Stop panicking and start delivering, Prime Minister

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The Independent Online

The Government still needs to learn that earning a good headline or "burying bad news" are no substitute for implementing policies in a way that makes a difference to people's lives.

Parts of the media are now the political opposition to the Government. The Conservative Party is virtually nowhere to be seen, seemingly incapable of landing a punch on an oddly vulnerable government. Some of the right-wing newspapers have stepped into the vacuum. Quite often producers on BBC's Today programme, scared of missing a "story", follow up the newspapers when the first editions arrive on their desks. It does not take much to ignite a media frenzy.

To some extent the media is playing a necessary role. A government should be probed, questioned and challenged relentlessly. It would be better if elected politicians performed this role, but in their absence the media step in. Ministers are being disingenuous in claiming that they are relaxed about criticism as long as it is aimed at policies rather than at the "process" of politics. In reality they fume with an equal intensity whether they are attacked for their policies or for "spin". The distinction between "spin" and "substance" is, in any case, not easily discerned. After all, it was Alastair Campbell himself who declared after the 1997 election that, for a New Labour government, presentation would be as central as the implementation of policy. Tony Blair's insatiable appetite for what he calls "eye-catching initiatives" – in other words, vague policies that make headlines – have rightly been exposed by the media.

But the current breakdown between Downing Street and the media has no connection with practical policies and their impact on voters' lives. Indeed the panic the frenzies cause in No 10 can have a detrimental impact on policy. Parts of the media have become obsessed with "spin", a label that has come to mean virtually anything the Government says or does. Downing Street has become obsessed with how it deals with the media's obsession with spin.

The departure of Stephen Byers is an example of the problem. Mr Byers was making some headway in Transport, on the verge of implementing important policies. These included the setting-up of the alternative body to Railtrack and some much-needed revisions to the Government's 10-year plan. Inevitably there will be a delay to some of these policies as Mr Byers' successor reads himself into one of the most complex and demanding briefs in Whitehall.

More widely, the Government still needs to learn that earning a good headline or "burying bad news" are no substitute for implementing policies in a way that makes a difference to people's lives. Trying to come up with a new relationship with the media is not the solution. If it makes an announcement and the announcement becomes a successful policy, voters will notice. If it makes an announcement with guns blazing and then nothing happens, voters will notice that, too.

The overblown frenzy in the right-wing newspapers, naively echoed in parts of the BBC, is a fact of political life. But Mr Blair has an ace up his sleeve. He can implement policies. That is something the media cannot do. If he achieves what he says he wants to achieve – a revival of public services and an end to Britain's ambiguous relationship with Europe – the frenzy in the media will not matter much. In the end he will be judged on policies, and the delivery of his policies.

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