Our Government is now into the second half of its first
It is therefore time to take stock of its official press officers -
members of the Government Information and Communication Service (GICS),
as it is now known - as distinct from the party-appointed spin doctors
who also ply their trade at the taxpayers’ expense. How are GICS members
feeling after more than two years under the most media-obsessed
Government we have ever known?
I put myself into their shoes when, as a former head of the GICS, I was
invited to give evidence about political advisers to the Neill
Committee. How, I asked myself, would I feel if I had been through what
they have experienced since May 1997? There they were, dying like all
good civil servants to demonstrate they could work with a Labour
Government after 18 years of Tory rule, when their territory was
suddenly invaded by an immodest and uncommonly large bunch of party
apparatchiks called special advisers who laughably claimed their media
manipulation had produced a Labour landslide.
They obviously believed the GICS was the pits - as their new operational
head, Alastair Campbell, soon made explicit with a Nelsonian flourish
when he signalled: ’Labour expects every man this day to raise his
game.’ The GICS was apparently not up to the brave new 24-hour world of
news creation. Ministers got the message and within a year, 25 of those
occupying the top 44 GICS posts had moved on for one reason or another.
In 12 months, more than half the Government’s top communications echelon
had been purged, often in a manner of which Stalin would have approved.
One was actually described to the press as ’dead meat’ before the axe
The Government then came up with another wheeze to humiliate its press
officers: it instituted a review, under a Permanent Secretary to give it
respectability, to give the GICS its marching orders and re-write the
rules. Leaking was institutionalised and administrators were told to
discard their ’disdain’ for press officers. The latter move might have
been more helpful if wet-behind-the-ears administrators had not been
brought in to head information divisions where tame journalists were not
imported for the job.
Meanwhile, the civil service head of the GICS reported the development
of a ’blame culture - a concentration on mistakes, regardless of who
actually made them, and little else’. Yet all the Government’s
presentational botches - for example, the Prime Minister’s encounters
with Bernie Ecclestone and Romano Prodi, the Whelan-induced euro fiasco,
Peter Mandelson’s and Ron Davies’ resignations and Robin Cook’s
continuation in office, to name but a few - could only be laid at the
door of the GICS’ critics. So how does the GICS feel? Abused - like the