Reid's spin doctor takes the rap for bird flu 'cock-up'

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The Independent Online

It's time for a fresh serving of the humble pie first baked by New Labour's spin-doctor, Jo Moore. John Reid's office has been forced to issue a grovelling apology for another cack-handed attempt to "bury bad news".

The Health Secretary has upset several upstanding members of Her Majesty's press corps, after four newspapers - the Mail, Express, Mirror and Sun - were excluded from a briefing on the flu vaccine shortage on Monday.

As a result, their correspondents were frozen out of what became the following day's top story. Many suspect an orchestrated attempt to prevent aggressive coverage of Reid's role in the affair.

Because government departments are banned from picking and choosing who attends their briefings, the Department of Health is at best guilty of a cock-up; at worst, serious malpractice.

Fortunately, Reid's Head of Press, Jon Hibbs, is taking the rap for the whole thing. Yesterday he issued a formal apology to the journalists in question.

"I take full responsibility for failing to handle this matter in accordance with the principles of transparency that normally govern our communications on serious public health issues," it reads.

Asked about the apology last night, he explained: "It was a bad call. We did not realise how big a story it was going to be. We don't want to be seen as operating some kind of exclusive policy with these things, and we learn from our mistakes."

* Ralph Fiennes does not take kindly to intrusions into his private life, so I hope the galley-slaves at Rupert Murdoch's New York Post are equipped with tin hats.

The actor is speaking to lawyers after the US paper claimed he'd ditched girlfriend Francesca Annis for a younger model.

According to the Post, Fiennes recently spent an evening canoodling with the actress Gina Gershon in a Manhattan bar. "They made out in a booth and then cuddled the rest of the night," it reports.

Fiennes denies any such thing. Although his spokesperson Sarah Keane does not comment on personal matters, a friend says: "he'll fight this all the way."

"There is no truth in any of these suggestions," I'm told. "It's pure personal conjecture. Ralph has sought advice, and it's now for him to decide about further action."

Annis is currently doing Epitaph for George Dillon in the West End. Ironically, she plays the love interest of Fiennes' brother, Joe.

* There is rivalry between two splendid old troupers: the Duchess of Cornwall and Joan Collins.

In yesterday's Spectator, Collins accused our future Queen of poaching her favourite hairdresser, Hugh Green. "Hugh has decided to that Highgrove is more conducive to coiffure than my flat in Belgravia," she noted.

Many readers took this to mean that Camilla has hired Green - a Hercule Poirot lookalike whose clients include Princess Michael and Vanessa Redgrave - as a full-time personal hairdresser. But Clarence House deny any such thing.

Thankfully, the man himself can clear up any confusion. Speaking from his salon Hugh & Stephen yesterday, he explained: "I went to America with the Royal party, so had to cancel a few appointments, but I'm still based here."

* Mike Read is no stranger to misfortune, but who'd have thought an interview with the Evening Standard would land him in court?

On Wednesday, Peter Blake - star of Read's ill-fated musical about Oscar Wilde - went to Guildford County Court to recover several thousand pounds he claims he's owed in unpaid wages. Wilde last year became the shortest-running musical in British history when it closed after one night because of poor ticket sales.

Curiously, the case would never have been bought if Read hadn't given the ES an interview a few months back.

"I couldn't get hold of Read's address, so was unable to take action," says Blake. "Then he popped-up in the Standard, bragging about buying a new home in Worthing. The piece even named his estate agent, so it became a lot easier to find him."

* Say what you like about Geoff Hoon, he's certainly got a finger on the pulse of 20th-century counter-culture. On Wednesday night, the Leader of the House was spotted pogo-ing away at Bob Dylan's gig in Brixton.

"Hoon had a pint of lager in his hand, and was standing next to a group of youths who were passing round an extremely large spliff," I'm told.

"Obviously, they were nothing to do with him, but it was a surreal sight. All credit to the man, though: he seems to know his Dylan, and didn't stick out like other middle-aged politicians might have."

Mr Hoon's name has become Cockney rhyming slang for "buffoon". In Pandora's view, he's quite the reverse.

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