Analysis: Trust in government - Blair must own up to his mistakes

With both the Hutton and Phillis reports shining light on government credibility, the Sunday Times's political editor says there is only one thing that the Prime Minister needs to do to rebuild trust - admit when he's wrong

In the basement of Downing Street there is a room now long forgotten by members of the Westminster lobby. It's down a short flight of stairs and is not far from the post room. It used to be called the 'press briefing room'.

During the Major years it was spruced up and given a lick of magnolia.

It had a cold but professional feel about it. The furniture said it all.

For government PROs sitting at the front, there were big, luxurious swing-back chairs. It allowed them to sit back and point with jabbing fingers and casual authority.

'You might want to look at starred written answer 234 today boys,' would be a common muttering. For some reason, a smoked-glass coffee table was installed. This was where Alastair Campbell would later thump down his Burnley FC coffee mug when he wanted to lay into someone particularly badly.

High priests of spin

The layout was pure new university seminar. While the high priests of spin leaned back into their recliners, members of the lobby sat on hard-backed chairs with rigid mini-desks attached. This was how government communications had been done since the 1960s, from Joe Haines through Bernard Ingham to Alastair Campbell.

That room is no longer used for such briefings. Shortly before the Iraq war it was turned into a secret video-conferencing chamber for the Prime Minister to communicate with Washington DC via a secure line.

Lobby briefings were moved to the Foreign Press Association, half a mile away. Sunday journalists have never been there; there's no point. Blair started doing his monthly on-the-record briefings, which are carried live on Sky. Many political correspondents don't bother turning up, claiming the intention was always to 'destroy the media' by appealing directly to people (the cheek).

But those changes were tentative, a mere dipping of toes in the water.

The publication within two weeks of each other of the Hutton Inquiry's 320 pages on the circumstances surrounding the death of Ministry of Defence weapons expert Dr David Kelly and the report by Guardian Media Group CEO Bob Phillis into the future of government comms have marked a watershed.

Things will never be the same again.

Blair ratings have plummeted

Blair's reputation has suffered over the past six months, following the death of Dr Kelly. As PRWeek goes to press - and with an albeit selective leak to The Sun to go on, the signs are Hutton will largely clear the PM of any great crime, but his ratings have still plummeted.

'The adage about politicians being the lowest of the low in public perception, along with journalists, has never been truer,' as one senior Downing Street official put it to me.

By some cruel irony, the members of the Phillis review team were having one of their monthly meetings when Kelly's apparent suicide became known.

The panel was set up because of the furore over spin that came from the collective nervous breakdown at the Department of Transport, under Stephen Byers, that saw off former special adviser Jo Moore and director of comms Martin Sixsmith.

But Dr Kelly's death took things a step further. As one Whitehall head of news says: 'A death like that puts everything into perspective. It makes sitting there at the 8.30am meeting going through the papers spotting flyers to knock down seem rather trivial.'

No one on the cast list has emerged unscathed. Tom Kelly (no relation), the No10 spokesman on the Phillis review panel, became one of the chief villains of the Hutton piece by describing David Kelly as a 'Walter Mitty' figure. And while the BBC reporter involved, Andrew Gilligan, has seen his name dragged through the mud, his nemesis, Alastair Campbell, himself came out badly, with his diaries betraying the temptation to leak Kelly's name in order to 'fuck Gilligan'.

Beyond individual reputations, the Kelly affair revealed some new government PR techniques. Journalists were familiar with the 'non-denial denial'.

But the jigsaw identification of Dr Kelly during the row between No10 and the BBC was a whole new ball game. Staff at the MoD might not have been prepared to have 'the phone book read out' to them, but they were prepared to listen to journalists read out 20 names until they stumbled on the correct one.

'You might say that...'

Insiders now refer to the 'non-confirmation confirmation'. Spinning has seen a whole new twist. As one PRO confides: 'I know it's cruel, but what a brilliant wheeze. We've all used the line by Francis Urquhart (the fictional PM in 1990s TV series House of Cards) "you might say that; I couldn't possibly comment", but what the Government did with Kelly was a paradigm shift.'

Few doubt that in recent years public trust in politicians and the media has plummeted. Phillis himself calls it the 'three-way breakdown in trust' between the Government and politicians in general, the media and the public.

Research has shown that only six per cent of people believe newspapers are a fair and unbiased source of news.

No10 will accept Phillis's recommendation that there be West Wing-style on-camera briefings, according to authoritative sources. This is in spite of Chancellor Gordon Brown's opposition. The process is also in place for the appointment of a permanent secretary in charge of communications, with interviews set for next month. According to No10 insiders, they don't want anyone with too much marketing or commercial experience. Some are pushing Godric Smith, the other half of the official spokesman combo, to go for the job.

And yet few journalists, PROs or other experts believe the Phillis changes will really make a difference to public trust. At his last televised briefing, Blair was criticised for failing to answer key questions. If the hacks present resented the endless PowerPoint presentation of performance targets, the graphs, charts and stats, surely those watching on TV would have switched off as well?

There'll always be 'huddles'

One seasoned political journalist who has worked in Washington and London says: 'No10 seems to see televising briefings as some sort of panacea.

