Byers to recruit a new press team to repair his battered media image

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Indy Politics

As well as finding replacements for Jo Moore and Martin Sixsmith, Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Transport, is also recruiting his own press team to help repair his battered media image.

The six-strong unit, planned before last night's resignations, will also face the daunting challenge of imposing some discipline and direction on his faction-riven press office.

While the move to create a "secretary of state" desk within his department echoes the structure of media teams elsewhere in Whitehall, the timing of the move is revealing.

Mr Byers desperately needs to improve his reputation in the eyes of a hostile press after the controversies over the ousted spin doctor Ms Moore, the demise of Railtrack and the state of the rail network. He also has to get a grip on a press operation characterised as much by back-stabbing, disloyalty and leaks as by the promotion of the department's message.

The department is to advertise the post of heading the new team at a salary of about £60,000. The rest of the unit is likely to be deployed from elsewhere in the press office.

The proposed creation of the team – similar to a system operated by Mr Byers when he was Secretary of State at the Department of Trade and Industry – prompted a familiar bout of wrangling within the press office. A suggestion that it would report directly to him sparked fury among other senior press officers who feared it was being sent in to spy on them.

It was being made clear yesterday that the unit would answer to the department's director of communications, the post filled until yesterday afternoon by Mr Sixsmith.

A senior civil servant said: "The move makes sense for a department of this size. However, great care has to be taken to build links with press officers working in other ministerial areas."

But a Whitehall special adviser said: "Hopefully Jo Moore's removal will also remove a lot of the poison. It's been tarnishing all of us in other departments."

The departures yesterday of Ms Moore and Mr Sixsmith will renew the pressure on the Government to introduce a Civil Service Act, governing the activities of special advisers. Opposition parties have urged the move on the Government, insisting legislation is overdue. Labour has always resisted the move, arguing that the code of conduct controlling their work is strong enough.