Analysis: The myth of spin-free govt communications

In the wake of Alastair Campbell's resignation and the release of the Phillis review into government communications' interim findings , Ian Hall asks 'what now?' for the Downing Street PR machine.

The news that Alastair Campbell is to leave Downing Street and the publication of interim findings from the Phillis Committee, the group chaired by Guardian Media Group CEO Bob Phillis to investigate government comms, has led many to predict that the era of spin is at an end.

The key recommendation published this Wednesday was that a permanent secretary should be appointed at the Cabinet Office, 'with access to the Prime Minister', to oversee comms operations across government. It was also confirmed on Wednesday that David Hill will take a role titled 'PM's director of communications'.

Although details as to the future set-up of Downing Street's comms structure are yet to be decided, the executive power assumed by Campbell - as director of communications and strategy - will be denied to Hill.

But the headline-grabbing recommendation is the creation of the permanent secretary post, something that Sir Bernard Ingham, press secretary to former PM Margaret Thatcher, for one, is dismissive of, saying: 'This is no solution.'

Speaking from first-hand experience, Ingham says that if the PM were 'to tell you to do something, you do it', regardless of whether a permanent secretary was in post to apply restraint.

On Campbell's legacy, Ingham is predictably scathing, describing him as having 'done enormous damage to the reputation of government and politics'.

The Conservatives' reaction to the shake-up of government comms has been similarly blunt, with leader Iain Duncan Smith last weekend claiming a 'culture of deceit' in Government that can only be ended with the curtain falling on the rule of Blair himself. The Tories clearly sense that spin can do to Labour what sleaze did to them.

The permanent secretary role should ensure that political aides do not put pressure on civil servants to act politically as, it is suggested, has happened in the past.

But one former Downing Street PRO and Campbell loyalist dismisses the need for this role: 'I was never asked to do anything inappropriate. Party political calls were always relayed to Labour.'

Both current and former Downing Street press officers express frustration with the media's infatuation with 'spin' and personalities at the expense of policy. One former Downing Street PRO says the press office has, for the past two years, more keenly targeted specialist titles, such as ethnic minority or lifestyle media, with policy announcements in a bid to circumvent lobby and other national journalists who, they believe, prefer to focus on personalities and will bury or ignore Downing Street's policy messages.

But Stirling Media Research Institute research co-ordinator David Miller believes the problem of spin culture is endemic in government and goes much deeper than most media credit.

He goes so far as to claim that the Phillis review will 'entrench spin more firmly' in government, such has been the position on the review panel of private-sector PROs, such as - rather ironically - Hill himself.

Miller says: 'You can't get rid of spin by removing one individual, or even by removing all heads of information at all government departments.'

He adds that the advent of the Blair government in 1997 has accelerated the infusion of private-sector PR techniques and behaviour into the Civil Service, a trend that had its origins in the Thatcher era.

Some point out that any hope for a return to some sort of halcyon era of straight-talking government PR is unrealistic, as it underestimates the extent to which previous administrations 'spun' announcements and developments in the media en-vironment engendered by the 24/7 news cycle.

The Sun deputy political editor George Pascoe-Watson says: 'Spin will never die. Spin is presenting policy or handling crises with the best possible gloss. Any party or government that fails to present its message is amateur in the extreme.'

'Alastair was unique because he created this government's media machine. But it will continue to work when he goes because the machine is bigger than him,' he adds.

Likewise, many believe that despite the Phillis review's self-professed claims to 'radicalism', the changes planned will have little effect on the day-to-day operations of the Downing Street press office.

As Campbell, widely described as the most powerful unelected official in British politics in modern times, prepares to clear his desk, a new era of government communications clearly beckons.

But, Pascoe-Watson concludes: 'Nothing much will change. Alastair's departure is designed to send a message that the era of spin is over. But the Government - all governments - will continue to try to manipulate the news.'

Reports of spin's demise, it seems, may be greatly exaggerated.

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