of information from state to public.

I am not talking about what might be discovered months later under the Freedom of Information Act but the hidden leaks and tip-offs that manipulate the day’s headlines. The fickle nature of the British news media, and the ability of the press to manufacture stories and sensationalise the political agenda, tested to the limit the patience of Tony Blair; certainly that was what he argued in his outgoing critique on the broken relationship between public life and the media. While Blair was honest enough to admit his own complicity, and that his administration "paid inordinate attention in the early days of New Labour to courting, assuaging and persuading the media", his soul searching was woefully inadequate.

In his defence of the need for a "proper press operation" he failed to own up to the way Alastair Campbell had abused the government’s information service and adopted techniques which had helped to accelerate rather than check declining journalistic standards. In castigating the British news media for "hunting in a pack…like a feral beast" Blair missed the point. It was his government which failed to take advantage of the growing dominance of the internet which allows the state to provide all journalists with the same information at the same time. Ensuring equal access by email and websites would bring immediate gains: all sections of the news media would be on an equal footing and so would pressure groups, campaigners, bloggers and so on.

No wonder political journalism remains a jungle when Downing Street’s policy is still one of divide and rule through the leaking of government decisions to favoured journalists. That’s not me saying that but Alastair Campbell himself, page 441 of his diaries, The Blair Years. Blair had asked aloud in January 2000 whether it was sensible politics to be at war with the press. Canpbell: "I wanted to undermine them, divide and rule. Blair felt we could continue to woo them". So it was not just political correspondents, as Blair argued, but Campbell and also, under his instruction the Whitehall information service, which were equally addicted to trying to "break stories to lead the schedules".

Brown still has the opportunity, if he cares to seize it, to make a clean break with the discredited media regime of the Blair years and his own misdemeanours. He could begin the process at a stroke by allowing his Downing Street spokesman Michael Ellam -- who is now known as the "Prime Minister’s spokesman" and not Campbell’s title of "official spokesman" -- to be identified by name, finally ending the absurdity of journalists attributing No. 10’s reaction to a nameless spokesman. Instead of allowing himself to be dogged by the spin and subterfuge of the Campbell years, Ellam could lead from the front.

Once clear about his own identity the No. 10 spokesman would have greater authority to make sure that important news was announced first at lobby briefings or on the Downing Street website, rather than through exclusive interviews or off-the-record conversations which only feed these competitive pressures. He might even have a word with the Prime Minister and discourage him from picking up the phone and talking direct to newspaper editors. Delivering the greater openness which Brown has promised can only be achieved by having a press secretary who can speak openly and authoritatively and who can be held publicly to account. Brown might then be persuaded to be even bolder and allow radio and television to record and film the Downing Street lobby briefings.

Televised briefings have been the norm for years in the White House and in most other democracies around the world. Unless the Prime Minister is ready to make a fresh start he stands little chance of controlling the unidentified insiders who were given such a free rein under Blair and who continue to roam around Westminster and Whitehall with gay abandon. Trying to deny un-sourced stories is no easy task in today’s media environment. If there was equal access to government information there would be fewer hiding places for those journalists who, either from choice or under the weight of competitive pressures, are tempted to make it up.

While I contend that Brown has become as guilty as Blair in allowing his aides to brief selectively and un-attributably about the content of ministerial statements, there is now a far wider understanding of the damage which this practice has inflicted on Parliamentary accountability. Advance trailing of announcements -- or in other words state-approved leaking -- became so institutionalised within government departments under the Blair regime that it will require a root and branch revision of the ministerial and civil service codes going far beyond anything which Brown has so far proposed or implemented.

Similarly if his pledge to put the independence of the civil service on a statutory basis is to have real teeth -- and his promise of a new act to enshrine in law the "principles and values of the civil service" was reiterated in the Queen’s Speech (6.11.2007) -- there will have to be a raft of new safeguards to prevent the continued manipulation of the flow of government information. Much was made by Brown on entering No.10 of his withdrawal of the 1997 order in council which gave two of Blair’s key political aides, Campbell and Jonathan Powell, the unprecedented power to give instructions to civil servants.

