A golden opportunity to start again - but is there enough desire and discipline?

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Indy Politics

Will the plans outlined by Tony Blair yesterday finally enable the Government to shed its damaging image as being tainted by "spin"?

The much-heralded departure of Alastair Campbell certainly provides the Prime Minister with an ideal opportunity to abandon the techniques that served New Labour so well in opposition but have become such a millstone around its neck in government.

When it came to power in 1997, Labour tried to re-create the Millbank media operation in Whitehall. The Cabinet Office, for example, set up a media monitoring service. Perhaps unfairly, Labour distrusted long-serving civil service communications bosses in departments, and most were weeded out.

Labour's special advisers, led by Mr Campbell, felt they had to fill the vacuum. This led to the simmering tensions between them and the Civil Service that exploded into the open at the Department of Transport after Jo Moore, a political spin doctor, notoriously said that 11 September would be a "good day to bury bad news". The crisis led to the setting up of the Phillis inquiry, which produced its interim report yesterday. The new structures proposed by the Phillis review, which separate the roles of political and civil service press officers, make sense. But the measures will not in themselves kill off spin. The intense pressures generated by a highly competitive media have made it much harder to draw a line between political propaganda and government information.

Much will depend on the three main personalities involved: David Hill, the new political director of communications; the new civil service senior spokesman for the Prime Minister; and the new permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office who will oversee them. Part of the problem is that the Government's ruthless news management and pressurising of the media have made many media folk cynical - perhaps too cynical. Indeed, it was a determination to stand up to bullying that led the BBC chairman, Gavyn Davies, to take a tough line against the Government in the row over "sexing up" the dossier on Iraqi weapons. In many ways, the Government has only itself to blame for this culture of media cynicism. But, the media have responsibilities too. As the Phillis report says, the media "need to recognise that their attitude and behaviour is a vital part of the process".

The David Kelly tragedy offers a unique opportunity to forge a new settlement in which the Government stops spinning, becomes more open and says sorry for its mistakes and, in turn, the media do not view politicians through a distorting lens.

However, I am not sure either side can stick to this bargain. After all, the Government promised to give up spin after the 2001 general election.

Moreover, I am not sure that, in seeking to kill off spin, the Government is acting with entirely honourable motives. It spun because it worked. Now it doesn't, and has instead become a symbol for a highly dangerous lack of trust in Mr Blair. Ministers and their special advisers - and even civil servants - will need to show restraint if the new system is to work. In today's feverish climate, if you don't chase headlines, the Opposition, your critics and the media will fill the gap.

It may be more difficult than New Labour realises to excise something that is ingrained in its soul. Spin was not just Mr Campbell's creation. As Clare Short told me recently: "It is Tony's way of doing it." So Mr Campbell's departure does not guarantee the end of spin. The next year will tell us whether Mr Blair is serious about ending it.

Phillis Report: The Main Points

* A civil servant to be appointed permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office to oversee and co-ordinate government communications.

* A senior official spokesman for the Prime Minister to be deputy to the permanent secretary and to head the civil servants in the Downing Street media team.

* David Hill succeeds Alastair Campbell as the Prime Minister's director of communications. He will lead party political aspects of the No 10 media operation and work with ministers' special advisers.

* Mr Hill to be denied Mr Campbell's special powers to issue orders to civil servants.

* Phillis review group to consider the "breakdown in trust" between government, media and public, and the media's "adversarial relationship" with politicians.

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