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,
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.