Memorandum by Professor Stuart Weir, Democratic
Audit (GI 2)
This brief note is intended to place the article
by Nicholas Jones and me in the New Statesman (21 February 2002)
in a broader context. First, Democratic Audit takes the view that
official "spin" and the perception of spin damages public
confidence both in the democratic process in the UK and, ironically,
in the government whose image and policies it is intended to boost.
Secondly, the role of special advisers who are employed to communicate
with the media on behalf of ministers and the government ("spin
doctors") properly provokes fears that their activities endanger
the traditional objectivity of the civil service. We hope that
the Select Committee will conduct its inquiries with the following
broad areas of concern in mind:
i. the current framework of communications
strategy in government and the role of Alastair Campbell, Director
of Communications and Strategy;
ii. the relationship between the official
release of information through the GICS, special advisers and
the Central Office of Information and public access to official
information under the Freedom of Information Act 2001 and official
iii. the past practice of the senior civil
service, the Government Information and Communication Service
(GICS) and special advisers in the management of official information;
iv. the primacy of Parliament;
v. the importance of government information
being conveyed not only without party political bias, but also
without bias in the interests of the executive; and
vi. above all, the democratic principle that
government should give the public and Parliament full and objective
information about policy proposals and outcomes.
The relationship between "spin" and
the FOI Act 2001
2. The government has a two-part communications
strategy, one of "spin" and "control" in popular
parlance. In more formal terms, the vigorous promotion of government
policies through special the GICS, government advertising and
special advisers is complemented by the statutory regime governing
public access to official information under the FOI Act 2001.
In some senses spin may be said to rely on the protection that
the FOI Act provides through its exclusions of policy-making,
commercial and other sensitive information from disclosure. The
regime and the closed nature of government in this country certainly
denies citizens and the media from being able to check the veracity
and fullness of government's own account.
The political role of the Director of Communications
3. Alastair Campbell possesses unprecedented
powers for an unelected party political adviser. Campbell is Director
of Communications and Strategy, and as such he controls the Government
Information and Communication Service (GICS) in Whitehall, three
10 Downing Street departments (the press office; the strategic
communications unit; and the research and information unit); and
since February 2002, even the Central Office of Information. The
Central Office of Information is of course the Whitehall agency
that handles the marketing, press and television advertising campaigns
for government departments; its head now acts as chief adviser
on all the government's marketing communications, reporting directly
4. Campbell's contract gives him the power
to direct government communications and to present the government's
affairs "in a political context". He may give orders
to civil servants. He attends cabinet meetings and directly advises
the Prime Minister. Formally, Alastair Campbell is simply an unelected
special adviser. Yet he has become the government's unacknowledged
Minister of Information. His aggressively partisan conduct, manipulation
of the media and special deals with selected newspapers and journalists
go virtually unchecked either by his political master, the head
of the civil service or Parliament. And so a party political special
adviser, accountable only to the Prime Minister, has the power
to re-shape and direct the traditionally impartial Government
Information and Communication Service and all government marketing
and advertising activities.
The number of special advisers in government
5. In January 2000, the Neill Committee
recommended that a new Civil Service Act should put a limit on
the total number of special advisers that a government can appoint;
and pending enactment of an act, should put a total number of
special advisers in front of both Houses of parliament for debate.
1 The government has not acted on these recommendations, but 10
Downing Street is uneasy enough about the questions that, for
example, the huge rise in the number of spin doctors in Whitehall
raise to lie about how many are spin doctors. In his evidence
to the Public Administration Select Committee on 23rd June 1998,
Alastair Campbell said, "The vast majority (of special advisers)
do not have any contact with the press whatever" [our emphasis].
In December, No. 10 informed the committee (through the Cabinet
Office) that only eleven of the 81 special advisers in Whitehall
were "employed primarily in the area of communications".
That "primarily" is a neat weasel word, but even so
this statement is blatant misinformation.
