By Fiona O’Cleirigh
One of Tony Blair’s former spin doctors tonight reveals how the Labour government in the UK keeps “erring” ministers “on message”.
Lance Price explains how the Downing Street press office run by Alastair Campbell, who was Tony Blair’s official spokesman, would make ministers who publicly expressed doubts about any government policy change their mind – within minutes.
Price, who between 1998 and 2001 was Camp-bell’s deputy, was talking on the day of an about-turn made by Admiral Lord West, the security minister, on the government’s proposals to extend the time limit for detention of terror suspects without trial.
West, the former first sea lord, had raised doubts about the necessity of the proposals on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Within an hour, however, after breakfasting with prime minister Gordon Brown, West appeared to have reconsider-ed, being “quite clear that… we will need the power to detain certain individuals for more than 28 days.”
Price, who was a BBC political correspondent before becoming a government spin doctor, says: “In my day, it was Alastair Campbell who would write out a statement on behalf of some erring minister, in which that minister clarified his or her position and suddenly was found to be back in line with government policy by the time Alastair had done his re-drafting.
“It’s never done very gracefully. But it’s simply not acceptable in Britain, or actually any other country: if you’re a member of the government, you’re supposed to support government policy.”
West was ridiculed in today’s newspapers over his change of mind. The Times, for example, headlined: “What shall we do with the simple sailor?”
Speaking on Press TV’s Between the Headlines newspaper-discussion programme, Price says that such an undignified spin tactic may be the best way for Downing Street to deal with a minister who speaks out against government policy.
There were other options, he says, such as giving the minister more time to change his mind. “The trouble with that strategy would have been that instead of these rather embarrassing headlines that we’re talking about this evening, there would have been a constant barrage of stuff going on for several days, you know, ‘A split in the government’, ‘Is your party in tatters?’”
“And we’re discussing that embarrassment, rather than longer term damage to the actual policy itself.”
Nicholas Jones, Price’s fellow guest on the programme and himself a former BBC political correspondent, has long argued that the Labour government favours “spin” over genuine openness, and disputes the principle behind the strategy. “It’s effective, yes, in the sense that you’ve neutralised the story, but what we’ve heard is Lance’s description of what goes on behind the scenes.”
“I think what people don’t perhaps understand is the degree to which Lance, Alastair Campbell… are trying to exploit the media, manage the media all the time. And what we have to ask is: is this the right behaviour for a government – a democratic government – to be so obsessed with trying to manage the media?”
However, Price sees media obsession with any signs of a split as driving “spin”. Whereas in France, he says, ministerial differences of opinion are tolerated as a form of public debate, the British media treats any disagreement as a sign of weakness.
“And, actually, if the media were more relaxed about ministers expressing a different opinion and didn’t turn it into a huge embarrassment for the prime minister, then perhaps the prime minister and people like me who worked for him would be more relaxed about the way in which we respond to this.”
According to Price, West was initially oblivious to the storm that he had triggered by the opinions he had expressed. After hearing the 8.30am news bulletin reporting on his concerns after his interview, he asked his press advisor: “Why are they saying this about me?”
“Because that’s what you said, minister,” came the reply.
Price said that West had been naive. “When you’re a politician, you’re supposed to have your thoughts in your mind before you go on the air.”
Fiona O’Cleirigh is associate producer on Between the Headlines.
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