Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

April 19, 2009 

When a key Downing Street strategist was exposed as having used a No.10 computer to write a grotesque email smearing senior Conservatives it damaged not only the Prime Minister’s standing but also chipped away still further at the public’s faith in the way Britain is governed.  Although Damian McBride was stupid enough to get caught, he was simply exercising the unbridled freedom which he and his fellow special advisers have been allowed to establish for themselves at an unacceptable cost to the impartiality of the civil service.   Character assassination is now in the dna of Labour Party spin doctors but what made this lurid email so exceptional was that the allegations were entirely unsubstantiated and those targeted included the shadow chancellor’s wife.

Gordon Brown has been given the clearest warning that it is time he and his ministers cleaned up their act and stopped the advance leaking of government announcements. A House of Lords committee says the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues have it in their power to rein in the Labour spin doctors who are ignoring the ministerial code of practice and leaking confidential statements and data to friendly journalists. As a first step towards restoring trust in government information, the Prime Minister should agree to the immediate televising of Downing Street lobby briefings which could be broadcast live on the Downing Street website.  After reviewing the failure of previous attempts to curb abuses of the system by politically-appointed special advisers, the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications says in a report (published 26.1.2009) that there is no excuse for continued breaches of the rules and the frequent pre-empting of government announcements.  The committee concludes that the leaking of ministerial announcements to “friendly” journalists has undermined the public’s trust in the “accurate and impartial communication” of government information.  Ministers and particularly their special advisers – who have doubled in number under the Blair and Brown governments – should be reminded that their codes of conduct stipulate that announcements should be made first to Parliament. The aim should be to ensure that opposition parties, MPs, journalists and the public all get the information “at the same time”.  If Downing Street lobby briefings by the Prime Minister’s official spokesman were televised and transmitted live on the No.10 website, it would help to dispel continuing myths about secrecy of the Westminster lobby system which has become a “barrier to openness” and which continues to create a sense that there is “an inner circle of political reporters who get access to government information denied to others”.  Lord Fowler, chairman of the committee, recalled Brown’s promise on becoming Prime Minister to end the culture of spin and ensure statements were made to parliament first. “There should be no question of ministers giving policy decisions in advance to favoured journalists or newspapers. Brown should now remind his ministers of the requirements in the ministerial code”. Nicholas Jones was among the political journalists who gave evidence to the Committee and his comments and recommendations (made with the support of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and ) are highlighted in the main body of the committee’s report.   Jones argued that the “practice of trailing government announcements in advance -- almost invariably on an off-the-record basis – has now become institutionalised within Whitehall”.  He recommended the “flow of information from the state to the media should be de-politicised” and that “all news providers should have equal access” – a view which the select committee endorses. On the question of opening up the Westminster lobby, Jones criticised the failure of the Government to follow through previous recommendations that the Downing Street lobby briefings should be held on-camera.  Jones argued that the televising of briefings would introduce a sense of discipline among information officers and journalists because it might help curb the growth in un-attributable and anonymous briefings which had damaged politicians and the standing of political journalism. END    

Labour cannot shrug off the charge of hypocrisy over the arrest of the Conservative shadow minister Damian Green because under the Blair and Brown governments successive Home Secretaries have engaged in the deliberate and systematic leaking of their own decisions in order to gain political advantage.

Jacqui Smith’s private office at the Home Office was no different to any other in Whitehall. Right across the various government departments, Labour’s political spin doctors have shown scant regard for the confidentiality of ministerial announcements and they have regularly been trailed in advance through leaks to sympathetic journalists.

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”.

In evidence to a House of Lords’ inquiry into the government’s spin machine, Nicholas Jones says televised lobby briefings would introduce a new sense of discipline and accountability. If Downing Street had a publicly-identified spokesperson who appeared on camera, it would set a new standard for attribution within the rest of the government.

The House of Lords Communications Committee is conducting an inquiry into whether the government communications system is “open, impartial, efficient and relevant to the public”. In written evidence to the committee Jones said:

There could hardly be a more opportune moment to consider an overhaul of the government communications system and to chart a new sense of direction for civil servants working in the information service. The forthcoming general election and the installation of a new administration will provide an ideal opportunity for a fresh start. What is needed is a change of culture and a new presumption that the flow of information from the state to the media should be de-politicised and that all news providers outlets should have equal access.