Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website

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.

The practice of trailing government announcements in advance -- almost invariably on an off-the-record basis -- has now become institutionalised within Whitehall departments. To all intents and purposes it has become the state-sanctioned leaking of official information and it is the widespread distribution of confidential data on an un-attributable basis which has done so much to weaken the neutrality of civil service information officers and undermine the credibility of what is being said by the government of the day.

As a first step Downing Street lobby briefings should be given in public by an upfront spokesperson and the proceedings should be available for live broadcast on television, radio and via the internet. A lead has to be given from the top: if daily briefings on behalf of the Prime Minister were given on the record, by a publicly-identified spokesperson, it would set a new standard for attribution for the rest of the government.

The Phillis review recommended that lobby briefings should be “on the record, live on television and radio and with full transcripts available promptly on line.” (Phillis Review 2004). Despite its acceptance of the Phillis recommendations, the government made only a half-hearted attempt to persuade lobby correspondents to accept on-camera briefings and it was no surprise that the lobby voted to maintain the status quo, anxious to defend at all cost the un-attributable and anonymous briefings which have become the lifeblood of modern political journalism.

Nonetheless if the leading Downing Street spokesperson had the necessary confidence and authority to speak publicly, that individual would inevitably be accountable for what was being said on behalf of the government and if there was a greater degree of accountability it would help curb the uncontrolled activities of the much-enlarged cadre of special advisers. It is these political aides who are responsible for many of the anonymous briefings which in recent years have caused so much mischief for ministers and civil servants and undermined the credibility of official information.

On-camera briefings would introduce a sense of discipline and reinforce the repeated recommendations by the Civil Service Commissioners that special advisers should be required to speak on the record. Greater certainty about the government line would also assist departments and agencies. Senior civil servants in the UK, like their counterparts in the USA, would then come to realise that if needs be, the practice of speaking on the record does have many advantages.

Political correspondents prefer to be briefed un-attributably because it gives them a greater degree of journalistic licence. They maintain that being able to get information from politicians and officials on an off-the-record basis results in more exposure and serves the public interest. But the growth in the number of anonymous sources in Whitehall and Westminster -- and the freedom this has given journalists to embellish and even fabricate stories -- has become a cancer, eating away at the authority of the government of the day and eroding trust in the political system.

The rapid expansion in online journalism and the growing impact of alternative news providers has opened up an opportunity for the Whitehall machine to re-think its strategy. Significant political stories are now being researched and delivered by journalists outside the Westminster lobby system. Websites, bloggers and reporters using the Freedom of Information Act are increasingly challenging -- and beating -- the established political correspondents and the government of should encourage this trend, not least because of the greater openness of on-line journalism.

The aim of the state should be to be even handed in the supply of information and in view of the immediacy and commendable transparency of most on-line journalism, there is nothing to be gained by perpetuating the divisive practice of continuing to give exclusive access and information to favoured political journalists.

Trading exclusive stories with selected national newspapers, television and radio programmes is seen by the administration as the only way to influence the news agenda and gain favourable publicity. But this practice has always been divisive and the House of Lords Communications Committee could give a lead by reviewing the evidence since the Phillis Review and by recognising that a new approach is needed.

Perhaps the clearest exposition of the mentality which persists across Whitehall was given by Tony Blair’s former director of communications, Alastair Campbell. In his diaries, The Blair Years(2007), Campbell said that his policy when it came to the news media was to “divide and rule”. (see page January 31, 200, page 441).

Campbell’s first act on becoming Blair’s Downing Street press secretary was to rewrite the rule book for government press officers to ensure that the Whitehall publicity machine raised “its game”. (See report of Mountfield working group, November 1997). Press Office Best Practice was revised and civil servants were instructed to “grab the agenda” by promoting government announcements by means of a selective “ring round” of newsrooms in order to start “trailing the announcement during the previous weekend”.

