Platform: Facing up to the reality of information - The politicisation of Government press officers is undermining the credibility of the information they are dealing with, says Andy Wood

This week saw the opening of the Public Administration Committee’s inquiry into the Government Information and Communication Services and (GICS) not before time.

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.

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