Last week saw Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister’s press
secretary, replace Minister without Portfolio Peter Mandelson as the
bogeyman of the Government’s media relations machine.
The various reviews and reforms initiated by Campbell since Labour came
to power last May have, it seems, failed to defuse tensions over the
Government’s relationship with the Government Information and
Communications Service (GICS), and the extent to which 10 Downing Street
officials like Campbell should intervene in relationships between
ministers and the press.
The House of Commons Select Committee on Public Administration’s
decision to investigate these issues after Easter offers an opportunity
for the kind of open debate which could lay them to rest.
The Committee will look at, among other things, the extent to which GICS
should be politically impartial, at the relationship between party
spokesmen, political advisers and the information system and at the
operation of the lobby system for briefing journalists. It will also
examine the working of the 10 Downing Street Strategic Communications
By covering the same issues as those in last November’s Mountfield
Report on the GICS, the MPs’ report will be a verdict on the major
changes which Mountfield brought about. It will also be a verdict on
other Government reforms of the GICS since the last election, such as
instructions to ministers to inform 10 Downing Street of all major
interviews and media appearances, of the contents of speeches and of
Many observers note a ’Washingtonisation’ of the GICS and of the civil
service generally, whereby political appointees, rather than civil
servants work most closely with ministers.
Sir Bernard Ingham, former press secretary to Margaret Thatcher, says:
’British ministers are in danger of compromising its (GICS’s)
They are seeking to create a new kind of Government in which GICS is an
executive arm run by the chief press secretary (Alastair Campbell).’
Sheila Gunn, John Major’s press secretary during the election and now
head of PR for estate agents Healey and Baker, says: ’What has changed
most is that the heavyweight directors of information have almost
without exception gone, and there is much more political oversight of
directors of information.’
Ministers exercise their oversight of GICS partly through their group of
special advisers, which has grown from less than 40 under the Tories to
some 70 under Labour. While GICS members are still expected to adhere to
the Government’s ’Guidance on the Work of the Government Information
Service’, which requires them to act impartially, special advisers are
under no such constraints.
The Government has also centralised control of GICS in 10 Downing
Centralisation has been reinforced recently with the establishment of
the Strategic Communications Unit. It reports through Alastair Campbell
to Tony Blair, and aims to co-ordinate departments’ public activities
and ensure they are presented in a way that links them with the major
themes of Government policy.
Two of the unit’s six staff, Philip Bassett and David Bradshaw are
special advisers who, like Alastair Campbell, are expected to spin the
best possible line for Labour. The other four staff are civil servants.
One, Andrew Silverman was previously private secretary to Peter
Mandelson, while another, Siobhan Kenny worked in the Downing Street
It seems to have taken the Government some months to decide how to deal
with the GICS. According to The Guardian’s chief political correspondent
Ewen MacAskill, around election time, Labour was relatively up front
about wanting its party machine ’to operate in tandem with the Whitehall
It soon realised, however, that openly advocating this desire would draw
fire from the Tories and from civil servants. To the Government’s
credit, none of the heads of information appointed under its
administration have obvious political affiliations.
Fiona Sloman, who represents GICS members of the Institution of
Professionals, Managers and Specialists, says that in the aftermath of
the election, there was a sense that the Government was trying to
politicise the GICS, but there is now a clear division between GICS
members and special advisers, she says. Whether that division is
sustainable remains to be seen.
Departmental heads of information will have the chance to discuss the
civil servant/special adviser relationship when they review progress
with the Mountfield report’s recommendations later this month.
Campbell has avoided politicising the GICS by simply superimposing his
own layer of loyal troops. With its most senior directors gone, the
GICS’s ability to resist the change has been neutered. But in the longer
term, if ministers want a politicised communications service then they
should argue openly for it.