Men from the loPolitics: bby step out into open government

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The Independent Online
The last remnants of secrecy surrounding the century-old parliamentary lobby news network are to be broken. Anthony Bevins, Political Editor, reports on the move towards more open government.

When Margaret Thatcher was in Number 10, they were attributed to "government sources". Under John Major, "the Prime Minister's office" was used to source lobby briefings. But with Labour at the helm, control has relaxed to the point at which reporters have ascribed quotes to the Prime Minister's spokesman.

Now, daily briefings by Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's chief press secretary, are to be put on the record - getting rid of the much- criticised system of non-attribution under which official "news" is attributed.

A review of the Government Information Service by Robin Mountfield, Second Permanent Secretary at the Office of Public Service, is due to be published this month.

The report is expected to include a recommendation that Number 10 briefings should be turned into press conferences, with Mr Campbell providing on- the-record quotes about Government policy attributed directly to "the Prime Minister's spokesman".

It is unlikely that the press conferences will be open to cameras or microphones, if only because Mr Campbell is wary of being promoted to the point at which he obscures the message. But he has made it clear that he would welcome the opportunity to issue authoritative, on-the-record denials of some of the "garbage" that appears in the media.

The move is one direct result of confusion over the Government message on the European single currency last month, with Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, eventually being forced into a full-scale Commons statement.

If Mr Campbell had been able to issue a complete denial of a Financial Times report on 26 September, which claimed that the Government was "on the point of adopting a much more positive approach to European economic and monetary union", much of the subsequent speculation might well have been stifled.

As it was, the FT report added more than pounds 30bn to that day's London share values, and knocked four pfennigs off the pound, and speculation continued until the Chancellor made his Commons statement that entry was not expected until after the next election.

The lobby system, under which political reporters were given privileged access to certain parts of Parliament, was created in 1884, and the current system under which lobby reporters are given a twice daily non-attributable briefing by Number 10 was initiated in 1930 by Ramsay MacDonald.

Lobby reporters have always been accomplices to a process of news management, but the system was turned into a fine art by Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's press secretary, who even used its cloak of anonymity to vilify ministers being prepared for purge.

One of his victims, John Biffen, described Sir Bernard as "the sewer rather than the sewage"; suggesting he was simply delivering the Prime Minister's poison.

This month's Mountfield Report, which will be approved by the Prime Minister, will formalise that approach and extend it to all information put out by Mr Campbell's office - providing the Government with its own version of Labour's "rapid rebuttal" unit, as well as a proactive, and publicly identifiable, machine for the delivery of its daily "good news" message.

Putting the day's definitive briefing on the record will also enable Parliament and others to judge whether a key element of the Government Information Service is sticking to the official conventions on propriety.

"That Government publicity should be: relevant to Government responsibilities; should be objective and explanatory, not tendentious or polemical; should not be, or be liable to misrepresentation as being, party political; and should be conducted in an economic and appropriate way, having regard to the need to be able to justify the costs as expenditure of public funds."

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