Leaky special advisers herald a communications crisis

In his 1996 book The Blair Revolution, Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio (or for Meddling, depending on your point of view), emphasises the need for New Labour to sustain its ideas and vision in office. This, he says, points to ’the need for ministers to use the Government’s information service as effectively and professionally as Tory ministers try to do’.

In his 1996 book The Blair Revolution, Peter Mandelson, Minister

without Portfolio (or for Meddling, depending on your point of view),

emphasises the need for New Labour to sustain its ideas and vision in

office. This, he says, points to ’the need for ministers to use the

Government’s information service as effectively and professionally as

Tory ministers try to do’.



So, how are they doing now that we have had virtually 100 days of Blair

Government? The answer is to be found partly in Madam Speaker Betty

Boothroyd’s complaint about leaks. What has upset her, as the guardian

of Commons’ privilege, is the persistence with which this Government

makes announcements long before Parliament is informed. One of the

latest examples was the leaking of David Clementi’s appointment as

deputy governor of the Bank of England before he had had the opportunity

to consult his employers, Kleinwort Benson.



I cannot pretend that Tory governments never trailed policy

announcements before informing Parliament. This occurred all too often -

and all too often counter-productively because, while it might help a

department to prepare Conservative opinion, it gave the Opposition more

time to organise its attack. I am by no means convinced of the alleged

benefits of the inspired leak.



But there is a practical problem. It stems from ministers’ perceived

need to prepare public opinion, the demands of Parliamentary privilege,

which require, if the Speaker chooses to enforce it, the Commons to be

told first and Parliament’s meeting more than two hours after evening

paper deadlines. To protect themselves and the official machine,

ministers have increasingly used political or special advisers to do the

dirty work.



And this, in turn, has led journalists to turn to these sources for

briefing and treat the Government Information Service (GIS) merely as

emergency back-up or fact-checkers.



There is some early evidence from journalists that some ministers are

not using the GIS as effectively and professionally as Mr Mandelson

imagined the Tories employed it. It is being by-passed, undermined or

starved of essential background for guiding reporters who want ’depth’.

Political advisers have always been a problem for press secretaries.

They provide another focus and an alternative (wholly prejudiced) voice,

less confined by the restraints of the Civil Service. But a wise

minister will always look after his official machine. This is because it

is the official source and is always around, not least when political

apparatchiks are cultivating their political futures or have gone to

bed.



Unless I am mistaken, a communications crisis is in the making. Mr

Mandelson, as a control freak, should take heed. Government

communications cannot live by special advisers alone.



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