Nicholas Jones - Blog and Archive Website
 

April 19, 2009 

When a key Downing Street strategist was exposed as having used a No.10 computer to write a grotesque email smearing senior Conservatives it damaged not only the Prime Minister’s standing but also chipped away still further at the public’s faith in the way Britain is governed.  Although Damian McBride was stupid enough to get caught, he was simply exercising the unbridled freedom which he and his fellow special advisers have been allowed to establish for themselves at an unacceptable cost to the impartiality of the civil service.   Character assassination is now in the dna of Labour Party spin doctors but what made this lurid email so exceptional was that the allegations were entirely unsubstantiated and those targeted included the shadow chancellor’s wife. Previous Conservative and Labour administrations also put their faith in politically-driven media handlers and publicists. But it was Tony Blair and latterly Gordon Brown who have given them free rein and who have proved to be as powerless as successive Cabinet Secretaries in ensuring that advisers like Damian McBride -- whose salaries are paid by the taxpayer – keep to the code of conduct for temporary civil servants. New Labour double-speak is used to justify the system.  Special advisers are said to help “protect” the impartiality of government administration by insulating the rest of the civil service from a minister’s political work. However, when the then Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin (now Lord) Butler, agreed in May 1997 to Blair’s request that Alastair Campbell should be given the unprecedented power to issue instructions to civil servants, he effectively sold the pass, changing the balance of political power within Whitehall by allowing Blair to speed up the process of politicisation. Again New Labour doublespeak has come into play: special advisers are needed to “assist” ministers to push through the government’s policies and programmes in the face of civil service inertia.  This was precisely the argument which Campbell used in November 1997 when he began the politicisation of the government’s information service by rewriting the rule book and requiring civil servants to “grab the agenda” and ignore the confidentiality of ministerial announcements. Blair ensured that Campbell’s writ ran through Whitehall by acquiescing to a forensic cull of most of the existing heads of information in the Whitehall departments while at the same doubling and then nearly trebling the cadre of Labour spin doctors on the government’s payroll. Slowly but surely the power which Campbell deployed began to be exercised by the rest of his acolytes who largely succeeded in taking control of the flow of information from the state to the public.   Jo Moore’s infamous email in 2001 telling civil servants in the Department of Transport that the aftermath of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Centre was “a very good day to get out anything we want to bury” was a telling illustration of the shift in power and of Labour’s determination to manipulate the news agenda.  Campbell’s stint in Downing Street culminated in the despicable witch hunt which ended in the death of the weapons inspector Dr David Kelly but as he has subsequently never tired of telling his admirers, his accomplishments as press secretary had the Prime Minister’s full backing. My early confrontations with Blair’s spin master only served to reinforce my determination to continue chronicling in my books on spin what I believed was New Labour’s dangerous addiction to media manipulation and the abuses that went with it.   In the eyes of Campbell my Achilles heel was that my desire to continue writing an insider’s account of the government’s relationship with the news media conflicted with my job as a BBC political correspondent. The scars on my back show how effective the New Labour machine had become – long before the episode involving Andrew Gilligan – in using complaints to my bosses at the BBC as a way of trying to try to curb what the spin doctors deemed was my “unhelpful” reporting. Perhaps I had only myself to blame for provoking Campbell’s bully boy tendencies.  Because I was trying desperately to hang on in there, despite being reprimanded by one of my BBC editors for having become “excitable and untrustworthy”, I knew that I enraged Blair’s press secretary by taking a shorthand note whenever the air turned blue.  I too had become something of an addict. Campbell took delight in dressing me down in public. In one spat in the run-up 1997 general election, he was incandescent about my reports on Radio 4: “I just love the way you guys in the BBC decide what the issue is…John Major only has to fart to get on the news”.   My favourite was the occasion he spied me in the lobby room at the House of Commons furiously scribbling a note about what I thought was a particularly telling aside.  The assembled correspondents cackled with laughter when he declared that the only reporter who seemed to be interested was “Nick Jones in the corner, having an orgasm on spin”. But over the years, as the complaints against me rolled in, Labour’s spin doctors demonstrated their flair for the kind of character assassination which has wounded countless Labour MPs and destroyed many of their careers.   