If it were not so serious, it could be the stuff of a Whitehall farce. As the department for constitutional affairs prepares to tighten the rules on freedom of information, ministers are all but abandoning respect for the confidentiality of government announcements by becoming some of the most effective leakers in the land.
Ministerial statements, white papers and the con-tents of countless official documents are regularly being leaked to journalists on an off-the-record basis in a desperate attempt to capture the headlines and spin the news agenda.
Deliberate leaking of announcements – euphem-istically known within Whitehall departments as “trailing” – has become so commonplace that the house of commons speaker, Michael Martin, has virtually thrown in the towel and given up on the task of defending parliamentary accountability.
There is no sanction for ministers caught leaking their own decisions before making a statement to parliament.
Yet, while ministers and their political advisers are busily identifying which correspondents will benefit from the latest advanced briefing, they are also doing their damnedest to block requests under the freedom of information act (FOIA) from other reporters whose enquiries are potentially politically embarrassing.
There could hardly be a greater irony: Tony Blair’s government has to be congratulated for having had the courage to put FOIA on the statute book; but, by having effectively institutionalised the procedures for the selective leaking of official announcements, it has woefully abused its duties and responsibilities when it comes to managing the flow of information from the state to the public.
Using the excuse that the need to curb costs justifies what could amount to a blocking mechanism on FOIA requests hardly squares with the government’s profligacy on public relations and advertising.
Annual spending has tripled within a decade, from £111 million in Blair’s first year in office to £322 million, according to the latest figures for the marketing budget of COI communications (formerly the central office of information).
There has also been a tripling in the number of government press officers, standing at more than 3,200 (1,815 press and public relations officers in Whitehall and 1,444 employed by 200 quangos and government agencies).
But even more significant is the threefold increase in the bill for politically appointed special advisers, the cadre of ministerial spin doctors that has given such loyal service to Blair and his cabinet colleagues.
There are 84 special advisers on a payroll that reached £5.9 million in the last financial year. In the final year of John Major’s government, there were 38 special advisers employed at an annual cost to the taxpayer of £1.8 million.
It is not only the doubling in the number of advis-ers but also the widening of their remit that deserves greater attention. They inhabit a rapidly expanding no-man’s land in Whitehall; they have civil-service status, but owe allegiance to the Labour party and, because of their political position, are allowed to work under a different set of rules.
Theirs is a key function: they have the dual role of being able to leak confidential government information to journalists, and advising ministers on which FOIA requests should be frustrated or refused. Here, in this shadowy world of Downing Street and the political offices of cabinet ministers, is where the spin strategies originate.
If the non-attributable release of sensitive inform-ation about policy decisions was subject to the same kind of rules that the financial services authority (FSA) endeavours to enforce in the business world, then most cabinet ministers and their spin doctors might have ended up in the dock by now.
While I acknowledge the impact on the govern-ment of the day of the pressures imposed by a 24/7 media environment, and while I accept that the freedom to decide where best to place a story is perhaps the only real power that a spin doctor has, there is nonetheless a downside that neither politicians nor journalists can ignore.
Parliamentary accountability has undoubtedly been undermined by the heightened proficiency of the Whitehall publicity machine. During the early years of the Blair government, Betty Boothroyd, as speaker of the commons, forced six ministers to apologise for leaking their own announcements and undermining the primacy of parliament.
Her warnings went in vain, and the trend that she identified has only accelerated. Trading exclusive stories with the media, either to seize the agenda or secure a favourable political slant, has become such an every-day occurrence at Westminster that it rarely provokes anything like the anger it once did.
An illustration of the failure of Lady Boothroyd’s successor, Michael Martin, to clamp down on the “trailing” of ministerial decisions was clearly evident in the run-up to the statement on December 13 by John Hutton, work and pensions secretary, announcing to parliament the contents of the white paper on child support.
Off-the-record briefings had sparked a flurry of stories during the preceding weekend, speculating on the scope of new enforcement measures against absent parents not paying child maintenance. BBC radio news bulletins and BBC1’s ‘Sunday AM’ led with the news that one of the most controversial proposals was to name and shame non-payers on the internet.
Hutton was Andrew Marr’s lead guest on ‘Sunday AM’ and initially gave the faintest of nods towards the need for a degree of parliamentary accountability: “Well, I think there’s a range of powers that we’re going to outline in a white paper next week in parliament. And I think it’s probably better I do that.”
Nevertheless, in a performance that would have earned him a starring role in ‘Yes, Minister’, the hapless Hutton ignored the convention to which he had just referred and promptly confirmed that his department was proposing night curfews, the withholding of wages, the seizing of passports, naming and shaming and a host of other enforce-ment measures.
