Conning the media seems to be all in a day’s work at Blair’s No 10

We were in the Faroe Islands’ ’Whitehall’ in Thorshavn’s harbour when our guide said ’Good morning, prime minister’ to a stout chap who was strolling from his office to the symbolically turf-rooted parliament next to the stone-built town hall. Our company noted the absence first of security and then a press secretary. It was, I said, my concept of governmental Elysium.

We were in the Faroe Islands’ ’Whitehall’ in Thorshavn’s harbour

when our guide said ’Good morning, prime minister’ to a stout chap who

was strolling from his office to the symbolically turf-rooted parliament

next to the stone-built town hall. Our company noted the absence first

of security and then a press secretary. It was, I said, my concept of

governmental Elysium.



At about that time in London, Mr Blair was reshuffling his Government,

if not his Cabinet. When I learned what a non-event it had been, I

imagined the rumpus in Thorshavn - and in London when I was in No 10 -

if the media had been so completely misled about the event. Yet the

great reshuffle that never was seems to have passed without much real

media angst as distinct from grumbling.



Indeed, Sion Simon, associate editor of the Spectator, won’t have a word

said against the Government’s bloated corps of chattering briefers. He

reckons that, if journalists are daft enough to believe anything anybody

in Downing Street tells them, other than the Prime Minister, they

deserve to be stuffed like turkeys.



This is dangerous and simply will not do. The Westminster media has

always had a one-track mind: who is on their way up and who is on their

way down - or out? In pursuing that interest, most journalists do not

make things up. They report what they are told or the conclusions they

draw from it.



In my time, I put the first symptoms of reshufflitis - occurring

anything from four to seven months before the event - down to careless

talk by Whips or Parliamentary Private Secretaries. The media got no

help from me - my job was to keep the temperature down - until it was

clear whether a reconstruction of the Government or a more limited

operation was contemplated.



I then confined myself to indicating its likely scope, without

discussing names.



The run-up to Mr Blair’s reshuffle was entirely different. Margaret

Beckett and Jack Cunningham were confidently presented for the chop. So

were Frank Dobson and Mo Mowlam, until they fought back. John Prescott’s

empire was to be savaged. And there was a distinct possibility that

Peter Mandelson would be brought back disgracefully early. And what

happened? Next to nothing at Cabinet level. Yet right up to the first

junior sacking, nobody had an inkling that it was merely to be a

tinkering with the lower ranks.



Journalists were comprehensively conned - unless, of course, Mr Blair

suddenly felt faint at the thought of Cabinet blood, as some

believe.



Either way, it was a PR mess. The Government will surely pay for it

unless journalists have become mere clay in the hands of cynical spin

doctors.



Real PROs wonder just how much more our frank, free and fearless media

will take from this Government. They wouldn’t have got away with it in

Thorshavn or in London in the 1980s.



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