Whitehall's PR machine is spinning out of control

Advance trailing of Government announcements has become so institutionalised within Whitehall that ministers, their advisers and civil servants have become some of the most effective leakers in the land.

If the non-attributable release of sensitive information about policy decisions was subjected to the same kind of rules which the Financial Services Authority endeavours to enforce in the City, then half the Cabinet and their spin doctors might have ended up in the dock by now.

While I acknowledge the impact on the Government of the pressures imposed by a 24/7 media environment, and while I accept that the freedom to decide where best to place a story is perhaps the only real power which an information officer retains, there is nonetheless a downside, which both politicians and journalists cannot ignore.

Parliamentary accountability has undoubtedly been undermined by the heightened proficiency of the Whitehall publicity machine. During the early years of the Labour Government, speaker Betty Boothroyd forced six of Tony Blair's ministers to apologise for leaking their own announcements and undermining the primacy of Parliament.

Her warnings went in vain and the trend which she identified has only accelerated. Trading exclusive stories with the media, either to seize the agenda or secure a favourable political slant, has become so commonplace at Westminster that it rarely provokes anything like the anger it used to.

Reporters have become willing accomplices, only too eager to exploit confidential information, whether it be an unauthorised disclosure by a genuine whistleblower or a calculated act by a ministerial aide who is quite happy to see a story dressed up as an exclusive in return for some positive coverage.

Because so many of these deals with spin doctors and civil service information officers are conducted on condition that the source remains anonymous, journalists are sometimes tempted to suggest their reports are the result of journalistic endeavour.

Because journalists are not always prepared to come clean, increasingly when we see or hear the word "leak", perhaps we should be thinking of "plant". Indeed, whenever a newsreader says the "BBC has learned exclusively", I sense a planted story.

Made up quotes?

An even greater temptation is the freedom to embellish. So many stories are based on anonymous Downing Street "insiders", ministerial "aides", Whitehall "sources" and so on, that I fear we are seeing the emergence of a generation of reporters who are prepared to fabricate their quotes.

I am sure many seasoned journalists will say my concerns are groundless, but the downward slide in editorial standards is all too evident in newspapers, television, radio and now the web.

When I was cutting my teeth on local and national papers in the 1960s, quotes had to be attributed. The Times of my day did not often lead its front page with stories based entirely on anonymous sources. My local papers had been even stricter in demanding that individuals should be named.

When examining the way in which leaks and other illicitly acquired data can be manipulated, I was struck by the fact that it was financial journalists who were targeted much earlier than political correspondents.

It was during the hostile takeovers of the 1970s that the City desks of Sunday newspapers really began to take advantage of what became known as the "Friday night drop". Once the stock market had closed for the weekend, financial public relations consultants leaked sensitive commercial information to their favoured journalists in the hope of influencing share prices once trading resumed the following Monday.

I was intrigued to discover that during the mid-1980s the Labour party's newly appointed publicity director Peter Mandelson was advised by a City pro that he had to understand how information could be traded like a currency in return for favourable coverage.

So great became the concern about insider trading within the City that, in 2001, the Financial Services Authority acquired the power to prosecute companies which failed to ensure the "full, accurate and timely disclosure" of price-sensitive data.

No such sanctions apply at Westminster — there are no disciplinary procedures in the House of Commons to punish ministers who are implicated in leaking their own statements.

By contrast, there are sanctions against MPs caught leaking details of parliamentary proceedings, and in recent years, several have been suspended for the unauthorised disclosure of select committee reports.

Campbell's PR soup

Alastair Campbell has been widely praised within Downing Street for the way he forced the Whitehall publicity machine to raise its game and "grab the agenda". He freed Government information officers from the restraints which previously applied to the advance trailing of announcements.

But at no stage during his years with Tony Blair did he seek to ensure that all journalists were given equal access, so that they could obtain the same information at the same time.

A confidential media handling plan revealed how in 2001 the Department of Health's press office intended to spin the £27 million purchase of the private London Heart Hospital: "We are trailing the story in The Times," it said. "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 9.30am."

By any test, this was a sizeable financial transaction, which, if not actually market sensitive, would certainly have been of commercial interest to other private care companies. The way it was deliberately leaked ignored well-established conventions designed to protect confidential Government data.

Public servants who take the risk of divulging information, which they believe is in the public interest, need the unstinting protection of journalists and their editors. The death of the weapons inspector Dr David Kelly is a constant reminder of the dangers which an informant can face when there is a collective failure within the news media to protect a confidential source.

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