Spin Doctors: Whitehall's press machine `sidelined'

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The Independent Online
Civil servants in the Government Information Service are under increasing attack from the spin doctors and their new political masters. Michael Streeter hears that they may turn to the Cabinet Secretary for help.

In the clash between Labour ministers and Whitehall's press officers there has been one telling casualty - an almost complete absence of communication.

A typically blunt letter from Alistair Campbell that government press officers should focus more on the "big messages" of policy is just the latest sign of Labour's unhappiness with Whitehall's team of official information officers.

Ministers have complained loudly about the contrast between government press officers and the ultra-smooth Millbank Labour machine to which they have become accustomed.

However, officials complain that they have received virtually no idea from ministers on just what is required. One source said: "All we've been told is that ministers want us to give the `message' not the news. And they want us to be more active at weekends, promoting their policies. But that's all we've been told - we feel sidelined and in some cases bullied."

The most extreme case of sidelining is a decision by Harriet Harman, Secretary of State for Social Security, to appoint an external public relations consultant to promote the New Deal for Lone Parents campaign.

Union officials representing staff have complained that this move is "insulting" to their professionalism and has "drastically" undermined morale.

The Government's arguments are summarised in the Campbell memo which says: "There are three parts to any story - the build-up, the event and the follow through. My sense is that the middle of these three gets all the attention ... We should always know how big stories will be playing in the next day's papers."

David Luxton, national officer for the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists, which represents many civil servants, warned that there had been a "blurring of the edges" between the job of the information officers and party press officers. "The information officers are there to explain departmental policy to the public and media - not just to act as press officers for individual ministers."

He said the IPMS is considering seeking help from Sir Robin Butler, the Cabinet Secretary, in clarifying the role of information officers. "Our members are keen to work with the new administration and learn any new tricks their new masters think necessary - but that can only be done by working together."