Downing Street defends spin doctor's 'error of judgement'

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The Prime Minister faced mounting criticism on Tuesday night for defending the government "spin doctor" who urged colleagues to rush out embarrassing news under cover of the atrocities in the US.

Jo Moore was reprimanded by her boss, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, Stephen Byers, but allowed to keep her job – a decision that was endorsed by Tony Blair.

Ms Moore, who was also given an "official warning" by the most senior civil servant at the ministry, sent out an e-mail trawling for sensitive material within an hour of the second hijacked plane hitting the World Trade Centre. As thousands were fleeing for their lives and people were jumping to their deaths from the burning building, she wrote: "It's now a very good day to get out anything we want to bury."

Last night, the Rev David Smith, a relative of one of those who died, accused the adviser of trying to "bury bad news of a fairly insignificant kind under the bodies of 6,000 people". Mr Smith, a cousin of 46-year-old Richard Cudina, a British victim who worked for the broker Cantor Fitzgerald, said he could not accept a simple reprimand for Ms Moore, and demanded her removal. "It reflects very badly on politicians generally. It's the sort of thing that only the most hard-hearted person would have said."

Tony Wright, the Labour chairman of the Commons Public Administration Committee, also called for her dismissal, while the Tory party demanded a wider inquiry into all recent government announcements. But Downing Street insisted that Ms Moore's "error of judgement" – which occurred before the huge death toll was known – was not so severe that it merited her sacking. Mr Blair's official spokesman said Mr Byers was first made aware of the e-mail on Monday and discussed it with Ms Moore. "His view immediately was that this e-mail should not have been sent and that it was an error of judgement. Jo Moore immediately accepted that and Stephen Byers reprimanded her," the spokesman said.

However, fresh questions about Mr Byers' behaviour were raised last night because he decided on his special adviser's future on Monday, without consulting Sir Richard Mottram, the most senior civil servant in his department and her direct line manager.

Downing Street issued a statement by Ms Moore: "It was wrong to send the e-mail and I accept responsibility for doing so. It was clearly a mistake I regret." The Prime Minister's official spokesman also defended the timing of a string of controversial announcements, including Mr Byers taking Railtrack back into government control, made since 11 September.

Whitehall sources revealed that in an unrelated incident, Alun Evans, the main recipient of the e-mail, had been moved from his job as director of communications at the Department of Transport last month after a row with Ms Moore. They said he defied her wishes by refusing to release a story to the press because he felt it was "party political".

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