OPINION: PM’s net ’broadcasts’ defy impartiality

Once upon a time when Ted Heath was Prime Minister, some bright spark came up with the idea of a Government newspaper. The case for it was almost entirely founded on the desirability of the Government reaching the public, unfiltered by the media who, 30 years ago, were much less powerful than they seem today. When the proposition was placed before some of us department heads of information we laughed it to scorn. ’Can you think of anything more boring than a Government newspaper?’ we chor-used. ’Who, in heaven’s name, would read it?’

Once upon a time when Ted Heath was Prime Minister, some bright

spark came up with the idea of a Government newspaper. The case for it

was almost entirely founded on the desirability of the Government

reaching the public, unfiltered by the media who, 30 years ago, were

much less powerful than they seem today. When the proposition was placed

before some of us department heads of information we laughed it to

scorn. ’Can you think of anything more boring than a Government

newspaper?’ we chor-used. ’Who, in heaven’s name, would read it?’



The obvious answer was: ’Why, the media, of course’. They would then

filter it - if they had not already done so. The idea was dropped and I

certainly did not resurrect it during my 11 years in No 10 with Margaret

Thatcher. I should, however, record that I started two departmental

newspapers - one in the Department of Employment to record policy

developments and the other in the Department of Energy for energy

managers in industry and commerce. As expected, neither secured mass

circulation.



I mention all this because of the launch on a sea of controversy on 11

February of the No 10 web site - number-10. gov.uk. I am told, since I

have not yet learned to surf the net and am trying to preserve my

virginity, that it carries Mr Blair’s performances in the Commons,

speeches, broadcasts, interviews and weekly address to the nation via

the internet, gives a round-up of major Government announcements and a

virtual tour of No 10’s state rooms. It also leads you into Government

departments, policy analysis and what the Government has delivered.



The Tories condemned this as a publicly funded PR internet hijack for

party political ends. They have a case in relation to the PM’s weekly

broadcast to the nation via the internet. This crib from the White House

could only be permitted here, assuming the broadcasters agreed to bore

the pants off their listeners and viewers, if Opposition parties had

right of reply. Labour is thus trying to get access to BBC and

commercial airwaves for a weekly national fireside chat with the voters

by the back door.



The fact that Mr Blair’s early ’broadcasts’ have not had much success in

breaking into the national news is neither here nor there. The

Government is using public money to secure a political advantage over

other parties. That is fundamentally wrong.



For the rest, everything depends on whether the web site is used solely

for Governmental as distinct from party purposes and all information is

presented in suitably flat, non-polemic terms. Mr Blair, could for

example, put a Prime Ministerial speech, shorn of party polemic, on the

web site but not one as party leader. If experience shows the

impartiality rules are being ignored, Parliament should enforce them.

Otherwise we shall see our system being corrupted via the internet

before our very eyes.



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