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.

News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Sport
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
Sport
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
Sport
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
tv
News
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
News
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
i100
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Sport
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
News
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
News
i100
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

£20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

Trend Writer / Copywriter

£25 - 30k (DOE): Guru Careers: A Trend Writer / Copywriter: Retail, Design and...

Business Development Manager / Media Sales Exec

£28 - 32k + Uncapped Commission: Guru Careers: A Business Development Manager ...

Digital Marketing Assistant

£17 - 27k: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Digital Marketing Assistant to join ...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering