Government communications – another departure from the notion of serving the public?

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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12 thoughts on “Government communications – another departure from the notion of serving the public?”

  1. The journalist / commentator perspective is interesting. As an advocate/campaigner, I have never approached or dealt with a Govt press office. If I want to know something, I’d formally write to the minister and, less formally, cultivate relationships with officials which is of course where you get the real info albeit not always publishable.

    1. Yes, but how do you know you have got a true and complete answer, especially if it is “off the record”?

  2. A depressing post, but one that feels spot on.

    When a government chooses opacity, the question has to be – why? Because, just as sunlight is the best disinfectant, so does a shuttered house potentially conceal all kinds of malpractice and disease.

    There are many politicians with whom I’ve vehemently disagreed, most notably Margaret of Grantham, but even she respected the duty of a politician to allow themselves to be held accountable to the public they served. And if there is no wrongdoing, there is surely no need for net curtains.

    And, of course, the adoring voters remain ignorant of malfeasance, and just keep nodding along.

  3. It isn’t just that the Govt press offices withhold information, but that – more and more often – they seem to be serving a party political purpose at public expense.

    The Home Office inveighs against “activist lawyers”, and puts out highly tendentious statements equating asylum seekers with criminals. The Cabinet Office puts out junk about its “commitment to boost the UK customs sector” as if this were a public benefit. BEIS trumpets every rollover trade deal as what the Daily Express likes to call a “Brexit bonanza”.

    There used to be very strict policing of this sort of thing. Senior officials would explain to Ministers why a given communication should issue – if it went out at all – from Conservative Central Office rather than the Ministry concerned. But Nigel Case and the Permanent Under Secretaries concerned don’t seem to be cracking thre whip.

  4. If so the relentless quest to manage the news cycle is proving successful in its ambition to control and censor the information passing tho the public. If it can slow journalism or discourage innovative lines of investigation so much the better.

    For the present government this tactic seems to have becomes the strategy. The message means nothing. Being the winning message is all.

    News becomes toxic in the Facebook sense of a media happy to give the people what they want by distilling propaganda from Panglossian titbits to match an all to brief attention span.

    Returning to your theme of accountability how to shame or bring the perpetrators to book?

  5. You make fair points, although in my experience as a government press officer (until 2017), unhelpfulness can cut both ways. Callers wanting detailed information that is already in the public domain, but is too much of a chore for them to obtain and collate for themselves. Callers on ‘fishing expeditions’ with no particular end in mind, other than the hope that something interesting might turn up. Callers hoping to create a story by playing one press office or press officer against another. Responding to non-journalists could also be an issue – a role for press officers or FOI teams? In my experience that might depend on the issue, the workload and the relationship struck up with enquirer. Is the role of press officers ‘to serve and inform the public’? Yes, but does that necessarily mean unquestioningly reflecting the priorities and timescales of enquirers?

  6. Perhaps unusually you are shoulder to shoulder with Lord Sumption:

    On what the Government should learn:
    “My first proposal is that governments should not treat information as a tool for manipulating public behaviour. They should be calmer than the majority of their citizens; they should be completely objective.
    https://unherd.com/2021/03/lord-sumption-civil-disobedience-has-begun/

    I couldn’t agree more. My memory is that the rot began with Bernard Ingham working for Margaret Thatcher, got much worse with Alisdair Campbell and Blair, and has carried on downhill ever since.

  7. 1. As a very junior press officer in a small team in one of the largest UK ministries over half a century ago, the rules were simple: only give facts, opinions came from ministers or their party offices. Deal with every journalist equally. Accept no reward. Bite tongue often.
    2. One of the joys of Wales post devolution is that it’s easy to pick up the phone or email every minister or his officials. And they answer you.

    1. I get the impression that the move from press office gives facts, ministers (and SPADs) give opinions is a recent regrettable occurrence. Even under the super-controlling Alistair Cambell, official utterances were official rather than party political.

      My memory may be wrong, but it seems to have changed.

    2. I was also a very junior press officer in Whitehall but only 40 years ago! We treated all journalists equally (though we obviously got to know some subject specialists quite well) and tried to give them help and information. Much of this was not in the public domain, but we shared it whenever we could. When contentious issues came up we would be given a “line to take” by either a senior official or the relevant Minister’s office. I cannot recall any instance where we deliberately misrepresented the situation (i.e. lied).

      I laugh now when I read some of the drivel spouted by press officers as they are given lies to trot out by the politicians.

  8. Then there are those government adverts that are shameless propaganda and gaslighting – the ones about creating new opportunities for British companies to trade around the world. I heard one on the radio the other day in the Goods In office at work, and had a laugh about it with a Polish colleague sitting at the desk. She deals every day with the burden of additional ‘red tape’ created by the government’s shoddy Brexit deal. She is too young to remember communism, but I recalled the trade advisor Anna Jerzewska saying on Twitter a while back that this propaganda reminded her of a former government in her country.

    The long term effect of this will be to corrode public trust in communications from Westminster and Whitehall. One day, UKgov will really need us to believe them, but they will find themselves in the same position as Matilda who Told such Dreadful Lies on the night that the fire did break out.

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