6. Nicholas Jones, the BBC Political Correspondent,
and I applied two tests to determine which of the 81 special advisers
in post act as spin doctors: first, do they have "form"
(ie, a history of working in the media, party publicity, public
relations); and secondly, are they known to brief journalists
and talk to the media. Our count is by no means comprehensive,
but it is based on regular monitoring of the work of special advisers.
Our calculations are supported by a wide cross section of political
and other correspondents in both broadcasting and the press. We
found eleven special advisers in 10 Downing Street alone who brief
journalists; for most of them, this is their primary occupation.
In Whitehall as a whole, the count was 37 special advisers who
were either primarily employed to manage and protect the government's
(or a minister's) image, or ready to do so. So nearly half the
roll-call of special advisers are in the business of communication.
Every major cabinet minister has his or her own media creature;
some have more than one.
The regulation of special advisers
7. The Select Committee in its 1998 inquiry
into the role of special advisers was clearly uneasy about their
media functions and their effect on the civil service, noting
tensions between GICS officials and advisers. The committee came
down against the appointment of advisers as departmental heads
of information and recommended the introduction of a code of conduct
for ministers and advisers on contacts with the media2. The Committee
on Standards in Public Life made a similar proposal after its
inquiry into the work of special advisers3. Initially the government
resisted these proposals, arguing that existing rules adequately
met the needs for control and co-ordination4. However the government
changed its view5 and published a code for special advisers in
8. The code did not introduce significant
controls over the activities of special advisers, but added to
"the sorts of work a special adviser may do" in article
ix. representing the views of their Minister
to the media including s Party viewpoint, where they have been
authorised by the Minister to do so;
and amplifies this in two further clauses. Clause
8 provides that
8. Special advisers are able to represent
Ministers' views Government policy to the media with a degree
of political commitment that would not be possible for the permanent
Civil Service. Briefing on purely party political matters should
however be handled by the party machine.
Clause 9 requires that "all contacts with
the media" should be authorised by the departmental minister;
that they should be conducted in accordance with the official
Guidance on the Work of the Government Information Service; and
that the departmental Heads of Information (who are officially
given full responsible for managing departmental press and publicity
operations) should be informed of special advisers' contacts with
the news media.
9. Plainly, new article 3(ix) legitimises
the very activity of special advisers that has caused public and
Parliamentary concern and that had no explicit endorsement in
the Model Contract: namely, briefing the media. Despite this explicit
reference, such media activity remains hard to encompass, in the
view of some constitutional lawyers7, within the scope of "only
providing advice to a Minister" which is one of the defining
legal characteristics of a special adviser under the Civil Service
Order in Council under which they are supposed to operate.
10. The requirement that the media activity
of special advisers should be carried out in accordance with the
Guidance on the Work of the Government Information Service provides
formal safeguards. But it must in practice be read subject to
a special adviser's general licence to act, unlike a civil servant,
in a politically committed way. Thus the significant rule in the
Guidancethat information activities "should not be,
or liable to misrepresentation as being, party political"simply
does not apply. However the rule that information given should
be "objective and explanatory, not tendentious or polemical"
could in theory have a disciplinary effect if it were genuinely
applied. But as Professor Daintith points out in his Public Law
note, "tendentious or polemical" information
. . . is precisely the sort of material (as opposed
to information with a party political slant) that some ministers
appear to have looked for from their information directorates
and been unable to obtain, turning to special advisers instead.
Professor Daintith points out that it was this
sort of material, which contributed to Ms Jo Moore's disgrace;
and which led the DTI Select Committee to complain about the misleading
information that the DTI made public9. Her conduct was in general
by no means untypical of that of government spin doctors and her
former minister has a ready-made substitute in Dan Corry, his
second special adviser who had done most of his media briefings
after 11th September 2001 (though she was responsible for the
first media briefing to identify and brand trade union leaders
as being among the "wreckers" that Stephen Byers referred
to in his speech to the Labour party's local government conference
in Cardiff in February).
11. There are also for example numerous
examples of "tendentious and polemical" conduct on the
part of Mr Campbell himself as well as frequent breaches of the
requirement under the special advisers' model contract to "use
discretion and avoid controversy". Further, the code prohibits
the use of "official resources for party political purposes",
yet the media reported his use of official resources when he took
the lead role in December 1999 in organising and publicising the
defection to Labour of the former Conservative MP, Shaun Woodward.
