NEWS: The media should question the motives of civil service leakers

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.

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

party apparatchiks.



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

practising entrapment.



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

not see.



Sir Bernard Ingham writes for the Daily Express



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