This change had been well flagged up in advance and the original decision was acknowledged by many Blairites as having been a mistake, so returning to the status quo and making it legally binding was hardly a great surprise. What Campbell has purposely skated over -- and of which he made no mention his diaries -- was whether Blair should ever have given him authority in the first place to chair meetings in Downing Street to oversee, for example, the presentation of the intelligence material on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.

To his credit, immediately after succeeding Blair, Brown did announce in his constitutional statement, The Governance of Britain (3.7.2007) that he would legislate to make sure that never again would a political appointee like Campbell be allowed to have the power to give instructions to civil servants. On a visit to Baghdad the previous month (11.6.2007), the Prime Minister in waiting went even further, giving a pledge that future analysis by the security and intelligence services would be kept independent of the political process; party spin doctors would not be allowed to get involved; and he would ensure that the assessments of the joint intelligence committee were reported direct to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O’Donnell, rather than to the Prime Minister. Again we await more detail.

Another point on which Brown will have to be held to account is the way in which Campbell’s unprecedented power had the effect of encouraging similar excesses by the rest of the political advisers under his control. Their ability to pull the strings and politicise the work of civil service information officers was exposed in Jo Moore’s infamous email telling staff in the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions that 9/11 was "a very good day to get out anything we want to bury". Although Brown was on the ball in promising in his constitutional statement that the legislation would enshrine in law "the core principles and values of the civil service", we are still waiting for a bill to emerge.

What is needed is clear statutory guidance from the new Prime Minister that special advisers must not undermine Parliamentary authority by leaking sensitive decisions before they are officially announced. Brown would also have to undo Campbell’s rewriting of the rules for civil service information officers which gave them authority to trail decisions before the announcements are made to Parliament. Judging by the continuing flow of government-inspired exclusives, Brown himself and his aides have no intention at all of limiting their ability to tip off journalists in order to float stories to the Labour Party’s advantage. This covert trade in information underlines the threat posed by the collusion between British politicians and media proprietors.

Brown has become as attentive as Blair in acknowledging -- and often meeting -- the demands of the Murdoch press, a relationship which, not surprisingly, failed to rate even a mention in the former Prime Minister’s attack on the ills of modern journalism. By refusing to justify these hidden contacts, and by treating them as a no-go area when it comes to public scrutiny, Blair only confirmed why his call for an ethical debate on media standards lacked any credibility. If further proof was needed of the political significance of the close links between newspaper proprietors and the government of the day it was the forced disclosure -- under the Freedom of Information Act -- that Blair had three telephone conversations with Murdoch in March 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq War.

After spending four years blocking the release of the details the government finally backed down the day after Blair resigned and revealed that he had taken part in a total of six telephone discussions with Murdoch over a twenty month period, all at crucial moments in his Premiership. The three calls before the start of the American-led attack on Iraq took place within the space of nine days at a time when the Sun was unstinting in its support of Bush and Blair, praising the "courage and resilience" of the British Prime Minister. (Sun 20.3.2003). There could hardly be a more ardent supporter of the Anglo-American alliance than Murdoch.

Given the determination of Brown and his advisers to retain the support of the Sun, the News of the World, The Times and the Sunday Times it is hardly a surprise that Murdoch was Brown’s guest at Chequers the Sunday before the Prime Minister finally made his statement on halving the British troop deployment in Basra. Where does this leave us? Brown’s promise of greater openness isn’t going to be easy to deliver. I doubt too whether he will be able to stem the flow of anonymous quotes. Don’t look to the media or journalists to put their own house in order. That would just be wishful thinking.

The push for Brown to stop the leaks, to get the government to control the flow of anonymous quotes and to persuade him to honour his undertaking to make announcements first to Parliament, has to come from within the parliamentary party, the constituencies and trade unions. Restoring trust cannot be achieved over night, it requires a step by step approach which I am convinced that Brown could deliver if he tried. Who knows we might get that anti-spin Asbo lifted after all.