Mike Granatt: Govt must trust political instincts

What makes news? This is a question that still seems to floor many of the governing classes. For example, why didn’t anyone in Whitehall twig that letting a sex offender return to teaching would cause press and public outrage, whatever the mitigating circumstances?

And should we really believe that Education Secretary Ruth Kelly got away with her explanation?

To answer the first question we should look at the nature of government. Whitehall is really good at dissecting huge, messy problems, and breaking them down into issues on which ministers can decide. Its culture is rooted in meticulous analysis, logic, an aversion to generalising from the particular, and taking time to do the job properly. But news is different. Newspapers, in particular, must intrigue and involve their audience, resonating with their interests, prejudices and fears. And what strikes a stronger chord than children endangered by official incompetence? 

But while editorial instincts are honed every day by the irresistible competition for sales, mandarins do not have to stand in readers' shoes and ask what rouses them. Instead politicians and civil servants often become obsessed with internal politics and issues. As an outgoing home secretary once explained to his successor: 'All over this department there are hundreds of officials working hard to bring you down. The trouble is, you don't know who they are – and nor do they.'

This is why no one should expect officials, buried in paperwork and procedures, to spot every media bear trap. And while Whitehall's PR professionals and special advisers might have been expected to spot them, these people are rarely given enough access to individual cases.

The lesson is simple. Ministers should never suspend their own instinct for the public mood –  it may be their only safety net.

As to the second question, Kelly has obviously impressed the backbenchers with her investigative rigour. But her fate lies in other hands. Much work went into finding examples of dodgy screening. No doubt a few lie unused, waiting until the next hint of trouble, or a failure to deliver reforms. And as the case of Peter Mandelson amply showed, despite the PM's best efforts, Fleet Street's diggers don't stop until the job is done.

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