Undoubtedly, the most distasteful aspect of his work is the "smearing"
and bullying of those who criticise the government, as various
observers have complained. This process was highlighted in the
media coverage of the dismissal or forced resignation of Martin
Sixsmith, who was apparently warned by senior officials that if
he publicised his version of the affair, he would run foul of
the "Downing Street smear machine".
12. The code does attempt to clarify the
relationship between special advisers and GICS staff, emphasising
the managerial role of departmental Heads of Information and their
role as departmental guardians of the Guidance. Nevertheless,
the code does not prohibit the kinds of pressure that special
advisers commonly exert on information officers, often junior,
nor the general influence they can bring to bear on the ethos
and approach of information directorates, especially under the
hard-sell era inaugurated under the Campbell regime (sanctioned
as the more vigorous New Labour approach to communications was
in the Mountfield review10).
13. Article 22 gives any civil servant who
believes that a special adviser has exceeded her or his authority,
or has breached the civil service code, to raise the matter immediately
with the Secretary to the Cabinet or the First Civil Service Commissioner
directly or through a senior civil servant. The fact that complaints
at the DTLR were first conveyed through departmental channels,
and then subsequently via a leak, suggests that this safeguard
inspires little confidence internally.
The subversion of the Government Information Service
14. Concern about the subversion of the
GICS under the New Labour government is amply justified. Here
special advisers have played a pivotal role. Sir Richard Wilson,
the head of the civil service, and other mandarins repeatedly
assert that it is inconceivable that special advisers could "corrupt
and politicise the senior civil service of 3,700 or a civil service
of 466,500". In fact, given the great pressures for improved
"presentation" of the government's policies that Alastair
Campbell and the Prime Minister have exerted within Whitehall,
it is entirely conceivable that the influence of the spin doctors,
alongside ministers, does contribute to the corruption of the
senior civil service.
15. But special advisers certainly possess
more direct influence over the GICS. There are only 240 GICS officialsthus
the ratio of influence between special advisers and information
officers is just 1:3 and 1:6 between spin doctors and GICS officials.
Within months of Labour's 1997 general election victory, ministers
began creating a working environment within which the new network
of special advisers could exercise real influence on the work
of government information officers. First, they rubbished the
quality of service they received and demanded in Campbell's words,
that they "raise their game". Secondly, within a year
they had eased out nine of the 17 heads of information and directors
of communications; a year later all but two had either been removed
or had left government. The new emphasis was consolidated when
Sir Robin Mountfield, permanent secretary in the Office of Public
Service, re-wrote the rule book for government information officers
in November 1997 and endorsed the Campbell hard-sell strategy.
Under the new rule-book, GIS officials were now instructed to
"grab the agenda" and to "trail" information
on government initiatives, a process that was bound to pre-empt
the basic constitutional rule that policies, white papers and
other documents should first be announced by ministers in Parliament.
16. The cull of senior posts and Mountfield's
implicit endorsement of ministers' complaints against their work
shook the confidence of the GICS and inspires the kind of resentment
that has been a feature of the "civil war" at the DTLR.
It is certainly true that the service was not geared to the dynamics
of the 24 hours news cycle and the competitive media market; nor
were its officials skilled in the arts of courting favourable
journalists and news outlets, and bullying the less congenial,
as are Mr Campbell and his New Labour acolytes. It was right to
expect them to master the news agenda; but an impartial public
service should not practice the arts of manipulative spin nor
should it pre-empt announcements to Parliament.
17. The Mountfield review gave special advisers
more influence over the flow of information from their departments.
Previously, press officers had generally refused to comment on
"speculative" stories. Now ministers' special advisers
could spin their gloss on departmental policies in order to gain
a favourable press, safe in the knowledge that the leaks they
gave to friendly journalists would be backed up by the government
machine. But spin doctors are also cast as the models for government
information officials and they often advise them on how to present
information. Jo Moore's September 11 memo was shameful. But its
deeper significance was that she, a political appointee, was advising
professional civil servants to "bury" bad news. She
had also previously instructed GICS officials to brief against
Bob Kiley, London's transport commissioner. On both occasions,
she of course exceeded her authority, but she is by no means the
only special adviser who has done so.
