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Under the public eye

Tony Douglas's pre-election appointment as parliament's PR chief may prove to be a baptism of fire, says David Walker
Unlike his predecessor in the top job at the Central Office of Information, Tony Douglas, the advertising agency executive who takes over next month, will not be chief ethics watchdog for government, PR and press officers.

In a move linked to heightened sensitivities in this pre-election period, all government press work is to be supervised from within the Cabinet Office. Just as well, perhaps, as Mr Douglas has no direct experience of politics or Whitehall, and moves from the private sector at a time when COI's performance is under intense scrutiny by such ministers as the Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine. A long time critic of the effectiveness of government PR, Mr Heseltine is anxious to sharpen the Government's "message".

But the head of COI - which buys advertising space on behalf of ministers and administers a regional public relations network for the government - is supposed to act as a whistleblower on ministers who want to use government advertising for party advantage. As a consequence, the imminence of the general election may put additional strain on Mr Douglas, despite the change in his duties.

For such an important organisation, it is extraordinary how little those outside the media know about the COI. Its core role is to run an electronic and paper-based news distribution service on behalf of the Government. Over what Whitehall calls "propriety issues", it is also supposed to warn ministers if their press releases or advertising slogans cross the line between telling the Government's message and aiding the party in power. If a minister rejects COI's complaint the head of COI has a right to approach Sir Robin Butler, who has regular access to the Prime Minister. In buying media and picking agencies for government contracts, COI works to a government- appointed advisory committee currently chaired by former newspaper executive Brian Nicholson. The committee is kept informed of how contracts are let and who the leading contenders have been.

According to one insider, COI often has to resist advertising agency ideas which cross the party political line. "Occasionally an agency comes up with a powerful idea which has to die as soon as COI people see it," the source said. "It may be a good idea but it could be interpreted as party political rather than strictly government. Agencies sometimes try to feature politicians and don't realise that personal publicity for a minister is not allowed." The director of COI was traditionally regarded as the most senior of the corps of government press and PR officials, the titular head of the Government Information Service. Working with a personnel unit in the Cabinet Office, the "head of profession" is consulted on promotions and movements of staff in the press and publicity apparatus spread through Whitehall departments.

The job is made complicated by the often intensely personal relations ministers may form with their senior press officers. Under Mrs Thatcher, the title of head of profession was taken by her press secretary Sir Bernard Ingham. On Mr Devereau's retirement, Sir Robin Butler has to decide who should have the job - a key set of tasks that include advising the Cabinet Office on press and PR ethical issues.

Tony Douglas is more experienced as an agency manager than on the creative side. Until recently he was joint chairman and chief executive (with Graham Hinton) of D'Arcy Masius Benton and Bowles. D'Arcy Masius has been a major government contractor: among its projects was the Christmas drink-driving campaign on behalf of the Department of Transport. Appointed by open competition, he is expected to sharpen COI's marketing.

Until now, ministers have ruled out privatisation. But one semi-political issue confronting the new head of COI is what to do with government PR in the regions. The Government recently moved quietly to boost the number of regional press officers available because individual ministries were refusing to pay, and - in the words of one official - it was "missing a trick" in presenting policies to the big regional newspapers and coordinating the visits of ministers out of London.

Michael Heseltine, chairman of the EDCP Cabinet Committee, takes a briefing daily on the Government's press and PR performance. He is understood to want more to be spent on press work rather than advertising - yet Mr Douglas has no experience of a news operation.

"He has a lot to learn - and fast," said one senior civil servant.