Government Information: Is Big Brother getting too close for comfort? - With the Government communications service coming under renewed scrutiny, Labour has a chance to be more open about the extent to which it should be politicised

Last week saw Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister’s press secretary, replace Minister without Portfolio Peter Mandelson as the bogeyman of the Government’s media relations machine.

Last week saw Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister’s press

secretary, replace Minister without Portfolio Peter Mandelson as the

bogeyman of the Government’s media relations machine.



The various reviews and reforms initiated by Campbell since Labour came

to power last May have, it seems, failed to defuse tensions over the

Government’s relationship with the Government Information and

Communications Service (GICS), and the extent to which 10 Downing Street

officials like Campbell should intervene in relationships between

ministers and the press.



The House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration’s

decision to investigate these issues after Easter offers an opportunity

for the kind of open debate which could lay them to rest.



The Committee will look at, among other things, the extent to which GICS

should be politically impartial, at the relationship between party

spokesmen, political advisers and the information system and at the

operation of the lobby system for briefing journalists. It will also

examine the working of the 10 Downing Street Strategic Communications

Unit.



By covering the same issues as those in last November’s Mountfield

Report on the GICS, the MPs’ report will be a verdict on the major

changes which Mountfield brought about. It will also be a verdict on

other Government reforms of the GICS since the last election, such as

instructions to ministers to inform 10 Downing Street of all major

interviews and media appearances, of the contents of speeches and of

policy initiatives.



Many observers note a ’Washingtonisation’ of the GICS and of the civil

service generally, whereby political appointees, rather than civil

servants work most closely with ministers.



Sir Bernard Ingham, former press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, says:

’British ministers are in danger of compromising its (GICS’s)

impartiality.



They are seeking to create a new kind of Government in which GICS is an

executive arm run by the chief press secretary (Alastair Campbell).’



Sheila Gunn, John Major’s press secretary during the election and now

head of PR for estate agents Healey and Baker, says: ’What has changed

most is that the heavyweight directors of information have almost

without exception gone, and there is much more political oversight of

directors of information.’



Ministers exercise their oversight of GICS partly through their group of

special advisers, which has grown from less than 40 under the Tories to

some 70 under Labour. While GICS members are still expected to adhere to

the Government’s ’Guidance on the Work of the Government Information

Service’, which requires them to act impartially, special advisers are

under no such constraints.



The Government has also centralised control of GICS in 10 Downing

Street.



Centralisation has been reinforced recently with the establishment of

the Strategic Communications Unit. It reports through Alastair Campbell

to Tony Blair, and aims to co-ordinate departments’ public activities

and ensure they are presented in a way that links them with the major

themes of Government policy.



Two of the unit’s six staff, Philip Bassett and David Bradshaw are

special advisers who, like Alastair Campbell, are expected to spin the

best possible line for Labour. The other four staff are civil servants.

One, Andrew Silverman was previously private secretary to Peter

Mandelson, while another, Siobhan Kenny worked in the Downing Street

press office.



It seems to have taken the Government some months to decide how to deal

with the GICS. According to The Guardian’s chief political correspondent

Ewen MacAskill, around election time, Labour was relatively up front

about wanting its party machine ’to operate in tandem with the Whitehall

one’.



It soon realised, however, that openly advocating this desire would draw

fire from the Tories and from civil servants. To the Government’s

credit, none of the heads of information appointed under its

administration have obvious political affiliations.



Fiona Sloman, who represents GICS members of the Institution of

Professionals, Managers and Specialists, says that in the aftermath of

the election, there was a sense that the Government was trying to

politicise the GICS, but there is now a clear division between GICS

members and special advisers, she says. Whether that division is

sustainable remains to be seen.



Departmental heads of information will have the chance to discuss the

civil servant/special adviser relationship when they review progress

with the Mountfield report’s recommendations later this month.



Campbell has avoided politicising the GICS by simply superimposing his

own layer of loyal troops. With its most senior directors gone, the

GICS’s ability to resist the change has been neutered. But in the longer

term, if ministers want a politicised communications service then they

should argue openly for it.



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