Simon Lewis, the newly-appointed director of communications in Downing Street, might be forgiven for thinking his only role will be to pull down the shutters on the last chance saloon for the Labour Party’s discredited spin doctors. But although the Prime Minister has probably less than a year in power, Lewis does have an opportunity to turn a new page in the government’s relationship with the news media and roll back the abuses which were institutionalised by Alastair Campbell and which spawned the Damian McBride scandal.
If Lewis wants to make an impact when he takes office in July, he could give an immediate welcome to the declaration by the new Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, that ministerial statements revealing key policy decisions should be made first to Parliament and not leaked before hand to the news media. For a start Lewis could try to do what he can to ensure that in future the flow of information from the state to the media is conducted with the same degree of transparency which Brown is promising for the accountability and scrutiny of MPs’ expenses. Campbell was congratulated – and rightly so – on the decision he made early on in his stint as Tony Blair’s director of communications to publish on the Downing Street website a transcript of the guidance he was giving at the twice-daily briefings for lobby correspondents. Lewis, who became the Queen’s communications secretary after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, could break new ground by introducing procedures to provide all journalists with equal access to information about government decisions and statements. Ensuring a level playing field will be an essential first step if Speaker Bercow is to deliver on his pledge to “seize back control” for the House of Commons by making sure that ministers are “obliged to make key policy statements” first in the chamber. That would require a more formal procedure too in Downing Street and instead of allowing Labour’s spin doctors to continue trailing and spinning sensitive announcements in advance by way of preferential deals with favoured political correspondents, Lewis could put all news organisations on an equal footing – a breakthrough for which Buckingham Palace can claim credit. After serving for two years as the Queen’s head of press relations, Lewis knows full well the challenge which the Prime Minister faces in trying to curb inaccurate and irresponsible reporting. In 2002 Buckingham Palace ensured “equality of access” for royal correspondents by releasing daily information about the Queen’s golden jubilee celebrations on the Palace website; accredited correspondents gained access by means of a password. In recent years there have been repeated examples of how sensitive public information has been released on websites at specified times – ensuring simultaneous access for all journalists. Downing Street and Whitehall should follow suit. With perhaps not more than ten months to go to the general election Lewis will have his work cut out advising Brown on how best to construct -- and let alone communicate -- a meaningful narrative about the government’s progress in getting Britain out of the recession and back on the road to recovery. But equally he should not overlook the nuts and bolts of the Downing Street press office and he needs to get a grip on the anonymous and unauthorised briefings which have caused the Prime Minister so much grief. The constant advance trailing of ministerial announcements -- which amounts to the institutionalised leaking of government information – has not only proved to be divisive and counter-productive but has also undermined the authority of Parliament and the public’s faith in the political process. Within months of entering Downing Street in 1997, Alastair Campbell succeeded, with Blair’s support, in re-rewriting the rules for the government information service; civil service information officers were instructed to trail announcements ahead of parliamentary statements in order to “grab the agenda”. In effect it has been the seventy of so politically-appointed special advisers who have done most of the trailing. With – and sometimes without – the approval of their ministers, they have distributed this largesse on an anonymous basis to selected news organisations. If the release of confidential and sensitive data could be properly co-ordinated by Downing Street and Whitehall, it would be possible to curb and perhaps even eliminate much of the unofficial briefing which has undoubtedly proved a boon for political correspondents but which has only underlined the pitfalls for any government in trying to manipulate the news media. Because Labour’s coterie of special advisers were allowed to take control of the process, forcing civil service information officers to take a back seat, the lack of discipline resulted in the kind of anonymous character assassination which culminated in Damian McBride’s fabricated smears against the Leader of the Opposition and the Shadow Chancellor. Unlike Campbell or Brown’s former director of communications David Hill, Simon Lewis is not a political appointee and he has taken up a two-year civil service contract. His status as a civil servant – barring him from party political work – will be an advantage and give him greater authority if he tries to reinforce civil service standards on the release of government information. Speaker Bercow could be a powerful ally in bringing some discipline to the Downing Street media machine because his wish to see announcements made first in parliament will strengthen the hand of Lewis in policing the release of information. In his manifesto to for the election of the new Speaker, Bercow said he believed the House of Commons would be strengthened if the chair had the power to instruct that Parliament should be the first to be informed – a point he reinforced immediately on his successful election by MPs. Bercow said the demands of the 24-hour news media had made it worse for Parliament. Ministers had become lead suppliers of new items and “aided and abetted” by the departmental machine, policy announcements had reduced to “essentially a joust between the media and ministers” and MPs were at best bit-part players. If possible, Bercow would like the Speaker to have the formal power to require a minister to make an oral statement to the House. He could make a start by taking a leaf out the book of his predecessor Betty Boothroyd. During the first thee years of the Blair government she made a valiant effort to stop the advance leaking of ministerial statements. She issued six separate rulings against ministers she had caught disclosing detailed information to the news media before delivering statement to the House. When I made inquiries for my book The Control Freaks, I discovered that in all six cases the trail of responsibility for leaking the contents of each announcement led back directly to the No.10 press office and to instructions issued in the name of Campbell by the Downing Street strategic communications unit. Simon Lewis could make a name for himself – and so could John Bercow – if they succeeded in cleaning up the Downing Street spin machine. Perhaps Gordon Brown could join in: there is no parliamentary offence for ministers and advisers caught leaking their own statements. Perhaps a change in the ministerial code might not come amiss. Speaker Bercow has set himself quite a challenge and in taking on the Downing Street spin machine he in danger of repeating the mistake of his predecessor Speaker Michael Martin who said repeatedly he wanted to stop the advance leaking of ministerial announcements but never followed it up by decisive action. 24.6.2009