It's like the occasion a few years ago when they decided the regional media was the place to be because it was "more in touch" with real people and less cynical. That may be the case but, whatever happens on camera, there will always be private phone calls and little huddles after the official briefings. That's what happens in the The West Wing, and it will happen here as well.'

At an earlier crisis point, Blair declared himself to be a 'pretty straight kind of guy'. Indeed he is, but at the same time his administration has been the most obsessed with communications and the most successful at spinning - until things started to backfire.

When The Sunday Times was invited to lunch at No10 a year ago, just before the war, Blair claimed he only ever glanced at the Sports and Business sections of our paper. He also claimed that he never read the first editions, 'unlike the guy who was here before me, who used to get a whole bunch of papers delivered to the flat'.

Pull the other one, Tony. There is only one real way to rebuild trust in public institutions and that is for those in power to start admitting mistakes and flaws when they occur - and promptly too.

For the full Phillis report go to www.cabinet-office.gov.uk

For the Hutton report go to www.the-hutton-inquiry.org.uk

THE KEY POINTS: WHAT PHILLIS ACTUALLY RECOMMENDS

- The Government Information and Communication Service should be disbanded and replaced with a stronger centralised communications structure, headed by a permanent secretary for the first time

- Communications needs to be redefined to focus more on two-way dialogue with the public, 'not the minister, the party or the media'

- Downing Street's communications should have one political appointee, of director of communications, and a civil service role of PM's official spokesperson. Both should report to the permanent secretary for government communications

- Each department should review its communications strategy, laying out how it will most effectively communicate with different groups and the expected outcome of campaigns

- Greater emphasis on regional communications, involving local and regional media more in 'testing, consulting on and communicating polices'. This needs to be more 'customer' focused than based towards traditional departmental boundaries

- Introduce professional training for both special advisers and Government PROs, which will be overseen by the permanent secretary

- New rules on the conduct of special advisers, so they have no executive powers to instruct civil servants

- Effective implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. This is needed to counter the current culture of secrecy and partial disclosure

- There should be an end to the manipulation of Government statistics, including a fixed timetable when data should be published that cannot be altered by the content of the figures

- Lobby briefings should be televised and involve ministers more, especially when there is a major announcement

- The media should be more willing to admit mistakes and clearly separate comment and news

EXPERT VIEWS: WHAT PHILLIS GOT RIGHT AND WRONG

Mike Granatt was head of profession at the Government Information and Communication Service until last September

'One of the biggest issues is the recognition of a breakdown in trust between the public and government. It was also important that the issue of training was addressed by Phillis.

'But there should have been more recognition of the role departments play and of the work already done to improve communications. Examples are the creation of a central media monitoring system and central emergency operation, which are widely acknowledged as successful.

'Departments other than No 10 have built strategy units, and there is already a wide recognition about multi-faceted campaigns, not just using the press.

'As for disbanding the GICS: it must be replaced with something effective so the change is not just cosmetic. Do they want to throw the baby out with the bath water?

'Another challenge for the permanent secretary is to make all those involved in communications feel they are still members of a team. And the question remains as to whether the permanent secretary gets the resources and support that he or she should need.'

Sir Bernard Ingham was press secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from 1979 until she was deposed by her own party in 1990

'When I read Phillis's terms of reference, asking it to look at GICS's effectiveness, I smelled a rat. Now I see it. It's a dead rat.

'Phillis has duly given the Government what it wanted: an end to the GICS without telling us what might replace it. His bunch of lackeys has killed it off by asserting that it is "not fit for purpose", without any analysis or supporting case.

'Part of the justification cannot be, as it asserts, the unprecedented collapse of trust in the Government under the spin machine. By definition, the GICS was not allowed to perform its measured, impartial, informational task.

'It was first usurped and then prostituted by the frenetic spin machine and then progressively had its top echelon wiped out within one parliament.

'Phillis obviously hasn't a clue what a publicly funded GICS should be about in a parliamentary democracy with a cabinet system, so he has abandoned the fundamental dispersal of power to cabinet ministers in their departments - and to hell with the constitution - for the centralisation of a Blair presidency. Irresponsible incompetence.'

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus

Latest Articles

Max Clifford trial jury finishes sixth day of deliberations

Max Clifford trial jury finishes sixth day of deliberations

The jury in the trial of celebrity publicist Max Clifford on 11 charges of indecent assault has been sent home and will reconvene tomorrow morning for a seventh day of deliberations.

Analysis: Fishburn chiefs keep eyes on future despite mounting departures

Analysis: Fishburn chiefs keep eyes on future despite mounting departures

Fishburn's management have defended their reinvention of the 23-year-old agency amid industry mutterings, fed by a series of director-level departures, about the direction in which it is going.

Hit or Miss? EasyJet backs Shakespeare Day campaign with world record attempt

Hit or Miss? EasyJet backs Shakespeare Day campaign with world record attempt

EasyJet aimed to break the world record for the highest ever theatrical performance for Shakespeare's 450th birthday yesterday with the Reduced Shakespeare Company performing on a flight from Gatwick to Verona.

Top PRs to gather in Barcelona for inaugural PRWeek Global Congress

Top PRs to gather in Barcelona for inaugural PRWeek Global Congress

Senior executives from IBM, Nestlé, Vedanta, GE, Cargill, Philips and Allianz will be among the speakers at PRWeek's first Global Congress.