Labour can't escape its 'kite-flying' tag

Before the David Blunkett scandal escalated, this week's news agenda was led, as it often is, by an apparent government initiative. This time it was not an overhaul of the health service, or a revolution in education, but the relatively trivial issue of banning booze on trains.

The story began, not unusually, with a splash in one of the Sunday broadsheets - in this case The Sunday Times. It was discussed by the BBC on Sunday, picked up by the Monday tabloids and chewed over by radio shows well into Tuesday.

BBC's Newsnight has clearly had enough of this routine. On Monday it ran a piece by Nicholas Jones, well-known for his views on spin, accusing the government of using the Sundays to float policies and gauge public opinion - 'a kite-flying exercise' by Labour spin doctors.

Now we have it on good authority that this story was not a 'government plant' but a genuinely leaked policy document - if indeed there is such a thing. In support of The Sunday Times, its lead story was in fact a detailed analysis of the Government's anti-social behaviour policy led by 'respect tsar' Louise Casey. The story reported spats on the policy involving the ODPM and even the Crown Prosecution Service.

A genuine leak is understandable in the context that Casey has made many enemies in government with her eye-catching social policies. It may even have been an attempt by some of Blunkett's supporters (if he had any) to push his story down the agenda.

What is certain, however, is that New Labour has been behind such kite-flying in the past. It was a tactic used successfully when in opposition to formulate election-winning policies. But Alastair Campbell stopped the notorious Friday lobby briefings years ago.

The problem is that this Government has become so synonymous with media manipulation that even when a paper gets a genuine scoop, everyone still thinks it is spin.

The answer is for Labour to become more transparent about policy, or if not, a lot more sophisticated.

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