New Labour puts its spin on government information

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The Independent Online
The Government has drawn up new guidelines for its press officers. Some ministers are unhappy about the way their policies are being portrayed. Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, has had an early glimpse of the rules and considers the likely reaction.

For the eight senior government information officers who have left since Labour took power, some of the new advice may be greeted with a hollow laugh.

"Working with ministers is often fun and exciting and invariably generates considerable motivation and involvement," says the first draft of the guidelines, leaked to The Independent.

However, the same advice - drawn up by the head of the Government Information Service, Mike Granatt, but with the unmistakable imprint of the Prime Minister's chief press secretary Alastair Campbell on every page - will not make easy reading for politicians either.

"Ministers sometimes find it difficult to make the distinction between the role of the civil servant and that of the spokesperson for the minister's own political party," it says with something approaching disdain.

This "best practice" checklist of guidance, which will form the new so- called Red Book for press officers, follows concern from ministers and the party's own spin-doctors that the Government Information Service (GIS) falls far short of Labour's successful media manipulation in opposition.

It will be seen as a New Labour bible - the Alastair Campbell way to handle the media.

One of the biggest shake-ups for the information officers will be at weekends, when the old days of listening to the news and waiting for calls from reporters will be gone for ever. In a withering aside on the old practices, the guidelines say: "A home phone and television set are clearly not enough."

Instead, the weekend duty officials will be fully kitted out with a text pager, a digital mobile phone (presumably digital to prevent electronic eavesdropping), a fax and a laptop computer with access to news wires. No mention is made of who will pay the bill.

The document also warns about using off-the-record guidance to journalists - when nothing is for publication - only when "absolutely necessary", preferring instead the "unattributable" guidance to hacks or better still on the record.

Much of the language is high-minded, telling press officers that the GIS relies on its "credibility, a quality that is hard won and easily lost". The central role of Mr Campbell is made explicit. "Periodically, the Chief Press Secretary will brief Heads of Information on the strategic messages and style which should underpin Departmental announcements."

The guidelines are also intended to reassure the civil servants afraid they are being asked to play an increasingly political role.

By helping promote departmental policies, a press officer is often also advancing the aims of the party in power, admits the guide. "This is perfectly proper and it is one of the benefits of political office that the facilities of the GIS are available in this way." However, ministers are also bound to uphold the impartiality of civil servants.

Accordingly, officials under pressure to cross the political boundary into impropriety, should give ministers a "polite refusal".

Even less comfort comes in the admission that party politics and government information are hard to disentangle. "The two are inextricably linked," says the document, "not least in the minds of ministers."

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