 

Campbell’s edict of “divide and rule” became the norm and is deeply ingrained in civil service psyche as illustrated by the text of confidential government media plans. (See Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-Offs by Nicholas Jones, Politico’s 2006)

For example, the lead up to the announcement that the government had purchased the London Heart Hospital for £27.5 million in 2001 was a textbook example from the pages of Press Office Best Practice. A leaked copy of the Department of Health’s media plan indicated the importance of advance, off-the-record briefings when implementing a media policy of “divide and rule”:

“We are trailing the story with David Charter at The Times. In addition we will brief the Today programme…Once the story breaks in The Times this evening, the duty press officer will ring round all broadcasters and picture desks to let them know of the morning photo call…A press notice will be issued at 9.30 a.m. (Department of Health media plan, 8 August, 2001)

The unedifying spectacle of the state competing in the media market place -- rather than serving the public interest by supplying all media outlets with information at the same time -- reached its nadir in April 2007 when two members of a Royal Navy crew captured by the Iranians were allowed (encouraged?) to sell their stories exclusively to the national press (Faye Turney was paid £100,000 by the Sun and Arthur Batchelor received £20,000 from the Daily Mirror).

There was a public outcry over what happened and considerable criticism of the failure of the Ministry of Defence to deal fairly with the news media as a whole by failing to present the released crew members at a press conference open to all news outlets.

Tony Hall, who conducted an inquiry for the government, found there had been a “collective failure of judgement” over the affair and officials within the department “simply didn’t understand how it had been allowed to happen”.

Perhaps Hall should have done more to acquaint himself with media practice within Whitehall and he would have understood that the strategy of supplying exclusives to two of the biggest-selling popular newspapers -- Sun and Daily Mirror -- is precisely the kind of strategy which has become the norm within the civil service.

Sir Richard Dannatt, Chief of the General Staff, was so appalled by what had happened that he made sure that all media outlets were dealt with even handedly when Prince Harry served in Afghanistan. A news black was arranged with the Society of Editors and equal access for newspapers, television and radio was assured when the story finally broke in February 2008.

Another illustration of what can be achieved is the success of the Crown Prosecution Service in providing a legal spokesperson to give on camera reaction at the end of controversial court cases. Sir Ken MacDonald, the DPP, deserves credit for this initiative. At the conclusion of trials which have a significant public interest, the Crown Prosecution Service provides a spokesperson outside the court. Here we have a demonstration of the openness which can be achieved.

I have long argued that journalists are unlikely to put their own house in order and it is the state which should make the first move. I do hope Lord Fowler, chairman of the Lords Communication Committee, will look at the transcripts of the Westminster Media Forum which he chaired earlier this summer (1.7.2008).

One of the contributors to the discussion was David Hill, who succeeded Alastair Campbell as Blair’s director of communications. Hill told the forum he believed the twice-daily Downing Street briefings should be televised. This would open up the lobby system to wider scrutiny and force political correspondents to ask their questions in public. Hill believed the lobby briefings as presently constituted were counter productive and if they were on camera he hoped that whenever possible a senior minister would attend to answer questions.

In conclusion I would argue televised briefings would not be a mere cosmetic but could become an important constitutional safeguard. American news services keep their recordings of White House briefings and if a story suddenly changes, or there are suggestions subsequently of a cover-up, radio and television stations can replay the original answers and draw attention to any alterations or discrepancies in the official guidance.

Televised extracts from White House briefings during the lengthy proceedings involving President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky became part of the montage of material which was shown as pressure mounted for impeachment. Mike McCurry, Clinton’s press secretary, resigned in October 1998 in protest at the way he felt he had been used unfairly to perpetuate a deception about Clinton’s sexual relations.

My point is that televised briefings would not only help the government of the day by allowing ministers to get off the back foot and explain their policies but would also herald a new era in openness which might help restore trust in the process of government and also make life harder for the journalists who make it up. There are far fewer hiding places for on-line journalists. They can get challenged within an instant and do have to adjust and correct their reports. Not only might there be more transparency in government, but also a greater level of attribution by reporters and less reliance on the use of anonymous sources.

Nicholas Jones, political journalist and author, is a council member of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom. Contributor to www.spinwatch.org.uk Archive of articles and speeches: www.nicholasjones.org.uk (In 2003 Jones gave evidence to the Phillis Review team and participated in its seminars) 18.8.2008

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