A story without heroes, born out of misplaced fear

'Regular televised Downing Street briefings would raise everyone's game - not just briefers but journalists too'
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The Independent Online

The saga of Sixsmith, Moore and Byers has exposed fear, loathing and incompetence in Whitehall, all right. But of these, the greatest is fear. For this is a story born of fear and nurtured by it. It's a story without clear heroes. It has exposed a minister unhealthily over-interested in image, a permanent secretary incapable of keeping his cool, and a Downing Street machine vainly struggling to impose a distinctly shaky "line to take" on an unruly and imploding, if colourful, cast of rival interests.

It's also another graphic illustration of the – almost – iron law of government crises since 1997, namely that its presentation is at its worst when it is has been trying too hard at presentation.

Which is where, in essence, the fear comes in. An under-reported irony of the present crisis is that it's hard to say exactly what, if anything, Jo Moore, Stephen Byers' now departed special adviser, did that was so terribly wrong on this occasion. But to the extent that its roots lie in her notorious e-mail suggesting that the aftermath of 11 September was a good time to bury bad news, it starts with spin; with a culture (by no means confined to Ms Moore) that says every opportunity that arises to present the Government in the best possible light on all occasions must be seized. It's common to depict this deformity as the function of an arrogant and over-confident government in the grip of hubris. Actually, it suggests the opposite: a quite unnecessarily and irrationally fearful one.

At a candid and illuminating conference last weekend convened by the Club of Three and the Scott Trust, one of the most significant and thoughtful contributions was made by Philip Gould, New Labour's polling and campaigns guru. He repeated some of what he had written in an article in The Independent a month ago, namely that a "new settlement" between politicians and the media was needed to break down what he called the "glass wall" that increasingly separates the public from the politicians they elect.

He went on to say that New Labour had been seared by the hostile press coverage meted out to Neil Kinnock and that it had therefore put a "great shield" around itself. Sensing that, the media became all the more aggressive. Which helped, Gould implied, to create a world in which the most serious subjects – Europe is a notable example, but by no means the only one – could not honestly be debated without every nuance of that debate being presented as a gaffe or a U-turn or a sign of deep disunity. Politicians, Gould said frankly, were "frightened of the media".

I don't think "shield" adequately describes the extraordinary lengths to which New Labour went, first in opposition and then in government, to manipulate, pacify and use some of the papers that most torment it now. Nor does it remotely do justice to the extent to which they were prepared, in opposition, to exploit and nurture every media reflex of hostility to the Major Government – the hostility that they now find turned on the administration led by Tony Blair. But that doesn't detract from the fact that Gould, and a handful of other New Labour figures, Charles Clarke among them, is saying something serious here. Their diagnosis may not be wrong just because they themselves may have helped in the past to spread the disease.

To concede that, of course, is to invite the accusation of special pleading, of making the case for the Government to be given an easy ride. That isn't so at all. The media does have some thinking to do, especially given the resilience of the Blair Government in the polls to the most recent period of onslaught. But the Government is never going to escape the most searching of spotlights when, for instance, a department can be allowed to be as gruesomely dysfunctional as Transport, Local Government and the Regions has proved to be. Nor should it.

Secondly, it isn't clear that ministers yet realise how great a rethink of their own attitudes such a settlement would require. To take a few random, and far from exhaustive, examples, the Government would do a great deal to aid the serious, policy-centred, informative journalism it continually says it wants, if it was half as interested in openness as it was in spin.

The contrast between the Government's willingness to pacify supposedly circulation-building intrusions into private lives with a pretty lax regime of press self-regulation, and its absolute unwillingness to usher in a Freedom of Information Act worthy of a mature democracy, could hardly be more striking. It would probably need, too, to realise that regular televised Downing Street briefings would raise everyone's game – not just that of the briefers, but of journalists too.

But that something is wrong with the interaction at present isn't in doubt. The Sunday Times, the principal vehicle of the Sixsmith version of recent events in the DTLR, says the drama points to a "pervasive rot" at the heart of government. Does it? Certainly it raises important questions about the relationship of some civil servants with some of the departmental commissars of New Labour. But how, really, would we know? The story tells us very little about the Government, except where its consuming obsession with presentation intersects with those in the press or broadcasting who mediate it – a thin strip of gunsmoke-engulfed no-man's land from which very little of what the Government is deciding or executing or achieving or messing up is visible.

The whole battleground is marginal to what most people – those who are not fascinated by the self-referential soap opera of the Government's media relations, which is a majority of electors, I would heretically suggest – would regard as politics. They didn't vote for any of the protagonists, on either side. They are genuinely shocked to discover that one was cynical enough to suggest that the aftermath of 11 September was a good time to release bad news. But they correctly perceive that the cast of spinners now dominating public debate are people who don't make the trains run on time, or decide the level of taxation or shorten hospital waiting lists, or make secondary schools better, or decide whether to wage war on Iraq, or take Britain into the euro.

For this disjunction we may all be to blame. Certainly amid the current trench warfare, the question of whether Stephen Byers should resign is simply the wrong question. The one thing that Tony Blair, as he well knows, must not do is give the press a scalp that will leave it with a bloodlust for more.

But there are wider lessons in that. Commanding a huge majority, in a system that gives the executive more organic power than in almost any other developed country, and with an Opposition that remains pitifully weak, the Government can afford to loosen up. It can, at least, take some tentative steps of its own to open up a more adult and voter-friendly debate. It can admit some of its mistakes. And it can be less frightened of its own shadow, as refracted in a hostile media that it has less reason to fear than many of its own members yet seem to realise.