18. Mr Campbell has gone on to consolidate
New Labour's grasp of the official information service through
the recruitment to senior posts within GICS. Career civil servants
have been repeatedly passed over as senior positions have gone
to journalists and external media professionals. On our count,
seven directors and departmental heads have been recruited from
newspapers and broadcasting organisations because of their known
sympathies for the Blair administration. Three senior posts have
gone to former Labour Party press officers; two to journalists
from Mr Campbell's former newspaper,the Daily Mirror (which has
also supplied two special advisers).
19. Mr Campbell and his lieutenants work
within a tightly-knit network of media contacts and cronies who
are able to out-manoeuvre the formalities of civil service appointments,
especially under the criteria for the GICS formulated by Mr Campbell
and endorsed by Sir Robin Mountfield. Preferred media workers
are moved effortlessly between civil service departments and party
headquarters. When the last election was called, Tony Blair could
count on a highly-trained cadre of media professionals who gave
up their temporary civil service posts as special advisers and
moved straight into New Labour's election campaigning. The other
parties had no comparable force to throw into the ring.
20. The significance of such appointments
is that links are being created between the GICS and the cadre
of special advisers with media duties. The newly-recruited professionals
and spin doctors share a sympathy with the New Labour project,
a common purpose and the same "hard-sell" ethic. They
very often know each other and have previously worked together.
Though the new civil servants are not given the same licence as
special advisers to give a party political spin to their communications
work, there is anecdotal evidence that ministers do on occasion
expect professional civil servants to cross the line, and that
they do so. Nicholas Jones records examples of this in his latest
book on spin doctors11.
21. The official protestations of Sir Richard
Wilson that the information service is not being politicised ring
hollow against the realities of what is happening. Sir Richard
assured the Select Committee in February 2000 that all the appointments
were made "by proper open competition" and rigorous
assessed under the direction of the Civil Service Commission;
"in other words, they are not political appointments".
But formal safeguards are not proof against the determination
of Campbell and his master, Tony Blair, to recruit like-minded
and sympathetic media professionals both for Millbank and Whitehall.
Moreover, civil servants have often been dragged into the political
fray. For example, in May 2000 the then Deputy Prime Minister,
John Prescott, took his civil service press secretary, Derek Plews,
to brief journalists outside a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour
Party; previously this had always been the responsibility of party
press officers. In May 2001, the day after the general election
was announced, Mr Campbell was supported by Downing Street's deputy
press secretary, Godric Smith, at a lobby briefing where journalists
were handed copies of Labour's latest pledge cards. Smith, who
is a civil servant, should not have attended what was clearly
a party political event. Under current rules, it was presumably
the responsibility of the minister present in the lobby room,
Alistair Darling, Secretary of State for Social Security, to overrule
Mr Campbell and remind him of the official guidance.
Disciplining the processes of spin
22. What baffles many observers is that
Sir Richard Wilson, the Cabinet Secretary, seems powerless to
stop the process of politicisation; and, indeed, that he and other
senior bureaucrats often seem to collude at least in obscuring
the spread of spin throughout government. The roots of official
weakness lie in the long-established traditions of "news
management" within the senior civil service itself. Official
secrecy in British government was first formalised to give the
senior bureaucracy monopoly control of the release of government
information and to prevent ordinary civil servants from passing
on information. Control of information was powertheir power;
national security had scarcely anything to do with it. In more
modern times, senior civil servants have readily used their powers
over the release of information to manipulate the media and mislead
Parliament and the public. The Scott report contains example after
example of officials practising the black arts of spin and deceit;
the Treasury press release on the Scott report was itself a masterly
exercise in misinformation12. Moreover, the interests of the senior
service and government and its ministers have long since fused
in a mutual protection pact. Both regard the media with fear and
loathing, and the House of Commons with contempt. It is part of
the duties of civil servants around ministers to advise them on
the release and presentation of official information, and where
and when to "bury" it if need be.
