In reporting the Prime Minister’s decision to review the system for
unattributable briefings, Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph contained the
surreal sentence: ’Government sources said they were increasingly
worried about reports attributed to Downing Street or Government
But after tying themselves in knots over the Chancellor’s EMU stance
this week perhaps the spin doctors could be forgiven for feeling
Off the record briefings have a legitimate place in the PR person’s
There are plenty of occasions in commercial as well as political life
when an organisation cannot take a public position on an issue, but
needs to avoid confusion by encouraging journalists to speculate in a
particular direction. The problems only arise when such briefings are
treated as the standard means for conducting government or company
business. Then the process starts to make that organisation look shifty
And it encourages the media spotlight to focus on the PR advisers
instead of the politicians.
The media’s fascination with spin and spin doctors is in part a
self-obsession. But this Government’s style has exaggerated the
importance of spin - ministers are not allowed out without bleepers to
keep their public utterances on the straight and narrow, and the
communications strategists apparently rule the roost in Downing Street.
Meanwhile, the civil service is currently losing senior information
officers at a rate of knots thanks in part to the new regime’s
insistence on their edging ever closer to becoming political press
The obsession with control which is the hallmark of Labour’s
communications was bound to cause problems eventually, because you
cannot run a government as you would a political party.
The point was made painfully obvious this week. If Alan Duncan had
briefed a journalist about William Hague’s position on EMU before he
made any public announcement, it would have only mattered to the party.
But when the Chancellor’s press adviser did so, the market moved. And
when a later briefing appeared to contradict the earlier version, the
market went into turmoil.
There were many reasons why the last government, which was constantly on
the brink of rebellion and defeat in the Commons, needed to rely on
spin. But this Government, with its colossal Parliamentary majority, can
afford to be bolder in its public pronouncements and less reliant on
’whisper and nudge’ briefings. It should try it.
Attempts have been made before to curtail the use, or misuse, of the
lobby system without much success, but now would be a good time to adopt
a more open, Presidential style of mediarelations.