Advance leaking of government announcements by ministers and their political spin doctors is a fact of life which the Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell admits the civil service has to live with.
He told the House of Lords Communications Committee (22.10.2008) that he understood that journalists wanted to look forward and pre-view government announcements and he accepted that ministers and their political advisers were giving private briefings to political correspondents all the time.
“The media want to jump the gun and be ahead of the game…I recognise the evidence about briefings being given off-the-record”.
O’Donnell said he believed ministers should make their announcements first to Parliament and he was encouraged by the fact that the balance in formal briefings was moving firmly from off-the-record to on-the-record with the Prime Minister leading the way with a news conference almost every week and other innovations like web casts.
When it came to identifying leakers, O’Donnell admitted that as head of the civil service he was just as powerless. “We do have a number of leak inquiries but it is rare that we will be able to pin point something to one individual. Journalists will not disclose their sources and it is hard to get an answer”.
O’Donnell had been challenged by Baroness McIntosh over the way parliamentary accountability was being increasingly undermined by off-the-record briefings about government announcements. He said that he was determined as cabinet secretary to make sure that market sensitive information was supplied in accordance with the law.
Michael Ellam, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman, said because a modern government held so many discussions it was “inevitable that some information will get out” but the leak about the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s recent meetings with banks seeking state help came from bankers. “I do not think we would accept that this story had come from the government. Robert Peston (BBC business editor) sources the story himself to bankers…but it is inevitable some of this will get out into the public domain”.
Earlier O’Donnell had acknowledged that an increasing number of ministerial political advisers were briefing journalists. Out of 74 advisers currently on the payroll, those who were seeking a career in politics had “become more involved in the media side of a minister’s work”.
But he said that since he became Cabinet Secretary he had not had to deal with a disciplinary case where a civil servant had been accused of putting undue political pressure on a civil service press officer.
At the start of the committee hearing, the acting chairman Lord King revealed that in the last decade there had been a seventy per cent increase in the number of press officers in central Whitehall departments -- up from 216 to 373 at September 2008. Throughout the government and public agencies there had been a 100 per cent increase in communications staff over the same period -- up from 1,628 to 3,158.
Sir Gus insisted there had been a significant increase in the demands which the news media was making on government departments, not least from the internet which now supported 1,600 political blogs with thousands of new blogs being registered every day.