My editors were told that my reporting was “dishonest” and sometimes “fraudulent”; my shorthand note was “unreliable”; I had “tricked” a union leader into giving an interview when he was drunk; and that I had knowingly “broken” the BBC’s guidelines by filming a Labour MP’s children. Since retiring from the BBC in 2002 I have continued to monitor Labour’s media machine and in my most recent book, Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs, I argued that in the years he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown became the Labour Party’s “most prolific and longest-serving trader in government secrets”.   I described how Brown’s two former special advisers, Ed Balls and Charlie Whelan, operated a “clearing house for leaks” and dispensed Brown’s “booty with deadly accuracy” both in Opposition and later in the Treasury. Nonetheless I genuinely believed that on becoming Prime Minister in the summer of 2007 Brown was serious when he promised to turn his back on spin and end the culture of leaks and vicious un-attributable briefings which had poisoned Labour Party politics and demeaned the process of government. I suggested at the time that this was the moment to act.  As a first step Downing Street should have ordered the televising of all lobby briefings to help restore faith in what the government was saying. Sir Gus O’Donnell, the Cabinet Secretary, should also have used the opportunity afforded by a change in Prime Minister to claw back power from the unelected advisers and restore at least a degree of impartiality in the government’s information service.  But nothing was done and eighteen months later O’Donnell seemed on the point of throwing up his hands in despair when he acknowledged before a hearing of the House of Lords communications committee that he was virtually powerless to stop unofficial briefings and leaks of government announcements. Brown compounded the Cabinet Secretary’s failure to act by allowing Damian McBride to keep his job despite having leaked the news that the then Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly was about to resign.  To his credit O’Donnell has moved swiftly in implementing Brown’s request that the code of conduct should be strengthened by requiring special advisers to sign an undertaking that they understand that they will be sacked automatically if they are found “disseminating inappropriate material”.  But like his predecessors O’Donnell knows full well that if the code of conduct had ever been taken seriously by either the Prime Minister or his cabinet colleagues then Campbell & Co would have lost their jobs within weeks of Blair taking office. Perhaps the only chance now of curbing the growing reliance on spin – let alone turning the clock back to the days when the public had greater faith in what politicians say – is the election of a government which would make a fresh start, end selective briefings and ensure that all news outlets are treated equally. While Brown has rightly been in the frame for having lost the plot, David Cameron too has questions to answer.  Why have the Conservatives’ apparently abandoned the party’s long-standing promise to purge the burgeoning ranks of special advisers and change the law to force them to obey the code of conduct?  Perhaps Cameron should be reminded of the repeated undertakings given by his immediate predecessors – Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith and William Hague – that an incoming Conservative administration would halve the current cadre of unelected advisers, curtail their powers and cut the taxpayers’ bill for spin. Given the fact that he was a political adviser himself, the Conservatives’ media-savvy leader is only too well aware how effective spin doctors can be in attacking (and defending) either government or Opposition.  My fear is that an incoming Conservative government will be as addicted to spin as New Labour and will also fail to guard the independence of the civil service.   Cameron’s first test will be the way he deals with the suspicion that perhaps the Conservatives have found a neat way to keep their attack dogs at arms length from Tory Central Office by encouraging them to put the boot in via the blogosphere.   Will the Conservatives give an assurance that they will refrain in future from seeking to exploit unsubstantiated claims about the personal and family lives of politicians when they appears on political websites and have no other verification? There is no doubt that the blogosphere is having an increasing influence on the news agenda because bloggers can publish risky stories which established news outlets dare not print or broadcast – an opportunity which Damian McBride and Derek Draper intended to exploit.  What more apt compliment could there have been for their ineptitude than Alastair Campbell’s taunt that on reading the offending Downing Street emails he had been struck not just by their “unpleasantness but also their incompetence.”END