It has been a grilling week for me. First, I was interviewed by
Jonathan Dimbleby - in BBC Radio 4’s The Candidate series - for the new
job of communications strategist, alias spin doctor, to the Queen. As
listeners yesterday (Thursday) will have recognised, this demonstrated
the perils of going for a post you couldn’t care less whether you got
and have previously dismissed in this journal as unnecessary.
Then the Parliamentary Select Committee on Public Administration called
me as a witness on what is happening to the Government Information
Service in the crass, blundering hands of this media-obsessed
Government. I can’t give you my impressions until next week because I
had to write this column before my appearance. But you’ve already got
Common to both grillings was the media management issue of
The text book position of the professional press officer is to treat all
alike in the dissemination of raw news and never to tip off a rival when
an individual journalist comes to you with an exclusive or original
How you help individuals build on raw news or an idea may differ;
otherwise the principle of fair treatment rules. In other words, if a
press officer is adequately to serve his boss, he must recognise that
his responsibilities do not begin and end with him. Not to put too fine
a point on it, he has to serve the media, too.
This concept increasingly attracts a certain ridicule. I sniff a whiff
of incredulity among my seminar audiences when I advance it.
Indeed, you don’t have to linger long in PR circles to hear people
boasting about their latest coup produced by selective leaking as though
it were the thing to do. And, of course, if you are a part-time press
officer with no intention of making it your career, the ruthless use of
the media may well seem to be just what the spin doctor ordered.
Why bother about media sensitivities? Go for the short-term hit and to
hell with the long-term needs of yourself as a press officer, of media
management as a profession and of your organisation’s reputation. This
is what makes civil service administrators drafted in as press
secretaries a potential liability.
The trouble with Labour governments is that they never seem to learn
from their mistakes. Harold Wilson’s government fell out with the media
partly because of the privileged access to the Prime Minister of a bunch
of senior members of the Lobby called ’the White Commonwealth’. And what
has Alastair Campbell’s Sun-worshipping achieved this past week? Why,
it’s alienated the Labour-loving Mirror by, among other things, sharing
such Mirror ideas as a Clinton appeal to Northern Ireland voters with
Mark my words, unprincipled opportunism will be the death of this