Government response to Sunday Times story was a mistake: it must focus on the present

What surprised me most about the response to the Insight team’s article was that the Government seemed so blindsided by it being written at all.

Number 10 must move on from fighting a rearguard action, advises Naomi Harris
Number 10 must move on from fighting a rearguard action, advises Naomi Harris

The result of the Government's failure to prepare was a six-page written statement, released several hours after publication of the article, which sought to dismantle 14 individual claims, but which had very little to say.

Yes, it had some aggressive preamble about the Sunday Times publishing a series of "falsehoods and errors" in an attempt to kill the story, but thereafter it was long and, in parts, rambling.

I suspect the hope was that people would read or hear the opening salvo, see a lot of text afterwards with dates and references and think the Government had answered everything.

A fair few people, however, will be left scratching their heads about why such a lot of time was spent drafting the written response, and asking what that says about the Government’s communications strategy overall – especially when it is viewed against the rebuttal of a similar article in the FT, published on Saturday.

The combative tone of the responses made it feel like a rerun of the blow-up between Number 10 and reporters earlier in the year when Lee Cain apparently told those from ‘anti-Government’ publications to leave the building, prompting a collective walk-out by the Lobby.

There remains disagreement about exactly who said what and why, but the Government’s written response on Sunday is likely to stir up more trouble.

The Sunday Times' Insight team is one of the most respected groups of investigative journalists in the world.

Their stories have ranged from campaigning for Thalidomide victims to uncovering corruption in Fifa.

Their work can be so sensitive that they work in a locked room, accessible by only the few journalists on the team.

They have time, they have resources and they have much more of an editorial free rein than their colleagues.

They don’t pretend to have all the answers, but they do start asking the questions.

Put simply, they are the inquiry before the inquiry.

That is why it is so surprising that the Government did not see an investigation coming and responded as it did by trying to fight a rearguard action.

These are undoubtedly the most challenging times for any comms professional, and the team in Number 10 will be under extraordinary strain.

But the fact is that the Government’s comms team was caught off-guard and, without a change in approach, it risks staying on the back foot.

Formal inquiries will undoubtedly follow over who did what and when, and whether people would do things differently if they had their time again.

The Government is trying to prepare for this scrutiny, but in the short term, the team in Number 10 would be advised to put already stretched resources into planning communications for what is going to happen in the next few days, weeks and months, not into responding to every single piece of criticism that is levelled at it or question that is raised of it.

Far from putting the media back in its box, the Number 10 team has arguably shaken it awake.

It must prepare for what comes next, and this time, offence is the best form of defence.

Naomi Harris is a director at WA Communications

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