Whitehall's `Ministry of Truth' to rival Millbank machine

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The Independent Online
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then this is another famous victory for Labour's spin doctors. After repeated complaints about the Government Information Service from Tony Blair's ministers, Whitehall is to set up a media monitoring unit modelled on the party's slick PR operation.

In a ground-breaking initiative, press officers seconded from each Government department will work in a team to record, analyse, and, if necessary, rebut almost every item of news about Government policy in the media, The Independent can reveal.

The unit, already being called the "Ministry of Truth" by some sceptical civil servants, will be operational within a month. Mike Granatt, the head of the GIS, is officially in charge, but Alastair Campbell, the Prime Minister's press secretary, is taking a keen interest.

Since coming to office, many ministers had been relying on a daily bulletin prepared by the Labour Party's own monitoring unit at Millbank, near Westminster, charting daily presentation of policy in the media. There had been increasing unease among civil servants over the influence of Millbank.

Four departmental press heads have gone from their posts since Labour came to power, and others are said to be under threat. This week it was announced that Gill Samuel, head of information at the Ministry of Defence, is being replaced. Other changes have included Jill Rutter, a senior civil servant at the Treasury, who asked to return to policy duties, and the removal from his post of Andy Wood, director of information at the Northern Ireland Office.

Last month, Mr Granatt told a meeting of departmental information heads that drastic action was needed to counter ministers' disillusionment with aspects of the GIS. The decision to go ahead with a pilot project was taken two weeks ago, at another meeting at the Home Office.

It is estimated that around 20 people would be needed to run the unit. But it has not yet been decided where it is to be physically situated. There are also ongoing discussions about the funding, with some departments wanting the Treasury to pick up the main part of the bill.

The unit will not be dealing directly with the media. Instead it is designed to be an internal pool for information and ideas for each Government department. Those selected to be on it will be expected to not only record what the media are saying, but dissect it and present a critique. Any " mistake" or "twisting" of the perceived facts by journalists will be immediately noted and passed on to appropriate departments.

Ministers want to know how their statements or actions have been portrayed at the earliest opportunity. Many of them, and their advisers from Millbank, were astonished to discover that some duty press officers do not have access to the first editions of the newspapers at night.

After one press conference, a senior minister called his Whitehall press team together to complain he had never been so badly prepared. A junior minister complained: "It was a shock after dealing with the people at Millbank to come here. Quite frankly they have an awful lot to learn from the Labour Party in this".

A senior information officer said: "We are always willing to learn. The fact remains that the Labour Party ran a very slick and successful media campaign in the run-up to the election, and ministers were unhappy with what they found at many of their departments.

"It is a fact that many ministers were relying on the briefing papers sent from the Millbank monitoring unit, and we had to either adapt or see our role being eroded. So this came about. There is some talk of a cull of the GIS by the new Government. But that is not the case. In some cases there simply has not been the chemistry needed between ministers and senior officers."