This week saw the opening of the Public Administration Committee’s
inquiry into the Government Information and Communication Services and
(GICS) not before time.
Just over a year into power and New Labour has roughly half as many
again special advisers as the Tories. Special advisers (policy) or
special advisers (media) - call them what you will: the result is the
same for the working journalist - a new fast track for comment and
insights from ’sources close to the Minister’.
Provided you’re perceived as signed-up ’friend of New Labour’ you’ll get
the copy you want, at a price. And not just the spin on that day’s news
- the payoff can come in the terms of a new job as the shenanigans
surrounding the appointment of Paul Routledge and his subsequent
’disappointment’ as political editor of the Express.
And the implications for the Government press officers who - like the
rest of the Civil Service - should be there simply to present and
explain the policies and actions of the Government of the day? What’s
happened in their corner of the meadow is politicisation pure and simple
- the creation of a working environment where political acceptability
takes precedence over professional ability. Press Officers would be wise
to recognise that sad fact of life.
And if more press officers leave - so what? There are plenty of
replacements, particularly at that other unhappy ship the BBC. So far it
has provided two new heads of information (at DSS and the NIO) and looks
set to produce a third for culture, media and sport.
Steve Reardon, removed from the Department of Social Security and
badmouthed by Harriet Harman’s special adviser argues that the new
regime will put pressure on senior members of the GICS to give advice
which will not result in loss of job. It’s a knockdown argument,
depressing in its implications for the future of healthy debate in
Government circles. Because press officers should feel able to enter
advice which may be politically unpalatable or which flies in the face
of the prevailing office orthodoxy. That may constitute a ’political’
act - not in the party-political sense - but it demonstrates two key
qualities in a press officer: political nous and self confidence.
If the Minister doesn’t like the advice, it can be ignored or binned:
that’s the Minister’s privilege. But first he or she is entitled to hear
all views - particularly the opposing views. Ask yourself: would Hans
Christian Andersen’s Emperor have looked such a dork if the little boy
who spoke the unspeakable had been the imperial media adviser?
So now we’ve got a situation where politics rules, OK, and
politicisation is the order of the day. And it’s okay for the ’new kids
on the block’ to spin and weave to their heart’s content. And - as it
always was - not proper for the older boys and girls of the GICS to do
the same. The taxpayer foots the bills for parliamentarians and their
special advisers - but not civil servants and press officers - to tear
the guts out of their opponents.
But my former colleagues in the GICS would be wise to start acting in
personally politically-astute sense if they’re to survive - the special
advisers are threatening to supplant their functions and they can’t look
to their permanent secretaries for protection.
My advice: don’t get mad - get windy. And don’t rule out getting out:
the private sector still recognises the value of highly-trained
information professionals even if the Government doesn’t.