Civil servants and the alleged end of spin

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The Independent Online

When Tony Blair was asked at his news conference yesterday if his changes marked the "end of spin", he could have said that that would be like announcing the end of politics. But he knew what was meant. An abiding fault of his Government has been hype, exaggeration, over-egging and sexing up.

His reorganisation of Downing Street this week is a small step in the right direction, but there can be no institutional fix for the problem of spin. The responsibility is political and it lies squarely with Mr Blair himself.

There is, however, a contradiction in the demands made of the Prime Minister which needs to be resolved before judging the new communications structure. It is that it is somehow wrong for government spokespeople to be political appointees. This is the reverse of the truth. While departmental press officers dealing with crime figures or child tax credits can be civil servants, it is not a good idea for civil servants to speak for the Prime Minister or to oversee the Government's media strategy.

These are political roles, and should be carried out by political appointees. It was wrong, for example, that Bernard Ingham, Margaret Thatcher's loyal press secretary, should have been a civil servant. When Alastair Campbell withdrew from the daily briefing of journalists, he should not have been replaced by the civil servants Godric Smith and Tom Kelly. (When Mr Kelly described David Kelly as "a Walter Mitty" to an Independent journalist, he was not acting as a dispassionate civil servant.) Replacing Mr Campbell with two civil servants was, in fact, a public relations ploy (spin, in other words), designed to try to take the personal and political heat out of Downing Street's dealings with the Westminster pack.

It would be more honest to have a political figure in this role, which is why the appointment of David Hill, a drop-forged Labour man, is welcome. This is especially true if the daily briefings are to be televised. In that case, the briefer would become a public personality.

Ultimately, it is up to Mr Blair not to overclaim and to ensure that those who work for him do not spin on his behalf.