The past role of GICS officials
23. Government information officers have
in practice always been in an ambiguous position insofar as their
media briefing activities are concerned. For example, Michael
Heseltine, as John Major's deputy in 1996, said that in practice
government information officers were in a "marginally different
position" from civil servants as a whole. In evidence to
the then Public Service Committee, he said they should not cross
the party politics frontier, but added:
Information officers have under both parties
been in a position of articulating government policy in perhaps
a more committed way than you would expect from the rest of the
civil service. That they have always done . . . Information officers
constantly are defending government policy which might be considered
political. It is not their job to avoid controversy. 13
On The World Tonight (BBC Radio 4, 25 February
2002), Bernard Ingham. Mrs Thatcher's former press secretary,
said that he had seen his responsibility as providing information
with a "gloss" in favour of government policy.
24. Thus, for senior bureaucrats like Wilson
and Mountfield, the Campbell revolution was not unwelcome insofar
as it "raised the game" of the official information
service. Effective presentation of the government's business benefits
the civil service and executive as well as their party masters.
Thus Sir Richard, like Sir Robin Butler before him, has not drawn
the dividing line between what is legitimate and what is illegitimate
to protect the impartiality and openness of government communications
with Parliament and the public. It is a given that "good
government" demands room for manoeuvre and evasion. Rather
Sir Richard Wilson has ostensibly tried to draw a boundary between
the contractual right of Mr Campbell and spin doctors to release
information "within a political context" and any "party
political" activity. The distinction became more artificial
still after Mr Campbell took the lead role in organising and publicising
the defection to Labour of the former Conservative MP, Shaun Woodward.
After complaints from Conservative MPs, Sir Richard "reminded"
Campbell that in future he should conduct his party work "at
lunch-time or outside office hours" and ignored his casual
and publicised use of official resources in doing so.
25. It is true that the Cabinet Secretary
is in an invidious position. Under the loose unwritten constitution,
the Prime Minister and the ministers he appoints rule; ministers
need not even be elected. The function of civil servants, even
the very highest, is to serve the Prime Minister and his ministers.
The Civil Service Management Code makes it clear that the formal
duty of loyal service to the Crown is owed, "for all practical
purposes", to the government and ministers of the day. Thus
Mr Campbell is untouchable so long as he retains the Prime Minister's
confidence. Sir Richard Wilson can only rap Campbell's knuckles
from time to time, and he is pretty reluctant even to do that.
He could not even insist that Jo Moore should be dismissed so
long as she was protected by her minister's patronage and Stephen
Byers in turn enjoyed the Prime Minister's confidence. On 1st
November 2001 the Cabinet Secretary, told your Committee that
she was not entitled to "line manage civil servants or give
them instructions". However, he conceded he was powerless
to discipline special advisers like Ms Moore who retained the
confidence of their minister and had the continued backing of
the Prime Minister. Sir Richard said that as head of the civil
service he had "no role in relation to specific disciplinary
issues relating to special advisers", other than those attached
to ministers in the Cabinet Office.
26. But the fact is that Sir Robin Butler,
Wilson's predecessor, sold the pass immediately he agreed with
the Prime Minister to allow Mr Campbell to combine the communications
brief with an active political role and powers to give orders
to civil servants. It is also true that the politicisation of
government communications has been on the increase since Neville
Chamberlain's appeasement policies in the 1930s, and grew more
intense under Sir Trevor Lloyd-Hughes and Joe Haines, Harold Wilson's
press secretariesHaines became the more notorious, but
Lloyd-Hughes was known in the late 1960s as "the demon"and
course Bernard Ingham. Perhaps the political tide is now irresistible.
Certainly, Sir Richard Wilson is not inclined to play Canute.
And as Professor Anthony King has warned, incoming governments
are far more likely to exploit than renounce the propaganda gains
made under the Prime Minister and his alter ego.
