Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

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.

Such is the depth of the government’s unpopularity that there is little immediate likelihood of Gordon Brown being able to take control of the news agenda once again. He is being abandoned even by the newspapers of Rupert Murdoch and his only chance of fighting back effectively is to challenge a hostile news media head on. However much he might be tempted to seek refuge in the routines of the past, the spin of New Labour, which he previously helped to deploy with such flair, has to remain a distant memory.

What the Prime Minister needs is an official spokesman -- or spokeswoman -- who is capable of promoting government policy, preferably by holding televised news briefings. If Brown could only delegate the task of providing immediate responses to an open and upfront spokesperson, he could then devote more time to preparing himself for far fewer but more effective news conferences and interviews.

Gordon Brown’s formative years as a politician were spent in opposition fighting the Conservatives. Once Labour were in power and he became Chancellor, Brown was in effect in “opposition” again, promoting himself at the expense of Tony Blair. For the first time the Prime Minister has found himself continually on the defensive. In a speech at Coventry University (22.5.2008), Nicholas Jones argued that the only way Brown can deal with an avalanche of negative publicity is to face up to the news media head on and adopt a far more open and transparent communications strategy.

January 9, 2008 

All the lofty rhetoric about Gordon Brown restoring traditional civil service values has finally been dissipated with the appointment of Stephen Carter as chief political organiser in Downing Street.

Quick fixes aimed at driving the media agenda became the hallmark of Tony Blair’s decade in Downing Street and the cumulative damage which they inflicted on both the authority of Parliament and the standing of the civil service caused widespread unease within the Labour Party.

Early last summer, as he outlined a vision for his Premiership, Brown and his aides did much to promote the idea that the new administration would rein in unaccountable political advisers and put the levers of power back in the hands of civil servants.