Time for the Government to retire from journalism

Have you noticed that we now have a writing Government? Since Labour won the election hands down seven months ago, its ministers have had more by-lines than many journalists who write for a living. Last week, for example, I counted nine ministerial articles in the national dailies.

Have you noticed that we now have a writing Government? Since

Labour won the election hands down seven months ago, its ministers have

had more by-lines than many journalists who write for a living. Last

week, for example, I counted nine ministerial articles in the national

dailies.



The score was Tony Blair and David Blunkett two each; and John Prescott,

Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Jack Cunningham and Tony Banks one each.



If, as I believe, this was a pretty average week, Labour will not be

able to complain at the last round-up that the British press was

inhospitable.



It has opened its columns as welcomingly as the average publican opens

his doors to drinkers. Indeed, my impression is that scarcely a day goes

by without the Government reserving space for some ministerial advocacy

or defence of its position. Last week, ministers covered off-the-bone

beef, climate change, after-school classes, school meals, educational

standards, local government finance, the new ISA savings scheme and why

England should stage the 2006 World Cup. Of course, they don’t write all

this stuff. They have it served up for their editing and signature,

whether bespoke or cobbled together from the transcript of a statement

or broadcast.



They are nonetheless extremely communicative - or at least wordy.



But how long will the British press, as distinct from broadcasters who

publicly cross-examine ministers, remain so generous with their

space?



The novelty of such remarkable ministerial accessibility will wear

off.



And the more we see ministerial by-lines the sooner we shall find their

propaganda boring, causing commercial newspapers rapidly to lose

interest themselves. You can have too much of a good thing.



Which brings me to Madam Speaker, Betty Boothroyd. She is thoroughly

brassed off with the way the Government is continually leaking or giving

interviews about planned announcements before informing the Commons. As

the defender of MPs’ rights, she ’deprecates’ the way ’the status of the

House is being devalued’.



Nowhere has the Government been more contemptuous of Parliament’s

privilege to be informed first than with the ’trailing’ of

announcements. Indeed the recent report on the Government Information

Service shows the extent to which it is now sanctioned. ’Trailing helps

set the context and the news agenda’, it says, adding naively: ’But it

must not offend Parliamentary protocol’. Unfortunately, it invariably

does. And Madam Speaker is insisting that it has got to stop. All this

not only underlines Labour’s obsession with the media; it also reveals

its lack of discretion in message management.



Before it’s much older, I predict that it will have discretion forced

upon it.



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