The constitutional issues and recommendations
27. Alastair Campbell derides the constitutional
issues that his presence, powers and conduct, the swarm of spin
doctors throughout Whitehall and the infiltration of the GIS undoubtedly
raise as unworldly concerns with mere "process". He
argues forcibly that it is government policies that have substance
in the real world; and that his task is simply to ensure that
those policies are presented to the public undistorted by spin
from the media. But "process" is the very substance
of democracy and the rule of law in this country. In the absence
of a written constitution, proper process and procedures matters
even more"they are all the poor Englishman has,"
as a former senior civil servant once said. They are in fact all
we have to protect us from arbitrary and deceitful rule.
28. In 1989, the then Institute of Professional
Civil Servants (IPCS), the professional association of information
officers, drew up a draft code of ethics, saying that it was "the
responsibility of Information Officers in the Government Service
to describe and explain Government policies; it is not their function
to justify or defend them"; that "Information Officers
in Government Service should avoid identification with the political
philosophy of any particular administration"; and that they
should not "distort or suppress information for reasons of
political expediency, advertising or sponsorship".
29. The long-term drift in the application
of strict rules of conduct for the dissemination of official information
has to be brought to an end before it is too late. There is sufficient
concern for proper standards of impartiality andf objectivity
among professional civil servants and GICS officials to bed down
reforms. Democratic Audit recommends:
(a) The IPCS rules should be inscribed in
a new Civil Service Act, alongside new rules governing the number
and conduct of special advisers, and outlawing hybrid contracts
like Mr Campbell's;
(b) There should be a strict separation between
the roles of the Prime Minister's press secretary and the heads
of the GICS and CIO; and any cross-over of political appointees
to head or have direct influence over the operations of the government
information services should be prohibited;
(c) Since it is virtually impossible to supervise
the media activities of special advisers, they should be confined
to giving advice to ministers and all "politically committed"
media work should be undertaken by party press officials; and
special advisers should be prohibited from instructing or advising
(d) There is an urgent need within British
government for an authoritative "guardian role" over
improper conduct by ministers, special advisers and other ad-hoc
appointees. The present position, under which the Prime Minister
is the ultimate authority, is unsatisfactory. The PASC or the
Committee on Standards in Public Life should review the situation
(e) The current party-political frontier
between what is acceptable and unacceptable in government communications
is artificial and probably unenforceable; and is anyway drawn
in the wrong place. The former IPCS draft recommendation that
it is the role of GICS officials to "explain and describe"
government policies, and not to "justify or defend them",
should become the new frontier
(f) A genuine public right of access to government
information should buttress such reforms under a reformed FOI
law, which made information on government policies, alternative
policy options, policy data and government and public dealings
with commercial organisations available to the public on request.
Professor Stuart Weir,
Democratic Audit, University of Essex
1 Sixth Report of the Committee on Standards
in Public Life, Reinforcing Standards (2000, Cm 4557).
2 Sixth Report of the Select Committee on Public
Administration, The Government Information and Communication
Service (1997-98, HC 770).
3 Reinforcing Standards, see n.1 above.
4 Special Second Report of the Select Committee
on Public Administration (1998-99, HC 162).
5 Response to the Committee on Standards in
Public Life (2000, Cm 4817).
7 such as for example Professor Terence Daintith;
see his Analysis note in Public Law, Spring 2002.
8 See n.6 above.
9 Thirteenth report of the Select Committee
on Trade and Industry (1998-99, HC 330).
10 Office of Public Service (Cabinet Office),
Report of the Working Group on the Government Information Service
(the Mountfield review) (1997).
11 Jones, Nicholas, The Control Freaks: How
New Labour Gets its Own Way, Politico's (2001).
12 House of Commons, Report of the Inquiry
into the Export of Defence Equipment and Dual-Use Goods to Iraq
and Related Prosecutions (the Scott report), (HMSO, 1996);
see, for example, the detailed account in Norton-Taylor, Richard,
et al, Knee Deep in Dishonour: the Scott report and its aftermath,
13 Public Service Committee, Role and Responsibilities
of the Deputy Prime Minister (Michael Heseltine's evidence)
(28th February 1996, HC 265).