ANALYSIS: Government's door is not 'open' yet

The Government last week announced a round of reforms to the system through which it briefs journalists. It is doing so for all the wrong reasons, says former Downing Street press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham.

To paraphrase Thomas Macaulay, the 19th century historian and politician, we know no spectacle so ridiculous as Alastair Campbell in one of his periodical fits of openness. After five years of obsessive spin, it is impossible to take at face value a single word he utters.

So, we cynics went into overdrive when last week Campbell announced rudimentary Government proposals - for that is all they are at this stage - to open up the morning meeting with the parliamentary lobby journalists to all-comers and pay more attention to Parliament.

There must be a catch in it, we said. After all, Blair has treated Parliament like dirt since 1997 and journalists only have their uses in Number 10's eyes if they take down Campbell's dictation on the manifold achievements of the Blair regime and print and broadcast them unedited by human hand.

Otherwise they get clobbered, undermined and taken to the Press Complaints Commission. In short, why the Damascene conversion?

The answer is that the Government is getting the hammering from the press and, to a lesser extent, Parliament that I have long forecast because of its spin-doctoring. Last week it felt the need to be seen to indulge in an act of piety and inevitably chose local government polling day, when it expected to do badly, to clothe itself in the white raiment of openness and respect for Parliament.

I reckon Macaulay would have found this spectacle nauseating rather than ridiculous. And he would probably have felt terminally ill had he witnessed Campbell's brass neck in justifying the Government's moves. 'We have got to be less buttoned up, far more open, far less worried about what you guys are going to write,' he said, solemnly. Blair said that two years ago - and look what happened. And how many times have we heard Number 10 pronounce the death of spin?

So, as with all things Campbell, we need to look behind the sinner come to repentance.

Just what is Number 10 proposing? Instead of meeting the lobby, along with some specially invited foreign correspondents, in Number 10 at 11am, it's going to have a regular grand press conference open to all journalists, British and foreign, who want to go along at some venue yet to be identified.

I reckon the London Palladium would do nicely.

Sometimes - possibly most times - officials, occasionally accompanied by policy experts, would take the briefing. When they did, they would be on-the-record but cameras and microphones would not be allowed in order to preserve the moth-nibbled convention that officials are the backroom boys in our parliamentary democracy. So why did Campbell give a broadcast interview last week on the perils of voting BNP in Burnley?

He wants to widen the cast list and put up ministers when it is to the Government's advantage. As the front men, ministers would appear before cameras. There are no plans to ditch the afternoon lobby at 4pm in the political correspondents' own room in the Commons. So, at best or worst, Campbell is only half abolishing the lobby.

In fact, he can't get rid of it because he doesn't own it. It's never been a creature of Government but an organisation of, for and run by journalists, by which the Serjeant at Arms regulates access to the members' lobby, the real perk of membership.

None of this is revolutionary, given that lobbies are already on the record and their proceedings posted, albeit in selectively edited form, on the Number 10 website. Ministers have always given press conferences when they chose to do so and have always been mortified when TV did not grace them.

So, it's not what Campbell has done but why he's done it that is interesting.

During the past year the lobby has developed a sharper edge towards the Government. It has been giving Number 10 a torrid time as one failure, scandal and spot of sleaze has followed another. Campbell wants to abolish its morning monopoly by opening up briefings to all and sundry, thereby limiting the time for the pursuit of domestic sleaze because of wider, specialist preoccupations.

Well, that's the theory but it might not work like that. Journalists are, like pigs, never happier than when wallowing in muck. If specialists are to attend, their detailed knowledge of assorted cesspits might be very embarrassing. And if the lobby think, as some do, they are being nobbled, they could turn even nastier. It certainly won't stop them disclosing and exposing.

As for according Parliament more respect after sidelining it for five years, Campbell, by killing the morning lobby, is establishing a regular extra-parliamentary forum for ministers, generally before Parliament sits.

This move owes everything to trying to command the day's agenda and nothing to parliamentary sensitivities.

And don't let them kid us it's part of a pattern since Blair promises to appear before the group of 32 select committee chairmen twice a year.

That will mean something only if our parliamentary poodles become rottweilers.

Campbell's cynical proposals acknowledge there is a media whirlwind blowing. They probably mean the Government will reap it sooner rather than later.

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