Let us examine the anatomy of a political scandal - or at least a
scandal about the alleged politicisation of the civil service that the
media, ably assisted by the opposition parties and a civil servant mole,
tried to generate. It is instructive for PR persons to do so. We’ll be
better for knowing the kind of wilful ignorance, hypocrisy and
opportunism we can be up against.
The facts are simple. Back in July, ministers meet - understandably - to
see how they could counter criticism of all their works. Deputy Prime
Minister Michael Heseltine then asks ministers to identify outside
‘cheerleaders’ for Government policies. He doesn’t actually suggest
civil servants should do the work. Instead, he invites ministers to
‘consider how this [the objective] might be achieved’. Immediately
Cabinet Secretary, Sir Robin Butler rules that civil servants should not
do the job. Mr Heseltine agrees, on his return from holiday, and uses
Three months later, on the very eve of another Commons’ sleaze inquiry,
the press tells us that Hezza has tried to politicise the civil service.
Uproar. Labour deputy leader John Prescott nearly blows a gasket and the
media’s sense of propriety is outraged, although they think nothing of
tapping phones, buying up witnesses, intruding on personal privacy and
Yet what happened? In fact, the system to protect the political
impartiality of the civil service worked a treat. Mr Heseltine is not my
favourite minister. But I would never accuse him of deliberately seeking
to compromise civil servants’ independence. Nor did he. End of story.
Well, not quite. I take a keen interest in these incidents because I
have been held up as an example of a highly politicised civil servant,
even though I worked in exposed positions generally to the satisfaction
of both Labour and Tory Governments. The truth is that, with my
Government Information Service colleagues, I continually sought to
protect not merely the political impartiality of the civil service, but
also the backs of our ministers. They’d be the first to suffer from the
allegations of compromising that impartiality among their staff. Mr
Heseltine’s back shows how easily ministers can be stabbed.
But who was doing the stabbing? Why, a civil servant mole who timed the
leak about charges he or she knew to be unfounded to maximise the
Government’s embarrassment. I do not expect journalists to frown upon
leakers, even leakers of duff stories. But I do expect them to be able
to differentiate between real and imagined civil service politicisation.
And in this - as in scores of other cases which pile one on top of the
other - the politicised were the leakers. Sadly, PROs have known for
yonks that there’s none so blind as journalists and politicians who will
Sir Bernard Ingham writes for the Daily Express