1st April 2021
There is controversy in the news today about central government communications
In particular, there is – correct – criticism that government press offices are generally unhelpful to those from the outside making the enquiries and too motivated by serving the political interests of the ministers of the day.
This, sadly, is nothing new – though it does appear to be getting worse.
This is, of course, a subjective and personal perspective – other commentators and journalists may have less frustrating – indeed happier – experiences.
But if the current criticisms – as affirmed by my own experience – are valid then the most likely explanation is akin to the view adopted by that police officer the other day.
You will recall the officer who insisted that the police were crown servants as distinct from public servants.
Press offices, ditto.
(Also freedom of information offices – but that is for another post.)
Government press officers seem to see their role as actively not providing information to the public and the press, but instead seeking to withhold information and misdirect media attention.
Unless a journalist has an already good relationship with a press officer, there is little or no point asking for anything useful from a press office.
This is why, for example, I prefer to work with public domain and open source information – and to spot connections and identify discrepancies.
Harder, slower work – but worthwhile.
This means I usually only go to government press offices in two situations.
First, if there is genuinely no other way I can obtain the information from public domain or open source material.
Second, if I need some specific thing verified (or rebutted) before publication – where I have worked that thing out by other means.
This approach means that there is little scope for a government press office to shape my writing and commentary – only to influence it, if at all, at the margins.
My approach here is not unique – and it is because government press offices are so adept at being (ahem) gatekeepers that they sometimes pay the price by not being involved in reports and commentary, other than perhaps to provide a statement or not.
Tight media management can only achieve so much.
This is not the only way government press officers are being avoided – as ministers and ministerial special advisers build up their own direct trusted relationships with political journalists.
And so government press offices – although they seem to be expanding in size – are also being squeezed in substance.
Employing more and more people to say less and less.
Government comms disappearing into a hole of its own creation.
And in the meantime, the notion of a government press office being there to serve and inform the public becomes a smaller and smaller speck in the law and policy sky.
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