It’s one of the great ironies of New Labour’s first six months in
power - that a Government which was ushered in by one of the most
formidable political PR machines in recent memory is required to review
the situation after a number of its more enthusiastic spin doctors start
becoming too creative with their messages and relations break down with
the career civil servants.
As a result of this review, Government communication will become more
centralised. The report published last week on the Government
Information Service (to be renamed the Government Information and
Communication and Service) responds to mounting pressure from ministers
for Government spokespeople to take a more proactive, co-ordinated and
round-the-clock approach to communication.
As a succession of heads of information have left or announced their
departure, the media has reported a break-down of traditional channels
of communication between GICS staff and ministers or their special
Journalists have complained of contradictory off-the-record briefings
from special advisers, and a lack of impartial information. GICS staff
have expressed fears that the service risks becoming
politicised.Meanwhile, ministers have complained that information staff
are not proactive enough, providing inadequate weekend and after hours
cover and failing to brief them on potential danger areas.
The issue came to a head in October when confusing briefings over the
single European currency sent share prices tumbling in the City. In
response to the criticism that followed, Blair and his press secretary
Alastair Campbell announced they would look into the issue of
unattributed and off-the-record briefings.
The report includes new conventions for attributing briefings, and
suggests changes to the ways in which staff are recruited to and work
within the service. The main effect of the report will be to centralise
more power at No 10. Under the new conventions for attributing briefings
from special advisers, only Campbell and the two special advisers who
report to him, Hilary Coffman and Tim Allan, can be described as
This is designed to give weight to the official line from the centre
when No 10 press officers are responding to the kind of speculation and
confusion which surrounded Britain and the single currency.
Campbell is hiring around six hand-picked civil servants and special
advisers to form a new strategic communications unit. The unit, which
should add to No 10’s influence over Government communication strategy,
will monitor departments to ensure they are following the official
It will ensure announcements are co-ordinated so that they do not
compete for media attention.
The unit will allow the Government to plan its communication strategy
and, along with a 24-hour media monitoring unit, will allow No 10 to
spot problem stories and plan the official response before they
escalate. The unit may even be involved in producing the Government’s
annual performance report, a new measure announced in August.
New conventions for attributing briefings from special advisers will
effectively identify them by name. When these are on-the-record,
advisers should be referred to as ’political adviser to’ the minister
According to Patrick Rock, a consultant and the Public Policy Unit and
former special adviser for media relations to the previous Home
Secretary Michael Howard, says the new rules are unlikely to be well
received by the special advisers.
’If you’re carrying out a political briefing for the minister, the last
thing you want is to be personally identified in the paper, which is
effectively what this will do,’ he says.
The system will mark the difference between party political briefings by
advisers and Government briefings by GICS staff, who will continue to be
referred to as official spokesmen. The report attempts to tidy up the
hazy line between Government and Party by restating that information
staff are expected to remain politically impartial.
However the report encourages the recruitment of the five heads of
information from outside the civil service, marking the Government’s
keenness to find people trained in the cut and thrust of commerce -
already five of the vacant heads of information posts have been opened
to external candidates.
But the report does stress that candidates will be selected for their
ability to do the job and not their political stance or on the grounds
of good personal chemistry with their minister - one of the reasons
cited for many of the recent GIS departures.
According to Mike Granatt, head of the GICS, and co-author of the
report: ’The issue wasn’t that the best couldn’t do it but whether the
rest of the machine was up to it, which we acknowledged it wasn’t. The
report is a useful exercise in driving us forward into a more complex
- A strategic communications unit will be set up at No 10 by Alastair
Campbell. The unit will ensure centralised forward planning of policy
presentation, and co-ordination between department’s and the Prime
- A greater emphasis on appointing heads of information from outside the
civil service, through open competition.
- Some GICS people to be seconded to the media to give them extra
- A 24-hour media monitoring service to be piloted from this week. The
unit will be staffed by officers on loan from other departments.
Departments will have to fund the 24-hour service from efficiency
- A new computer system will be installed to inform ministers of the
latest Government line on issues.
- The twice daily briefings to lobby journalists, traditionally
off-the-record, will now be attributed to the PM’s spokesman. Campbell
will not be named, photographed or filmed during the briefings. Special
advisers will be referred to as political adviser to the minister