Clamp on briefings could backfire

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The Independent Online
Attempts to impose a rigid discipline on government announcements and policy initiatives could rebound and lead to an increase in leaks, according to senior civil servants.

Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, is seeking to ensure that all major announcements of government policy and even interviews with ministers are co-ordinated through his office. Ministers are also supposed to notify Downing Street if they go to lunches with journalists or meet them informally for off-the-record briefings.

Both current and former civil servants reacted with a "seen- it-all-before" attitude, saying that this type of strong central control has been attempted in the past but proved unworkable.

Indeed, they point to similar injunctions from Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's press secretary, who also wanted similar co-ordination of the government's publicity machine. A press officer in a major department during the 1980s said: "Ingham tried to exert control and issued instructions, but within a few days we started ignoring it because people outside No 10 would sneer at it."

There were typical Civil Service ways of ignoring the instruction, he said: "We would simply carry on turning a blind eye and if No 10 questioned it, we would just say - 'Oh, sorry, didn't we tell you'."

However, unlike Mr Ingham, Mr Campbell is not a civil servant but a "special adviser", an overtly political appointment, which civil servants feel is a better arrangement.

There is fierce departmental loyalty from both civil servants and ministers who will resist too much pressure from the centre.

It is not only the independence of the government departments which will prevent Mr Campbell from achieving his sought after hegemony, but the sheer volume of government work. A senior Labour source said: "It's not like being in opposition when you are not actually making any decisions that affect anybody. It's the whole government machine."

An average department such as transport or environment might put out up to 600 press releases and even if the Government sensibly reduced this number by half, the sheer volume would be impossible to control.

A head of information explained: "The previous government tried to co-ordinate announcements through Michael Heseltine's committee, EDCP.

"But they would do stupid things like decide the day something should be announced without anyone from the relevant department being consulted and they would find that the minister was abroad, or that an outside group involved in the launch would not be available."

He added: "The real problem is that if you delay an announcement to, as they put it, co-ordinate the government message, it risks leaking out in a completely unplanned way. You can't sit on things because it will be in someone's interest to leak it."

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