Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website
Gordon Brown has been given the clearest warning that it is time he and his ministers cleaned up their act and stopped the advance leaking of government announcements. A House of Lords committee says the Prime Minister and his cabinet colleagues have it in their power to rein in the Labour spin doctors who are ignoring the ministerial code of practice and leaking confidential statements and data to friendly journalists. As a first step towards restoring trust in government information, the Prime Minister should agree to the immediate televising of Downing Street lobby briefings which could be broadcast live on the Downing Street website.  After reviewing the failure of previous attempts to curb abuses of the system by politically-appointed special advisers, the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications says in a report (published 26.1.2009) that there is no excuse for continued breaches of the rules and the frequent pre-empting of government announcements.  The committee concludes that the leaking of ministerial announcements to “friendly” journalists has undermined the public’s trust in the “accurate and impartial communication” of government information.  Ministers and particularly their special advisers – who have doubled in number under the Blair and Brown governments – should be reminded that their codes of conduct stipulate that announcements should be made first to Parliament. The aim should be to ensure that opposition parties, MPs, journalists and the public all get the information “at the same time”.  If Downing Street lobby briefings by the Prime Minister’s official spokesman were televised and transmitted live on the No.10 website, it would help to dispel continuing myths about secrecy of the Westminster lobby system which has become a “barrier to openness” and which continues to create a sense that there is “an inner circle of political reporters who get access to government information denied to others”.  Lord Fowler, chairman of the committee, recalled Brown’s promise on becoming Prime Minister to end the culture of spin and ensure statements were made to parliament first. “There should be no question of ministers giving policy decisions in advance to favoured journalists or newspapers. Brown should now remind his ministers of the requirements in the ministerial code”. Nicholas Jones was among the political journalists who gave evidence to the Committee and his comments and recommendations (made with the support of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and www.spinwatch.org ) are highlighted in the main body of the committee’s report.   Jones argued that the “practice of trailing government announcements in advance -- almost invariably on an off-the-record basis – has now become institutionalised within Whitehall”.  He recommended the “flow of information from the state to the media should be de-politicised” and that “all news providers should have equal access” – a view which the select committee endorses. On the question of opening up the Westminster lobby, Jones criticised the failure of the Government to follow through previous recommendations that the Downing Street lobby briefings should be held on-camera.  Jones argued that the televising of briefings would introduce a sense of discipline among information officers and journalists because it might help curb the growth in un-attributable and anonymous briefings which had damaged politicians and the standing of political journalism. END