Political: Whitehall falls prey to extreme office politics - Government information officers are under fire amid claims that they are unable to effectively communicate the Labour Government’s ministerial messages

The so-called ’purge’ of senior Government information officers that has already cost four department chiefs their jobs (PR Week, 12 September) is likely to continue throughout autumn, a Labour party source has confirmed.

The so-called ’purge’ of senior Government information officers

that has already cost four department chiefs their jobs (PR Week, 12

September) is likely to continue throughout autumn, a Labour party

source has confirmed.



She said that ministers had become ’extremely frustrated’ at the

apparent inability of the Whitehall information machine to take a more

proactive role in the presentation of Labour Party policy and she

predicted that at least three more senior information officers would be

culled before Christmas.



The recent hostilities between the Government Information Service, which

represents the 1,100 Whitehall communications staff, and the new

Government, have led to bitter name-calling behind the scenes.



GIS members claim that the Blair administration wants to manipulate the

news to its own advantage in an orgy of spin-doctoring, while ministers

claim that some sections of the GIS couldn’t communicate their way out

of paper bag.



What appears closer to the truth, according to one current departmental

information head, is that after 18 years in the political wilderness

Labour’s media management skills are sharper than those of any other

political party in modern times. Labour ministers, he says, have been

’shocked’ at the sometimes lackadaisical attitude to the press taken by

certain Government departments and are determined to shake the GIS out

of its lethargy.



Mike Granatt, head of the GIS and director of communications at the Home

Office, told PR Week that while he had ’no information’ on any other job

losses, further casualties ’would not necessarily surprise’ him. He

added: ’When you have changes of minister alone, there can be clashes of

personality in a department. When the whole Government changes, things

are often magnified.’



But the list of charges against the GIS cannot be dismissed as a simple

case of faces not fitting.



A Labour Party source at HQ in Walworth Road confimed the confusion that

has erupted over demarcation of PR roles: ’In recent weeks, we have been

asked by broadcasters to arrange interviews with ministers because their

own department press officers were unable or unwilling to arrange them,

and we have been contacted by members of the regional media who claim

that officers have actually failed to pass on their requests for

interviews with ministers. Neither of these things are the job of the

party and we have been forced to send the requests straight back to the

department concerned.’



There have also been problems when a minister had, for example,

discovered that a story negative to his department has been running on

PA all day, but that no one had bothered to check the wires, or that his

press team ’had not thought it important’ on a Saturday night to alert

him to a key story breaking in the Sunday papers.



Mike Granatt accepts that the GIS is not always as close to the regional

media as it might be, and adds that this will change in the coming

months.



He says: ’Governments of all complexions stand accused of being rather

London-focused, but I accept that far more can and should be done with

the regional media as well.’



While one senior information officer notes that ’many Tory ministers

were not actually that interested in press coverage,’ the

’near-obsession’ with which the Labour administration monitors the

entire media has ’come as quite a shock.’



’Particularly to those people who have never served under a Labour

Government before and who were unaware of how media-proficient the party

had become,’ says the officer.



Although Labour’s move to externally recruit some of the more senior

information officer posts is applauded by GIS insiders, there is still a

fear that key posts will be filled by political appointees, rather than

career civil servants. This adds fuel to the fires of Labour’s

opponents, who accuse ministers of simply seeking to fill the press with

’good news’.



Sir Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher’s former press secretary, says

Labour is looking for ’press manipulators, rather than those who take a

broad view of the political process’, and will not be content until it

affects what he calls a ’politicisation’ of the entire civil

service.



But to Mike Granatt, the current difficulties between ministers and GIS

members are simply to do with style, rather than to grandiose dreams of

world domination:



’This Government believes that it is very important to present its

policies well to the people and to involve them in the formulation of

policy. In contrast, the previous Government was more in favour of

making policy behind closed doors and then presenting the finished

product to the electorate.’



He adds: ’While I see no hint of politicisation in anything I have heard

from Peter Mandelson (Minister Without Portfolio) I would agree that

presentation is key in an age of 24-hour-a-day media, and it is now our

job at the GIS to ensure that ministers’ demands for professional

presentation get the highest possible priority.’



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