Government comms slammed by former Tory ministers for bad attitude to media

Government comms has come under fierce attack from former senior ministers Andrew Lansley and Margot James for an “inappropriate” attitude towards the media in a “one-sided communication.”

Margot James (L), former digital minister, and ex-health secretary Lord Lansley (R) have criticised the Government's approach to comms
Margot James (L), former digital minister, and ex-health secretary Lord Lansley (R) have criticised the Government's approach to comms

James, who served in two departments as business minister between 2016 and 2018 and then digital minister until July 2019, claims that departmental press offices are “constrained by the attitude that it's a one-sided communication".

She said that if the Government “either doesn’t have anything to say, doesn’t have any good news to impart or, worse still, horror of horrors, something’s gone wrong, then their attitude is: “Absolutely don’t give an interview, just say no.””

James revealed that press officers attempted in vain to prevent her from doing interviews. She said: “A lot of journalists had my private mobile number. So, when they were frustrated by the department’s press office continuing to say “No, the minister has no comment” or hasn’t got time or whatever, they used to come, in the end, via text to me and I would invariably do an interview.”

James, who stepped down as an MP in 2019 and joined public affairs agency Taso Advisory as non-executive chair earlier this summer, described the attitude of the Civil Service to the media as “inappropriate”.

She added: “I think government has a responsibility to account for its actions with the mainstream serious news media."

She made her comments in a recently published interview for the think tank Institute for Government's Ministers Reflect series.

Responding to the claims, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "No press officer would decline an interview without checking with the relevant minister and their office."

They added that the GCS "engages in a ‘two-way communication’ with the media" and that the former minister's account was "certainly not representative of the Government Communications Service".

Freedom of Information battle

Former health secretary Lord Lansley, who also took part in the Ministers Reflect project, criticised the Government’s approach to dealing with FOI requests.

He disclosed how the Cabinet Office went to court to try to block an FOI request for his diary, even though he was prepared to "publish the whole thing".

A FOI request for his diary during his time as health secretary was made in 2011. Lansley claimed he told officials: “Give it to them. I’ve got nothing to hide, I can publish the whole thing.”

Instead, a redacted version was released and a long-running legal battle fought to try to block any further disclosures.

“It was because the Cabinet Office was so frightened by the precedent of having to publish the whole diary of a secretary of state for two years.”

The matter ended up at the Court of Appeal in 2017 – six years after the orginal FOI request – and the Government was ordered to disclose entries it had previously tried to withhold. “It all got published, got given to a journalist, and then there was no story,” Lansley said.

A Cabinet Office spokesperson responded: "FOIs are considered on their merits by the FOI team. Communications are not responsible for decisions about whether to disclose information."

In-house lobbyists

The Tory peer also expressed his opposition to including in-house lobbyists on the Lobbying Register – something he claimed would be “a complete nightmare” with so much information on the register that it would be “meaningless”.

Instead, he said, ministers, senior civil servants and special advisers should disclose “those people who have approached them and lobbied, and for what purpose. Then you know what’s going on, otherwise you don’t."

But Liam Herbert, chair of the PRCA's Public Affairs Board, slammed the former secretary of state, claiming that he is “utterly wrong” in opposing the inclusion of in-house lobbyists. He said doing so “would create a more transparent register and… level the playing field”.

However, he agreed with Lansley’s call for ministers to disclose details of individuals who had lobbied them.

Herbert said: “We believe ministers should publish their diaries in a timely manner, which would show who they have been lobbied by. Their long-standing insouciance about doing so is simply insulting to the public.”

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