Hutton’s advance “trailing” of his own statement the previous weekend, which had been so com-prehensive, was passed over without comment in parliament.
Yet, here we saw a step-by-step example of the way in which the government’s spin machine works. The preview stories were all based on information from anonymous sources and, no doubt, if a FOIA request were made in a retrospective attempt to discover the details of the briefing strategy, the enquiry would be automatically refused because of an exemption under FOIA covering some advice given to ministers.
Reporters have become willing accomplices, only too eager to exploit confidential information, not when it is an unauthorised disclosure by a genuine whistleblower but a calculated act by a ministerial aide who is quite happy to see a story dressed up as an exclusive in return for some positive coverage.
Because so many of these deals are conducted on condition that the source remains anonymous, newspapers and broadcasting organisations are often tempted to suggest their reports are the result of exceptional journalistic endeavour.
When we see or hear the word “leak”, perhaps we should be thinking of “plant”. Newspaper reporters are not alone in this: whenever I hear, “the BBC has learnt exclusively”, I sense a planted story.
An even greater temptation is the freedom to embellish. So many stories are based on anonymous Downing Street “insiders”, ministerial “aides”, Whitehall “sources” and so on that I fear we are seeing the emergence of a generation of reporters who are prepared to fabricate their quotes.
I am sure that many seasoned journalists would say that my concerns are groundless, but the downward slide in editorial standards is all too evident in the output of newspapers, television, radio and the web.
When I was cutting my teeth on local and national newspapers in the 1960s, quotes had to be attributed. The Times of my day did not often lead its front page with stories based entirely on anonymous sources; my local papers had been even stricter in demanding that individuals should be named.
While examining the way in which leaks and illicitly acquired data can be manipulated, I was struck by the fact that it was financial, rather than political, journalists who had been targeted.
During the hostile takeovers of the 1970s, the city desks of Sunday newspapers were recipients of what became known as the “Friday-night drop”. Once the stock market had closed for the weekend, financial public relations consultants leaked sensitive commercial information to their favoured journalists in the hope of influencing share prices once trading resumed the following Monday.
I was intrigued to discover that, during the mid-1980s, Labour’s newly-appointed publicity director, Peter Mandelson, was advised by a financial public-relations consultant that he had to understand how information could be traded like a currency in return for favourable coverage.
So great became the concern about insider trading in Britain that the FSA was given the power, in 2001, to prosecute companies that failed to ensure the “full, accurate and timely disclosure” to the public at large of data that could be expected to influence share prices.
No comparable regulation applies at Westminster: there are no disciplinary procedures in parliament to punish ministers who are implicated in leaking their own statements. By contrast, MPs caught leaking details of parliamentary proceedings can be punished: in recent years, several have been suspended for the unauthorised disclosure of select-committee reports.
Alastair Campbell has been widely praised within Downing Street for the way he forced, as Blair’s chief spokesman, the Whitehall publicity machine to “grab the agenda”.
He freed government information officers from the restraints that previously applied to the “trailing” of announcements. During his years with Blair, he did not ensure that all journalists were given equal access so that they could obtain the same information at the same time.
For example, a confidential media-handling plan revealed how the department of health’s press office intended to spin the purchase for £27 million of the private London heart hospital in 2001.
It said: “We are trailing the story in The Times. In addition, we will brief the ‘Today’ programme… Once the story breaks in The Times this evening, the duty press officer will ring round all broadcasters and picture desks to let them know of the morning photo call… A press notice will be issued at 9.30am.”
By any test, this was a sizeable financial trans-action that, if not actually market sensitive, would certainly have been of commercial interest to other private-care companies, and the way it was deliberately leaked ignored well-established con-ventions designed to protect confidential govern-ment data.
What has so transformed the trade in information is not just the insatiable appetite of journalists for exclusive stories, but also a growing tendency by aggrieved workers to expose abuses. As Thatcher, Major and Blair discovered to their discomfort, a fairly accurate indicator of rising political unpopularity can be the level of hostile leaking against the government of the day.
Public servants who take the risk of divulging information for what they believe is in the public interest need the unstinting protection of journalists. The death two years ago of Dr David Kelly, the weapons inspector, is a constant reminder of the dangers that an informant can face when there is a collective failure within the news media to protect a confidential source.
Nicholas Jones is a former BBC political corres-pondent. He is author of Trading Information: Leaks, Lies and Tip-offs and chairman of the Journalists’ Charity, to which his proceeds from the book are being donated. His previous books include Soundbites and Spin Doctors, Sultans of Spin, and The Control Freaks.
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