By Martin Moore, Palgrave Macmillan, £20
What shines through Martin Moore’s history of the early relationship between British governments and the news media is the idealism of the post-war Labour administration and its pioneering work in promoting what Clem Attlee always hoped would be the people’s “conscious and active participation in public affairs”.
In their drive to ensure that the creation of the welfare state and the nationalised industries became a partnership shared between people, Parliament and government, Attlee and his cabinet colleagues laid the foundations for the communication strategies which are now regarded as an every-day tool of any self-respecting democracy.
The Origins of Modern Spin traces the state’s attempts to manage the media during 1945-51 and although the zeal of the early years did turn towards what Moore concludes was a more “pragmatic relationship”, any student of political communication will be fascinated by the contrast between the high principles of the Attlee era and the squalid and politically corrupt spin of the Blair years.
Instead of disbanding the war-time information and propaganda services, the newly-elected government used the existing staff and their expertise to develop new institutions and procedures which it was hoped could inform, explain and promote what was being done in the electorate’s name.
1945 was pivotal because it was the year that Central Office of Information was conceived in order to conduct publicity campaigns on behalf of government departments and when Downing Street started to hold regular daily lobby briefings for political journalists.
Herbert Morrison, the Lord President (and Peter Mandelson’s grandfather), championed the creation of Britain’s first peacetime communications machinery because the people “have a right to know” the facts that would give them a full understanding of government decisions.
Francis Williams, former editor of the Daily Herald, became Atlee’s public relations adviser after heading the Ministry of Information’s news and censorship division during the war. Moore writes vividly about the peacetime transformation which Williams initiated on becoming the Number 10 press secretary. He introduced lobby briefings for the first time; sought to professionalise the information officers in each government department; and encouraged steps such as the co-ordination by Central Office of Information of the distribution of press releases about government announcements through what became known as the “COI run” to the offices of newspapers, broadcasters and news agencies .
After reading such a clear and engaging exposition of these pioneering moves to increase the amount of information flowing from state to press and public, I tried to come up with a checklist for the Blair years. Unease within the current administration about the scope and operation of the Freedom of Information Act of 2000, is a testament to its success in allowing greater scrutiny of the machinery of national and local government.
However, within Downing Street itself there has been none of the commitment to open government shown by Francis Williams. Admittedly Blair’s director of communications, Alastair Campbell, took some tentative steps to open up the lobby briefings: from 1997 the briefings were placed on the record and could be attributed to the Prime Minister’s official spokesman; in February 2000, No.10 started publishing extracts on the Downing Street website; and in 2002 Campbell broke the closed shop of political correspondents allowing specialist and foreign correspondents to attend lobby briefings.
But the value of the briefings withered under the malign influence of Campbell and his burgeoning band of politically-appointed special advisers who preferred to distribute leaks and tip-offs to favoured journalists on a selective and exclusive basis. Rarely now are the twice-daily briefings ever used as a platform to explain and inform journalists about the background to government decisions. Instead they are little more than a Downing Street notice board and whenever probed too closely the official spokesmen slip into a defensive, “no comment” mode.
By instituting his own monthly televised news conferences, Tony Blair by-passed the lobby and provided the media at large with an unparalleled opportunity to challenge the Prime Minister but his occasional high-profile outings are no substitute for what should be daily televised briefings, along the lines of those held at the White House, which would force the government to respond to the issue of the day.
Thanks to the increasing dominance of the internet and the enthusiasm with which the traditional news media have embraced inter-action with readers, viewers and listeners, there is now an ideal opportunity for the government to match the pioneering work of the Attlee administration.
Whitehall departments and public authorities can now communicate instantly not just with the media but also with pressure groups and individual citizens. Ensuring equal access via websites and email would bring immediate gains: all sections of the news media would be on an equal footing and so would campaigners and the like.
Clear guidelines would be needed for civil servants and other officials who would be told that when releasing information to the public they should do their utmost to ensure a level playing field. Technological developments have paved the way to what potentially is another pivotal moment in updating the machinery of communications between state and public. But where oh where is the vision of the Attlee government?