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.
By opening up the process of communication rather than continuing to put so much emphasis on the micro-management of individual news stories -- often through un-attributable briefings and the leaking of government announcements -- the Prime Minister might find he was spending less time fretting about the daily headlines and instead have the space to develop a policy programme which could command far more attention in the long term.
Despite all the hype surrounding his installation as Prime Minister almost a year ago, he has failed to honour the undertakings which he gave that his government would turn its back on spin. The more desperate the situation has become, the more dependent he has been on the discredited techniques of the Blair years.
He has increased the number of anonymous Downing Street spin doctors (officially known as special advisers); he has continued to authorise the un-attributable leaking and trailing of government announcements; and he and his ministers have peppered the pages of the national press with ghost written articles which have been nothing more than sticking plaster on gaping wounds and whose only consequences has been to ease the conscience of newspaper editors who have otherwise done their utmost to encourage their columnists and commentators to reinforce the line that Brown is a loser.
In recent months, whenever I have seen or heard a harassed Prime Minister giving yet another hurried response to the running story of the moment, I have thought back to the early 1990s when Labour were in opposition and when, as shadow chancellor, Brown’s slavish application to the daily news agenda bordered on the fanatical. He was constantly on the attack, regularly leaving the party’s publicity staff trailing in his wake, unable to keep pace with the shadow chancellor’s unending flow of press releases, newspaper articles and non-stop television and radio appearances.
Attempts to lighten his burden were frequently rebuffed and it was only after repeated warnings about how all his efforts were becoming self-defeating that he finally began to wean himself off the need for a daily dose of publicity. Although Brown finally understood that he could achieve greater impact with fewer personal appearances, he remained the ultimate control freak and come what may he insisted on micro-managing the work of aides such as Ed Balls and Charlie Whelan who briefed assiduously behind the scenes on his behalf.
That culture of supplying un-attributable briefings to trusted journalists is deeply embedded in Brown’s psyche and as events have shown in recent months it is the off-the-record spin which has so often spiralled out of control, damaging Labour’s political fortunes and causing deep resentment within the party.
During each successive drama there have been repeated appeals for Brown to order a halt to the vicious cycle of briefing and counter-briefing which has so injured the feelings of those senior Labour politicians cast adrift during the Blair-Brown handover.
A key demand in Charles Clarke’s prospectus for a fresh start for the Labour Party (Progress, May 2008) is that Brown should rein in the off-the-record briefers. Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander were both singled out for the reckless way they talked up the possibility of a snap autumn election. And it is Balls who gets another name check in John Prescott’s memoirs: “He (Balls) was part of the Gordon group, running around, spreading stories”.
It is not just the Prime Minister’s immediate acolytes who remain addicted to giving journalists anonymous quotes but also the uncontrolled legion of advisers which Brown has appointed. Many of these “insiders” continue to spread the poison which feeds the competitive pressures which, as Tony Blair argued, have forced the Westminster media pack to hunt “like a feral beast”.
By appointing an official spokesperson who could be upfront and open Brown could begin to break free from the spin and subterfuge which dogged the Blair years. Now that most of the press has turned against him, the Prime Minister has nothing to lose and nothing to fear by encouraging full transparency.
Any advantage which the government once enjoyed from doing deals with individual newspapers has been lost in an avalanche of negative publicity. Instead, if all journalists and media outlets were provided with the same information at the same time, ministers would be able to steer clear of quick fixes and perhaps find it easier to isolate and neutralise damaging un-attributable briefings.
There is a well-rehearsed argument in Whitehall against having an authoritative spokesman capable of giving televised briefings on the lines of the President’s press secretary at the White House. It is always said that ministers, not officials, should speak in Parliament on behalf of the government. But that convention hardly matters when ministers take full advantage of the many opportunities to promote themselves whether on television or radio or via the internet.
What is needed is an up-to-the-minute spokesperson able to fight the government’s corner and promote and explain its policies. Alastair Campbell tried for a few months to be upfront in his briefings, arguing the government’s case, but his “openness” was exposed as a sham when political correspondents found they were being double crossed: Campbell gave one line to the lobby and another to the select group of trusted correspondents to whom he was prepared to supply information on an un-attributable basis.
Brown has no hope of squaring up to the hostility of the press if he still thinks it is still possible to divide and rule. The instant access offered by televised briefings, websites and email mean there is no longer any excuse for not putting all sections of the news media on an equal footing. If the whole operation was fronted by an official spokesman who could be held publicly to account, the Prime Minister would not only refresh his relationship with journalists but might also begin to start restoring trust in his government.
(First published in Tribune, 23 May 2008)