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Category: Spin by Government

An early test of whether Gordon Brown is serious about his promise to turn his back on putting too much emphasis on presentation will be the approach to be adopted by Michael Ellam, his newly appointed official spokesman. Ellam takes over on June 27, 2007, the day Tony Blair steps down as Prime Minister. Will the new Downing Street mouthpiece remain nameless? Will Prime Minister Brown be dogged by the spin and subterfuge of the Blair years? Nicholas Jones, who has spent thirty years monitoring No. 10’s relationship with the news media writes an open letter to Ellam.

Dear Michael,

After Tony Blair’s strictures on the many failings of journalists, I am sure you would like your appointment to refresh Downing Street’s relationship with the news media and help restore public trust in the government.

You could start the process at a stroke by persuading Gordon Brown to allow yourself to be identified by name, finally ending the absurdity of attributing No.10’s reaction to a nameless official spokesman.

Once you are clear about your own identity you can make sure that important news is announced first at lobby briefings, or on the Downing Street website, rather than through the off-the-record conversations which have done so much to compound the problems which Blair identified in his Reuters speech.

Only by providing all journalists with the same information at the same time can Downing Street have any hope of making a fresh start; that means that the government itself must stop feeding the competitive pressures which Blair said had forced the media pack to hunt "like a feral beast" in Westminster and Whitehall.

Michael, unless you personally give a lead from the top, the new Prime Minister stands little chance of controlling the political advisers and the rest of the unidentified insiders who were given free rein in the Blair years and whose anonymous quotes have been like a cancer, eating away at the government’s credibility.

Delivering the greater openness which Brown has promised can only be achieved by having a press secretary who can speak openly and authoritatively and who can be held publicly to account.

In his contribution to the wider debate about declining media standards, Blair was awry in his analysis: Yes, he did take steps to engage more with journalists, but while authorising initiatives like putting transcripts of lobby briefings on the Downing Street website, he allowed these efforts to be undermined by the un-attributable briefings being given by Alastair Campbell and the cohort of Labour spin doctors under his control.

In castigating the media for being "driven by impact", Blair failed to acknowledge that Campbell and the Whitehall information service remained equally addicted to trying to "break stories to lead the schedules". No wonder political journalism became a jungle when Downing Street’s policy was one of divide and rule through the leaking of government decisions to favoured journalists.

And again, contrary to what Blair said, the practice of briefing selectively and in advance about the content of ministerial statements, did alter "the lines of accountability between Parliament and the executive". Who can blame the bloggers when so often the information available to websites was second hand and had been filtered first by those journalists Downing Street approved of?

Therefore, the challenge you face, Michael, is to seize the opportunity which was missed by Blair and Campbell. Websites and email allow for instant communication not just with journalists but also with pressure groups, bloggers and so on. Why not try a new approach? If all sections of the news media are an equal footing when it comes to access to government information, there will be fewer hiding places for those who make it up. Surely it is worthy a try.

Nicholas Jones. (15.6.2007)