Inquiry calls for open government to end 'era of spin'

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Indy Politics

A Government-ordered inquiry urged ministers yesterday to use the Freedom of Information Act, which takes effect next January, to end the "culture of secrecy" and "era of spin".

A review of the Whitehall communications machine called for sweeping changes to tackle a "three-way breakdown of trust between government and politicians, the media and the general public".

The group, chaired by Bob Phillis, the chief executive of the Guardian Media Group, said Lord Hutton's inquiry had demonstrated the speed and thoroughness with which information could be made available through the imaginative use of its website. It said ministers should implement the new Act liberally to bring in "a culture of openness".

While admitting some people in the Government feared greater freedom of information would give the press more ammunition with which to attack it, the Phillis group argued that the best antidote to partisan reporting was openness.

The report said that ministers should waive their right to veto the release of information before the Act took effect, and replace the system of "class exemptions" on disclosing information with a "harm test". It called for clearer rules on the release of statistics to stop the "selective release of information".

But hopes of a new era of openness were dashed only hours after the committee reported. Tony Blair's official spokesman suggested that the Government would see how the new Act worked in practice before considering the Phillis team's proposals.

The Phillis committee recommended that daily lobby briefings for Westminster journalists be televised, saying the system was not working for the Government or the media.

The Government stopped short of saying Mr Blair's official spokesmen, Godric Smith and Tom Kelly, who are civil servants, should give White House-style press briefings after objections from ministers.

Douglas Alexander, the Cabinet Office Minister, said the Government "agrees that more ministers should host lobby briefings and that these should be open and televised". The Phillis committee, set up following the controversy over the spin doctor Jo Moore saying that 11 September 2001, was a "good day to bury bad news", called for new rules to govern the conduct of special advisers such as Ms Moore.It said the "more aggressive approach" of spin doctors after Labour won power in 1997 and their use of selective media briefings "led to a reaction from the media that has produced a far more adversarial relationship with government".

The committee said the media had to bear part of the responsibility for the "deep distrust" among the public of much of what it was told by the Government. It called for "a clearer separation of fact from news, comment and entertainment".

The inquiry was critical of Whitehall press officers and it called for the Government Information and Communications Service to be disbanded because "structural and systems weaknesses" made it "no longer fit for [its] purpose". Although there were many able staff, "the Civil Service as a whole has not grasped the potential of modern communications as a service provided for citizens".