Hand to hand combat between the government and political correspondents would continue if the Conservatives were elected because an administration led by David Cameron would be just as determined to try to control the news agenda.
This was the conclusion of journalists and press officers at a seminar held by the Westminster Media Forum (1.7.2008). The two sides felt that the politicisation of civil service information officers, and the likelihood that any future government would find itself on the defensive, meant that further trench warfare was inevitable.
There had been a fundamental shift under New Labour because Tony Blair’s government realised that unless it imposed control over the flow of information from the state to the public it would be “torn apart” by the media.
Opening up the Downing Street lobby system to televised briefings was put forward as one option for improving the government’s relations with the media. David Hill, who was Alastair Campbell’s successor as Blair’s director of communications, said the existing structure of lobby briefings for political correspondents had become counter-productive.
He proposed that the twice-daily briefings should be opened up to public scrutiny and whenever possible a senior minister should attend to answer the key questions of the day. Guidance given by the Downing Street spokesman would not only be on the record but televised. And, by forcing senior political correspondents to ask their questions in public, the government would be adding another element of transparency.
Hill, now a director of the Bell Pottinger group, said the problem with the existing system of briefings was that they had become “almost wholly defensive” and rarely gave the government the opportunity to get on the front foot. Because of the frisson caused by the briefings within the Whitehall machine, government departments were only asked to supply defensive information for the rebuttal of questions and civil servants found the process was entirely negative.
A description of how the civil service was politicised was given by Eben Black, formerly political editor of the News of the World and now a director and head of media at the public affairs practice DLA Piper. Black said that soon after Labour won the 1997 general election he telephoned the Department of Education and asked for a county by county breakdown of school class sizes.
With ten minutes of the call he was rung back by Conor Ryan, special adviser to the Secretary of State, David Blunkett, and asked why he wanted the information. A Labour spin doctor was checking out the reason for his request in a way which would never have been done by a civil service information officer.
“Given the intensely political way in which the Whitehall information machine has to operate under Labour, I think a Conservative government would behave in precisely the same way. The days of an impartial relationship between the civil service and the news media have gone and given that Whitehall is no longer above the political fray, I think there will never be anything but war between government spin doctors and journalists”.
Tony Collins, executive editor of Computer Weekly, said he had detected an increasingly aggressive mentality on the part of government press officers. “We often get supplied incorrect information. We know ministers are given incorrect information…the Prime Minister has even been given incorrect information about the NHS computer system”.
Collins claimed that another ploy used by government press officers was to tell Computer Weekly that news conferences were full and there was no more space. “I was told one press conference would not be of interest to Computer Weekly…at another a press officer barred my way. I have seen manipulation of information and control of journalists which I have never seen before”.
Although David Hill was not optimistic about the chances of any future government establishing a more stable relationship with the media, he was still convinced that the government would like to be more open and transparent. But given the fiercely competitive nature of an increasingly fragmented media, all governments would continue to be under pressure.
It would be harder for governments to respond if there was no incentive from the media to offer a calmer analysis. Whitehall press officers were ultra cautious because they feared they would get into difficulty.
“There should be confidence in the government to field officials who have detailed information and who could answer questions but Whitehall falls down and fails to deploy them because they are fearful of being identified and personally attacked in the media”.