Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

When faced by the cut and thrust of a noisy House of Commons chamber, cabinet ministers can find it difficult to execute a government U-turn without incurring political damage and a bruised reputation.

Michael Gove’s about turn over his plan to scrap the GCSE school exam system was billed in advance as a humiliating retreat. But the Secretary of State for Education managed to deliver a text book display of humility (7.2.2013) which took the sting out of what might otherwise have been a painful appearance before MPs.

Given the live transmission of parliamentary proceedings on radio, television and now the internet – and the inevitable trailing of most announcements in advance – political commentators and pundits have increasingly had to fall back on analysing the performance of a minister rather than the content of his or her statement.

Journalists are quick to rate an apology. Was it a trite “I’m sorry” with no indication of what precisely the minister was apologising for? Did a grudging, belligerent admission follow a previous attempt to “bury bad news?”  Was the minister just passing the buck, blaming everyone else? 

Among the seventy or so broken pledges which were to be slipped out “without any fanfare” on a Whitehall website was the coalition government’s unfulfilled pledge to reduce the number of politically-appointed special advisers.

The revelation that David Cameron’s closest advisers were in precisely the same mind-set as the spin doctors who worked for Tony Blair a decade earlier was a powerful reminder of a continuing obsession with media manipulation.

A Downing Street discussion paper giving advice on how to avoid the publication of “unhelpful stories” and “unfavourable copy” mirrored Jo Moore’s infamous edict after the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre that “it’s now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury”.

Clearly the presentation of the coalition’s mid-term review had been a cause of considerable anxiety within the Prime Minister’s office and the restricted advice notice says that while it was possible to explain why some promises had not been proceeded with, this did not apply to “some of the abandoned pledges e.g. numbers of special advisers.”

What is perhaps so ironic about this classic illustration of the spin doctors’ compulsion to want to “bury bad news” is that the adviser responsible for publicising the gaffe should, like David Cameron, have been one of the notorious “Patten’s Pups” from the Conservative Party’s ultimately victorious campaign in the 1992 general election.

After another a week which began with the Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne trailing his own Parliamentary announcements – this time on the future of the banking industry – a Conservative MP close to the Prime Minister has defended the practice of government by leaking.

Nick Boles, a founder member of the Notting Hill Set of Conservative activists who backed David Cameron’s bid for the Tory leadership, told fellow MPs that the “public’s right to know” was more important than giving the House of Commons “a monopoly on first communication of the government’s decisions.”

He readily acknowledged – and defended – the fact that modern government had become “a leaky sieve”.  But it was, for example, because George Osborne’s proposals in the autumn statement had been trailed so effectively in advance, that the public’s “awareness and understanding” of the difficulties of the current economic situation was “far higher” than if nothing had been released in advance.

Looking back on nearly fifty years as a political journalist, there is no doubt in my mind that the power and influence of the British news media has shaped the politics of the UK – far more so, I would say, than in other European countries.

 

While the argument continues about the validity of Kelvin Mackenzie’s infamous 1992 general election headline, “It’s the Sun Wot Won it”, I do believe that favourable media coverage has in the past helped turn the certainty of victory into a landslide.

Tony Blair’s disturbing hold over the political and media elites of America can be traced back to 9/11 and the way he catapulted himself to the forefront of world attention.

To British audiences his tribute to the “People’s Princess” might be regarded as one of the defining soundbites of his Premiership but in the USA he gained the accolade of being the first western leader to make sense of the unfolding drama surrounding the attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Centre.