Have you noticed that we now have a writing Government? Since
Labour won the election hands down seven months ago, its ministers have
had more by-lines than many journalists who write for a living. Last
week, for example, I counted nine ministerial articles in the national
The score was Tony Blair and David Blunkett two each; and John Prescott,
Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Jack Cunningham and Tony Banks one each.
If, as I believe, this was a pretty average week, Labour will not be
able to complain at the last round-up that the British press was
It has opened its columns as welcomingly as the average publican opens
his doors to drinkers. Indeed, my impression is that scarcely a day goes
by without the Government reserving space for some ministerial advocacy
or defence of its position. Last week, ministers covered off-the-bone
beef, climate change, after-school classes, school meals, educational
standards, local government finance, the new ISA savings scheme and why
England should stage the 2006 World Cup. Of course, they don’t write all
this stuff. They have it served up for their editing and signature,
whether bespoke or cobbled together from the transcript of a statement
They are nonetheless extremely communicative - or at least wordy.
But how long will the British press, as distinct from broadcasters who
publicly cross-examine ministers, remain so generous with their
The novelty of such remarkable ministerial accessibility will wear
And the more we see ministerial by-lines the sooner we shall find their
propaganda boring, causing commercial newspapers rapidly to lose
interest themselves. You can have too much of a good thing.
Which brings me to Madam Speaker, Betty Boothroyd. She is thoroughly
brassed off with the way the Government is continually leaking or giving
interviews about planned announcements before informing the Commons. As
the defender of MPs’ rights, she ’deprecates’ the way ’the status of the
House is being devalued’.
Nowhere has the Government been more contemptuous of Parliament’s
privilege to be informed first than with the ’trailing’ of
announcements. Indeed the recent report on the Government Information
Service shows the extent to which it is now sanctioned. ’Trailing helps
set the context and the news agenda’, it says, adding naively: ’But it
must not offend Parliamentary protocol’. Unfortunately, it invariably
does. And Madam Speaker is insisting that it has got to stop. All this
not only underlines Labour’s obsession with the media; it also reveals
its lack of discretion in message management.
Before it’s much older, I predict that it will have discretion forced