Why the Government doesn’t understand the role of the GIS

On 8 August, I told you that a Government communications crisis was in the making. It has now arrived with the firing of the fifth head of a departmental information division. Steve Reardon (Social Security) has, it is said, lost the confidence of his Cabinet Minister, Harriet Harman. Mr Reardon, who joined my press office at the Department of Employment in 1972, should take that as a compliment.

On 8 August, I told you that a Government communications crisis was

in the making. It has now arrived with the firing of the fifth head of a

departmental information division. Steve Reardon (Social Security) has,

it is said, lost the confidence of his Cabinet Minister, Harriet Harman.

Mr Reardon, who joined my press office at the Department of Employment

in 1972, should take that as a compliment.



But there are other implications. The Government Information Service

(GIS), which I used to head, is left wondering ’who’s next?’ Morale is

rock bottom while the ludicrous Peter Mandelson repeats mantra-like that

the Government is ’keen to make the best of the GIS.’



To make the best of anything, you have to understand it. And what this

Government simply does not understand is Government. Sycophants, of

course, claim that no Opposition came better equipped for Government

after 18 years in the wilderness. Others tell the truth. Those who have

experienced it at work summarise its approach as being: ’We won without

the civil service. Why do we need this big, lumbering machine?’ And they

go on disparagingly to compare the staid, ordered GIS with their former

Millbank media centre and its Excalibur rapid rebuttal system.



So now we have a GIS crisis which, in building up, has also claimed the

jobs if not the reputations of Andy Wood, the Northern Ireland veteran,

Liz Drummond (Scottish Office), Gill Samuel (Defence) and Jill Rutter, a

Treasury official who was doing a stint as the Chancellor’s press

secretary until a certain barrow boy called Charles Whelan came in with

Chancellor Gordon Brown. BBC folk tell me they now have permission to

put the phone down on Whelan when he barks his routine abuse.



I am in no position to complain about new Governments bringing in new

communications blood. That was how I got into the game with a perfect

stranger called Barbara Castle when I was more sympathetic to Labour in

1968. Labour has always tended to look fondly outside the official

machine for communicators. But at least it then had a philosophy and a

policy which flowed from it. Now there is a vacuum. Social security

policy is a slogan - welfare into work - just as Tony Blair has a series

of headline aims - New, Young, Vigorous, Dynamic and, of course,

Compassionate Britain.



It means only what Mr Blair chooses it to mean.



But the role of the GIS is to present and explain Government policy, not

to invent it. Yet that is how this Government formulates policy - in

response to the latest headline. Hence its media obsession. The GIS is

also precluded by rule from deliberate image-building. Does Labour know

that? No wonder there is a crisis.



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